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Jeff Arnold | October 11, 2012

Living Large and Staying Alive

For 10 years, Kris Jenkins was one of them – part of a 358-member football fraternity that lived life large, carrying around at least 300 pounds on an NFL job site that over the past 20 years has grown to include more super-sized workers. Jenkins toiled in the trenches on the defensive line as a nose tackle – first with the Carolina Panthers and then with the New York Jets – using his 360 pounds to shed off opposing offensive linemen.

These days, the four-time Pro Bowler is again one of them.

At 33, Jenkins is a recent NFL retiree, a segment of the American population that often struggles with returning to a lifestyle no longer built around football, but many of whom continue to live in the confines of bodies still built to survive the game’s demanding rigors.

Jenkins retired in 2010 following the second ACL tear of his decade-long career. Two years later, he has dedicated himself to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, unwilling to join the rank and file of former players who face the reality of dealing with long-term health risks if they don’t begin to downsize.

But rather than having a life prescribed for him, Jenkins will make changes to his life on his own terms. He is well aware of the battles of the bulge many of his former NFL brethren have fought – and sometimes lost, often at early ages. But just because he was one of them – one of the league’s 300-plus-pound workhorses – he isn’t convinced he is destined to come face-to-face with the same fate others have.

"I'm not a slave. I know what I signed up for."

"Weight-related issues are an issue if you let them be such," says Jenkins, who now works as a Jets analyst for SportsNet New York. "I don’t believe the NFL is responsible for me taking care of my life as a man.

"I’m not a slave. I know what I signed up for."

In 2011, an Associated Press analysis showed that 354 NFL players tipped the scales at 300 pounds or more, a sharp increase from 1990, when less than 70 played at that weight. A study conducted in 1994 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed that offensive and defensive linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than does the average American. Even more staggering is a 2005 Scripps-Howard News Service study of nearly 4,000 players that concluded that offensive and defensive lineman are twice as likely to die before age 50 than those players who competed at different positions.

But how great of a risk these former behemoth linemen actually face later in life is a question that remains, for the most part, unanswered, according to one NFL team physician who also works with the NFL on cardiovascular health issues among its players.

"What we don’t know – and what we need to understand – is whether this increased size of the modern era is translating to increased risk of heart problems as these guys get older," says Dr. Andrew Tucker, who serves as the Baltimore Ravens’ primary team doctor and who works on three NFL health issues committees and is president of the NFL Physicians Society.

"We don’t know that yet."

Beginning in 2007, Tucker and colleague Dr. Robert Vogel studied 504 active NFL players, investigating whether players faced the same health risks the general population does. Players filled out questionnaires covering personal and family health histories, took part in blood tests and body measurements – all geared at determining what health issues they could face even while being conditioned as a professional athlete.

The results left Tucker and Vogel with a mixed bag – showing that players had higher blood pressure then average men of the same age but were not as likely to face issues dealing with cholesterol, glucose and diabetes.

While recent research conducted by Dr. Sherry Baron of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that mortality rates from cardiovascular disease is lower among former players overall, mortality rates among defensive linemen like Jenkins are still worse than those of other players, including linemen who play on the offensive side of the ball. But that research, Tucker warns, does not involve players who compete in what he calls the "Super-Sized" era, when the population of players weighing more than 300 pounds is at an all-time high.

"I will take care of my weight and the issues that come with it. I will not glorify being a victim."

Kris Jenkins is in the midst of a 24-month adjustment period, learning to live without a game that over the years, took a toll on his body. He has started to drop a portion of the 360 pounds he played at during his NFL career. But he’s still not at the age where he is overly concerned with carrying some extra weight.

At this point, he says he likes the way he feels at his current weight and he still enjoys eating, leaving him to choose when he will make a more dedicated effort to shed more pounds -- when and how he feels like it.

"I am a man, and after football I need to stop stressing myself trying to keep up with a game as a player and keep up with life as a man," Jenkins says. "Once you play a man’s game, you can’t go back to living like a child.

"I will take care of my weight and the issues that come with it. I will not glorify being a victim."

Yet Tucker questions whether former players who could be technically classified as obese should be considered victims in the first place. Based on a study group of 129 former players, Dr. Mark Hyman and his colleagues at UCLA discovered on standard Body Mass Index (BMI) definitions, 67 percent of the players looked at were classified as being obese.

That was the magic number," [...] "to be a 300-pound lineman — that was the thing."

But Hyman suggested because the muscle mass among players is much higher than the general population, using BMI definitions to classify these players may be a mistake. He used a test that utilizes dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, which provides a comprehensive assessment of body composition – using both fat and lean body mass. Using those guidelines, only 13 percent of the players were classified as obese.

Regardless, former players – defined as obese or not – still face the realities of trying to remain healthy once their careers are over. Roger Shultz, a former All-SEC center and All-American honorable mention at Alabama, saw his weight balloon to 400 pounds in the 10 years after his playing career ended. Shultz, who started 48 games for the Crimson Tide before serving as a graduate assistant on the 1992 National Championship team, never expected to struggle with weight issues the way he did.

Shultz never battled weight issues as a kid despite being part of a family that included many heavy-set members. He was an all around athlete at Peachtree High School in Atlanta, he was an all-state honoree in wrestling, track, and football, playing both offensive and defensive lineman before transitioning to center at in college. On the day he signed his national letter of intent to play for the Tide, Shultz weighed in at 235 pounds.

