Saturday, September 15, 2012


                I worry about a lot of things, including ones that don’t concern most people.
                I worry that global temperatures are rising while sperm counts are falling. I worry that honey bees are going extinct and that rising seas will bring the Pacific Ocean to my Scottsdale door. I worry that in four million years the sun will explode and wipe out the earth.

                What’s that you say? That last thing won’t happen for four billion years? OK, I feel better, but just a little.

                I also worry about more here-now matters, like about the players in the National Football League. I worry that some of them are getting their bells rung so often that it will take a pistol shot to stop the clanging. I worry that the pummeling they receive weekly in season will turn them into old men in middle age.  And—finally and simply—I worry that a lot of them are too, uh, darned fat.

                Chances are that—of the above-mentioned three items—you, too, worry a bit about the first two.  The effect of concussions at all levels of the game has been football’s biggest story of the last year, and anyone who’s known an NFL player knows that the muscular-skeletal complaints he has in his 30s don’t show up in most men until they’re on Medicare.

                 The part about weight, though, is largely ignored. That’s odd because the increase in footballers’ size has been the most obvious trend in the sport—or probably in any sport—of the last 30 years.  According to one on-line piece I saw (which I believe because I did similar comparisons when I was working), NFL rosters had just three players weighing 300 pounds or more on opening day in 1980, but by 1990 the number had climbed to 94. In 2000 it was 301 and in 2009 it was 394. By that progression it’s certainly over 400 now and maybe near 500.

                 Almost all of those very-big guys are linemen, but the size race also has spread to other positions. Linebackers used to weigh in the 215-230-pound range but now 240-250 is more likely.  At 230 pounds Jim Brown was a huge ball carrier back in the day, but he’d be about average now.  In 2007 the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft was JaMarcus Russell, a 270-pound quarterback out of LSU. Yeah, he was bad, but I’m just sayin’.

                The need for size has been dictated by changes in the game, especially the offenses; at both the pro and major-college levels offensive football has moved from run-pass balance to an overwhelming emphasis on the pass. This means that offensive linemen function mainly as obstacles between their quarterbacks and opposing pass-rushers, and have little use for the speed afoot the position used to require.

                Football terminology has changed to reflect this development--when offensive line play is discussed today one hears about “quickness” rather than speed.  What’s valued now is the ability to stay in balance with short, rapid steps to combat the various angles at which defensive linemen attack. OLs still run 40-yard dashes in tryout camps, but that’s pro forma because they almost never run that far in games. A more apt test would gauge their dancing ability.  

                Evolution doesn’t work nearly fast enough to produce the giants modern football demands on both sides of the ball, so most of today’s behemoths are made, not born. They get that way through a combination of intense, year-round weight lifting and huge meals that often include dietary supplements, and sometimes include steroids.  Thirty years ago this process started in earnest in college.  Today it often begins in high school.

 The iron is pumped because muscle weighs more than fat, but it alone won’t suffice to create Frankenjocks. While about 2,500 calories a day are enough to nicely sustain the average American man, footballers’ intakes run from about 5,000 a day to 8,000 or 10,000. You don’t get boosts like just by adding a dessert or drinking a milkshake with lunch.

“Eating with us [he and his linemates] got to be a kind of game. We’d have two entrees each at dinner, and sometimes three,” Jay Hilgenberg told me for a story I did on him. He added: “We didn’t eat until we were full, we ate until we were tired.”

Hilgenberg  was the center on the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl champion team. If you add about 25 pounds at each level of his development, his story is typical of today’s linemen. The scion of a family of U. of Iowa centers (“we played catch back-to-back and bent over,” he joked) he left high school at a strapping 217 pounds. That wasn’t enough to play in the Big Ten, so through diet and exercise he gained 18 pounds before enrolling in Iowa City and added around 15 more before he was graduated after a distinguished varsity run.

 Two-fifty was too small for the pros and the 6-foot-3 Jay wasn’t drafted out of college. He added 15 more pounds on his own, wangled an invitation to Bears’ camp, and made the team, playing at between 270 and 280 pounds for most of his 13 seasons in the NFL. That was about 50 pounds above his “natural” weight by most calculations.  His career ended in the spring of 1994 when he suffered a heart attack at age 35 while lifting weights in his basement. The first thing he did upon getting out of the hospital was go on a diet.

Heart attacks at 35 are rare even for overweight jocks, but premature health problems aren’t; various studies have shown that ex-NFL players are considerably more likely to die before age 50 than are males in the general population.

 In 2009 the American College of Gastroenterology reported that because of their weight footballers run a higher risk of incurring diabetes or heart or liver disease than a group of professional baseball players it included in a 224-athlete study. It noted that while an active life style generally is a health asset the footballers’ “sheer size overwhelms the positive effects of exercise.”

I like football, you like football, and the players like football, so don’t expect much about the sport to change to satisfy worriers like me.  Still, players can change their individual courses.

 I refer specifically to Alan Page, one of my sports heroes. He was one of the best NFL defensive linemen ever, 250 pounds of rompin’, stompin’ dynamite who terrorized offenses for the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1960s and ‘70s. In his 30s, though, he got tired of filling his mirror, stopped gorging and started running for exercise, and shed 30 pounds. The Vikings objected to his new regimen and cut him in 1978, but the Bears picked him up. He played 3 ½ more seasons in Chicago at his new weight, and did quite well as I recall.

Not every player is as strong minded as Page, a lawyer who’s now a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Not as good on the field, either.  But if he could get off the gravy train others might, too.

It’s possible.

1 comment:

Alan Trachtenberg said...

Alan Page and Jim Brown...2 of my sports favorites also, who did it "their way."