Sports views: NFL plays battle of the bulk

Posted: Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Brad Culpepper particularly remembers the Thanksgiving dinners, when he would stuff himself silly with food and then two hours later try to find a way to cram some more down his throat.

He was a defensive tackle in the NFL, undersized at 280 pounds in a supersized league. That left Culpepper two choices — eat or find another line of work.

''I had to eat all the time,'' Culpepper said. ''Some of it was just so miserable, but it was all just so I could keep the weight on.''

The NFL has always been about size, of course. The more physical a team is, the better chance it has of controlling the line of scrimmage and winning a game.

But players are growing into uncharted territory now, getting so large that some are beginning to question the future of the 330-pound linemen with huge bellies that take up so much of your television screen every Sunday.

These guys aren't just big, they're fat.

From just a handful of 300-pounders only 15 years ago, nearly one of every four players in Sunday's Super Bowl will weigh 300 pounds or more. The Patriots have 12, and the Eagles 11, including 349-pound tackle Tra Thomas.

An unofficial check of expanded NFL rosters at the end of the season turned up 455 players listed at 300 pounds or more, almost all of them linemen.

Fitness guru Mackie Shilstone says some have come to him with high blood pressure, bad cholesterol and weight-related problems like insulin resistance syndrome that can threaten their lives.

''In three to five years you're going to see a player have a stroke on national television,'' Shilstone warns. ''Hypertension is alive and well in the NFL.''

For now, age protects most of them. But Culpepper watches the game from afar and wonders: What's going to become of the 330-pound behemoths in the NFL once their playing days are over, their training regiment ends, and their weights keep going up?

What is going to happen when these players reach their 40s or 50s?

Culpepper is now a lawyer, not a doctor. But he doesn't need a medical degree to figure this one out.

''You're going to see them drop like flies,'' Culpepper said.

A few have dropped already. Corey Stringer was 335 pounds when he died from heatstroke at a Minnesota Vikings practice in 2001. A year later, former New Orleans Saints defensive lineman Frank Warren died of a heart attack at 43 years old, just five days after taping an HBO interview talking about the dangers of playing football at 300 pounds.

And an autopsy revealed Reggie White's sleep apnea — a condition that primarily affects obese people — may have been a factor in his death in December, also at the age of 43.

The bigger the player, the bigger the health risk.

Culpepper was smart enough to figure that out during a nine-year career that included six years playing alongside Warren Sapp in Tampa Bay. Culpepper came out of the University in Florida in 1992 weighing 275 pounds at a time when that was a normal weight among defensive linemen.

By the time he retired, though, there were players his size playing linebacker. And Culpepper knew he didn't want to risk the rest of his life living at 280 pounds.

''My first goal was to get down to human weight,'' he said. ''I lost 10 pounds a month for eight months until I got down to 200 pounds.''

Culpepper, who could barely run around the block when he left the NFL, ran a marathon a year later and has little trouble maintaining a weight he hadn't seen since he was a sophomore in high school.

But most of the players he played with and against won't have that discipline once they leave the league. Already blubbery, they'll go into retirement or seek new careers without any idea how to undo the fat that got them into the league in the first place.

Shilstone, who has a contract with Major League Baseball to help umpires lose weight and a new book called ''The Fat Burning Bible,'' said the linemen who have sought his help all came in with conditions that were already threatening their health.

He said by computing their blood chemistries, blood pressure and waist measurement and plugging it into a model developed by the National Institute of Health, most had a 20 to 30 percent chance of having a stroke or heart attack by the age of 50.

''I tell these linemen that the physical you get to play in the NFL is not a physical to live,'' Shilstone said. ''What is really amazing is the abnormal blood pressures you see in these guys. I have one who is still in the NFL who came in two years ago with blood pressure of 190 over 110.''

Most of the linemen, of course, don't bother to see Shilstone or any other fitness expert. They're paid to be big and fill up lanes — and to some, 350 pounds looks good on a resume.

A dozen 300-pounders will be wearing new Super Bowl rings after Sunday, something Culpepper never got during his time in the league.

He has something else, something he thinks is more important.

''I'm so happy with my life now compared to when I was playing in the NFL,'' Culpepper said. ''I'm healthy now.''

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.



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