A huge problem

Strength isn't enough: NFL linemen have to be so big, their health may be at risk

Published January 29, 2006

TAMPA - Former Bucs defensive lineman Brad Culpepper rose from behind the desk in his law office on the eighth floor of a downtown high-rise to model his pants.

Flat front, very stylish.

Gone were the pleats that used to be a staple in his wardrobe. Gone, too, were the extra 70 pounds he carried to be a starter in the National Football League.

"If I have hunger pangs, I almost like it," Culpepper said. "I did the opposite for 18 years, just gorging, like going to Thanksgiving dinner four or five days a week.

"It's a gluttonous, awful feeling."

Culpepper's astonishing weight loss points to a growing and potentially dangerous trend in the NFL. Namely, growth. Fifteen seasons ago, roughly the same time the league began random steroid testing, 39 players tipped the scales at 300 or more pounds. In 2005 there were 338 on opening-day rosters and 552 in training camps.

The Steelers and Seahawks will play Super Bowl XL in Detroit with 19 players at 300 or more pounds on their rosters, more than triple the number of 300-pounders who played in the Super Bowl 15 years ago in Tampa.

Super Bowl XL, indeed.

As in Extra Large.

"It would be a poor decision on players' parts if when they're done they don't try to lose that excess weight," said Culpepper, 36, who retired after the 2001 season. "You don't see that many obese, big people living a long time. Your heart can only work so much."

For many years Culpepper played beside former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp. At about 270 pounds, give or take 5 pounds, Culpepper was a good fit for Tampa Bay, which prefers smaller, quicker defensive linemen to massive bodies.

Still, it was a struggle.

Culpepper ate several times a day: a big breakfast, midmorning snack, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner. At 9:30 or 10 o'clock at night, he hit a drive-through for late-night calories.

"It was gross, but it was the way to keep the weight on," Culpepper said. "In the back of mind I thought, "I shouldn't be doing this; it's not healthy.' But then the other side says, "Hey, you have to do what you have to do.' "

When the 6-foot-1 Culpepper retired, he lost 80 pounds in eight months. It wasn't that hard. The first 30 melted away and the rest came off steadily as he burned more than he consumed. He rode a stationary bike. He took up running. He lifted weights to tone his muscles, not bulk up.

He had his 40-inch-waist pants tailored, but the one-pocket look wasn't too fashionable so he bought new clothes at 36 inches. He bought more at 32 inches, where he has been the past three years. As a bonus, his arthritic left knee no longer hurts all the time.

He weighs 205 pounds.

"Maybe it's not who makes the most in their life," said Culpepper, now an attorney with Morgan and Morgan. "Maybe it's who enjoys their life and lives the longest."

* * *

Joe Jacoby made massive fashionable.

The 6-foot-7, 300-pounder won three Super Bowls as a member of the Washington offensive line known as the "Hogs" in the 1980s and early '90s. His coach, Joe Gibbs, returned to the sideline in 2004 after an 11-year absence to find 300-pounders like Jacoby no longer were the exception, but the standard.

"Certainly, carrying extra weight when you're young, you have to be aware of it," said Gibbs, who left the game in 1992 in part because he is diabetic. "But most of the big guys we have on our team, we don't have fat guys. I think they are well-conditioned.

"When they're through playing, obviously, I think it's smart to lose some of the extra weight. But I think players today are extremely well trained and they're not sloppy and carrying a lot of loose weight. My experience is we're just getting bigger and bigger athletes."

But how?

And at what risk?

A 1994 study of 7,000 former players by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. While U.S. life expectancy is 77.6 years, recent studies suggest the average for NFL players is 55, 52 for linemen.

In March the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that said 97 percent of NFL players during the 2003-04 season were overweight, including 56 percent with a body mass index (BMI) doctors consider obese. The NFL claimed the study, done by University of North Carolina endocrinologist Joyce Harp, was flawed because the BMI uses height and weight for its calculations, not muscle mass and percentage of body fat.

