Not long ago, Nate Newton and William "The Refrigerator" Perry were on a short list of larger-than-life rarities in the National Football League (NFL). The 300-plus-pound (136kg) behemoths made headlines simply for existing. Their every move seemed to shake the field and made people take notice.
These days, though, players of their size hardly stand out. Such is life in the ever-expanding world of the NFL. The number of 300-pounders in the league has risen dramatically over the decades, from a single player (Gene Ferguson of the San Diego Chargers) in 1970 to 394 in 2009. "Amazing, if you think about it," said Michele Macedonio, who has worked as a nutritionist for the Cincinnati Bengals for most of the past decade.
"The question they have to ask is, 'How big is big enough and when do we stop getting bigger and think more about getting stronger and healthier and better?'" Like workers in any competitive business, NFL linemen know what it takes to keep their jobs, and in this case that means staying big. So, training camps once again crowded with scenes of 300-pounders sweating through hot practice sessions. The dangers of the combination of heat, sweat and weight were brought to the fore in 2001, when 335-pound Korey Stringer died of heat stroke at a Minnesota Vikings camp. There have not been any heat-related deaths in the NFL since. But the biggest players say they never forget the perilous edge they are on. They live with it every day.
"It's been a struggle, but it's something you've got to work through," said Ma'ake Kemoeatu, the Washington Redskins nose tackle, who weighed about 400 pounds last season when he tore his Achilles while playing with the Carolina Panthers. The struggle, he said, is to eat right and stay in shape. "I have a weakness - food. My weakness is a piece of steak," Kemoeatu said. There were 532 players in the 300-pound-plus club heading into the 2010 training camps. Certainly, it is possible that some used performance-enhancing drugs and slipped through the NFL's testing system to get to where they are. For the most part, though, the big players come by their girth honestly and are forced to walk a tightrope.
They spend the off-season in the weight room, trying to build muscle to bring their weight up. They sweat through practices, sometimes in conditions that are not conducive to anyone, let alone a 300-pounder running around in full pads. Then they eat. They often eat between 5,000 and 8,000 calories a day, much of it in training-table meals, which the teams try to make low-fat and healthy. The goal is to keep the weight on in a healthy way - if there is such a thing as a healthy 350-pound man ? lest they be pushed around on the field by a bigger or stronger man.
Kris Jenkins of the New York Jets has been on the tightrope most of his life. He recently dropped 25 pounds, to get to 365, by going on a so-called "cookie diet" in which he eats 90-calorie bites of something that looks like a muffin top and contains milk, soy, whole-wheat flour and other ingredients. "It was something that I realised I got to the point that I wasn't going to be able to stick around the game for too much longer if I didn't take better care of myself," Jenkins said.
As the players get older, the work gets tougher. Of the dozen players interviewed for this story, almost all acknowledged that they have either had to become more disciplined as the years have passed, or are seeing the day when the "eat anything you like" method will have to go away. "I don't want to get any higher than 340," said Bobbie Williams, the Cincinnati Bengals veteran. "As you get older, you don't want to get the weight on you. You want to be able to move and keep up. You don't want to feel burdened down by your weight."
Yet at 340 pounds, Williams hardly stands out in today's NFL. According to heights and weights listed on rosters, 97 per cent of 2,168 NFL players last season had body-mass indexes (a formula that considers weight and height) of 25 or greater, considered the threshold for the "overweight" category. The BMI is often considered an unfair gauge for NFL players because they lift weights extensively and have naturally large frames. Still, it is notable that 56 per cent had BMIs of more than 30, which is the threshold for obesity, and 26 per cent were at 35 or greater.
It is a recipe for problems - in the midst of a career or after - in a sport that beats up players like no other. "Your joints are going to be aching," said Max Starks, the Steelers offensive lineman, who by every account carries his 345 pounds quite well. "Your joints aren't going to be able to take all that pressure because they've been taking all that abuse from playing the sport, because it is barbaric at times, it's a gruelling sport and you're going to have injuries."
"There's no question there are some health risks," said Dan Wathen, longtime athletic trainer at Youngstown State who remembers the day when a 250-pound player was considered huge. "It's manageable when they're playing. It's greater when their playing days are over. If they continue with the same caloric consumption, the health risk is going to go up significantly at that point." Most of the big players see that day coming. They hear news about Perry - who has been battling a nerve disorder, his weight bouncing between the mid-300s to less than 200 at one point, then back up again. And about Newton, who recently had a gastric sleeve put on to shrink the size of his stomach and now bops around at a svelte 250 pounds.
"I keep making a joke around here, I say, 'I'm getting a surgery,'" said Miami Dolphins tackle Vernon Carey, whose weight goes from 335 in season to 360 out of season, talking about his retirement plans. A notorious victim of fines for being overweight when he played for Jimmy Johnson and the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, Newton says the biggest he ever got was 411 pounds. He was at an unhealthy 393 pounds as recently as April.
Since the surgery, his waist size has gone from 56 inches to 40. Despite the progress, he is still faced with issues most 48-year-old men don't face until later in life. "I didn't want to die because of fat-related or because I got diabetes or I got high blood pressure," Newton said. * AP