Among the long-term health problems associated with being overweight are diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and joint damage. Of immediate concern is sleep apnea, increasingly common among the league's biggest players, which can cause breathing to stop during sleep.

The NFL acknowledges the hugeness issue but says it needs more information and a football-specific definition of obesity.

"We do recognize that we have athletes that are fitter than most people in society, bigger than most people in society and doing things that are different and more demanding than many people in society," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said recently.

"But we're very well aware of that and we're staying ahead of the curve in terms of understanding how big they should be, what kind of characteristics they should be able to display, what kinds of performance levels they should be able to achieve."

Consuming calories and lifting weights aren't the only ways to add bulk. The perception many of today's bigger, stronger, faster athletes use illegal performance-enhancing substances prompted Congress to join the discussion last spring.

Though baseball was its target, the NFL came under scrutiny, too.

The NFL has randomly tested for steroids for 15 years and long touted its program as the best among professional sports leagues in the United States. Each week during the season, a computer randomly selects seven players from each team to be tested for steroids and masking agents. Random tests also are done in the offseason.

Minimum penalties for a positive test are a four-game suspension for the first infraction, six games for the second and a year for the third. According to the NFL, fewer than 50 players have been suspended and no one has been suspended twice. Any second-time offenders quit before the penalties were announced.

Yet, only recently did the NFL toughen its limits for testosterone levels. The league does not check for the Human Growth Hormone, awaiting a reliable urine test rather than a blood test. And designer steroids are developed to avoid detection.

In March three members of Carolina's 2003 Super Bowl team - including offensive tackle Todd Steussie, who spent the past two seasons with Tampa Bay - were identified on CBS's 60 Minutes Wednesday as having filled steroid prescriptions written by a South Carolina doctor. None of the players tested positive.

Culpepper, the retired lineman, sees a correlation between the inception of the NFL's steroid testing about 15 years ago and the increase in players' weights. With the crackdown on illegal substances, focus shifted from strength to sheer mass.

"No longer could a guy be 270 and maul people because he's on steroids and has so many muscles," Culpepper said. "Now you have to be 300 to move people. It remains to be seen what's going to happen to these guys as they get in their 30s and retire."

* * *

Two 300-pound linemen in the NFL have died in the past four years. In 2001, Minnesota offensive tackle Korey Stringer, who was 6 feet 4, 346 pounds, died of complications from heatstroke in training camp. In August, San Francisco offensive tackle Thomas Herrion, listed at 6-3, 315 pounds but actually 335, collapsed and died in the locker room after a preseason game at Denver.

Stringer, 31, was thought to be using a diet supplement at the time of his death and an autopsy showed Herrion, 24, had heart disease. Medical personnel with the NFL point out most athletes who die in their 30s have congenital abnormalities, especially of the heart.

As the debate rages, Bucs center John Wade keeps gorging.

A veteran of eight pro seasons, Wade is listed at 6 feet 5, 299 pounds, but getting there by game day can be a chore for a player who works to keep his weight up. Wade often eats two dinners. Sometimes he eats the same dish twice, sometimes different entrees.

"It's probably disgusting to most people," Wade said.

Wade said he could not play at a heavier weight because he would not be able to move fast enough. He anticipates losing at least 50 pounds when his career is over.

"We'll see how dedicated I am to the treadmill. That's the only way to get rid of it," said Wade, 31. "I'm not a doctor, but I know 50 pounds less would be nice not to carry around, on your joints, on your internal organs, all that mess."

Neither Culpepper nor Wade considers the increasing size of NFL players a problem for the league to solve, though Culpepper would like to see a program to encourage retiring players to lose weight. During their careers NFL players are well compensated for the risks they incur by choice.

"If something happens to me because I was carrying weight, then it's on me," Wade said. "I'm the one who chose to be a lineman. If I wanted to play football, I was going to be a lineman. That's the skill I was given. If you're really that worried about it, do something else."