He arrived at Alabama carrying 242 pounds on his 6’2 frame, good-sized for a high school player, but undersized for the SEC. But he knew if he was going to earn a starting job, he’d have to put on weight. Yet soon after beginning a stringent training regimen, Shultz struggled to keep weight on because of the high number of calories he would burn during workouts.

Anxious to add pounds, Shultz fell into poor eating habits, ordering late-night takeout food on a regular basis. He’d order pizza at 10 p.m. and chicken wings at midnight on top of the three meals he was eating as part of a daily routine.

"If they would deliver it to the dorm, I’d eat it," Shultz said. "I’d eat it all."

Still, at Alabama Shultz was one of the smaller linemen, providing him constant motivation to keep eating long after his teammates on a daily basis just to keep up.

It wasn’t long before Shultz set a goal: he wanted to weigh 300 pounds.

"They're just told, 'this is what the job requires' and they start to eat like a horse."

"That was the magic number," said Shultz, a four-year starter. "To be a 300-pound lineman – that was the thing. You’re always aware of it – that whole mentality of ‘if I want to play at the next level’, you have to weigh a certain amount.’"

Despite all of the late-night takeout orders, Shultz failed. The heaviest he played at was 268 pounds – well below the goal he felt he needed to compete at that next level, the NFL.

But the end his playing career didn’t spell an end to Shultz’s weight gain. He continued to add pizza, wings and beers to his regular diet. Working at an inside sales job where he’d spent 10 hours at a desk with all the free Coke he could drink, the combination of the poor eating habits and life without football started to take its toll.

Shultz still remembers jumping onto a shipping scale and seeing the numbers 3-0-5 register, beginning a climb that wouldn’t end for another 100 pounds.

"I was probably the only guy to celebrate 300 pounds," Shultz says.

He initially planned on beginning his weight descent 2 ½ years after his Alabama career ended, soon after reaching the 300-pound club. However, he soon became too busy in his business dealings to work out on a regular basis and kept eating the way he had grown accustomed to – a lifestyle that eventually led to Shultz reaching a top weight of nearly 400 pounds.

reggie white

A doctor told Shultz he had developed into a Type 2 diabetic. Even before that, he began experiencing issues with sleep apnea – tell tale signs he was headed for disaster.

"I knew I had to make a change," he says.

Although the ways nutrition and body weight are evaluated have changed dramatically since Shultz’s playing days ended in 1991, the pressure for players – especially playing in the trenches – to add weight at the college level is still prevalent.

"These guys are told, ‘Look, if you want to play at this position, you need to bulk up,’" Hyman says. "They’re just told, ‘This is what the job requires’ and they start to eat like a horse."

Most players, Hyman says, are smart enough to realize that at some point after their careers end, they’ll have to reverse their course and begin to lose weight.

But there are a large number of players who are not educated by team doctors and trainers that life will eventually go on without football and that they’ll have to make changes if they hope to avoid falling prey to heart-related issues that led to the deaths of former NFL linemen Reggie White and Thomas Herrion. At the time of his death Herrion weighed 310 pounds. He was only 23 years old.

larger than life infographic

For many young players, doctors say, the risk of playing with too much extra weight seems to be an issue that doesn’t require their attention until later in life.

"I’m not convinced at all that they are given a good warning about the ramifications of these decisions (to add weight)," Hyman said. "By far, the vast majority (of players) are trained to ignore their bodies – without a question.

"The messages are clear, ‘If you complain about injuries and you’re not playing, you’re out the door.’ That’s the kind of world they’re in."

Hyman estimates that the number of players who realize the need for change once their playing careers end immediately to be very low. Many former players who struggle with weight issues, Hyman says, end up losing their health insurance because they don’t meet requirements that could have been realized had they subscribed to a lifestyle of exercise and low-fat, high-fiber eating habits.

"That has not been the diet they have generally been on during their careers," Hyman says. "For them, for so long, it’s been football, football, football." As a result players like Shultz often resort to extremes after coming to the realization that they can’t continue to live with the weight they had always maintained to succeed in football.

Having been known for so long as elite athletes who had made a living playing football, their self-image quickly deteriorates after the last snap.

"My own life flashed in front of my eyes"

"You can always see it in people’s faces," Shultz says. "It’s not that they’re disappointed in you, but, they’ll say, ‘Dude – what happened to you?’ It’s not like anyone dislikes me, but I can see it – it’s a sad cycle."

Shultz was one of the first cast members on NBC’s reality show, The Biggest Loser and lost 164 pounds in five months. After reaching 199 pounds on the show, Shultz saw his weight go back up to 300 pounds before losing again – reaching about 250 pounds, which he weighs today, making him one of the few players apparently able to sustain weight loss through diet and lifestyle changes alone.

Many others cannot. Some former NFL players – including former offensive lineman Keith Sims – undergo surgery to aid them with shedding the pounds they know they must. For some the agony of watching former teammates die from weight-related issues provides more incentive to get their lives in order than any amount of medical research ever could.

Two years ago, Sims learned that former line mate Harry Galbreath had died at age 45 from a heart attack. At the time of his death, Galbreath weighed 390 pounds.

Galbreath, who had always struggled to even reach 275 pounds during his NFL career, was the latest in a long line of former teammates Sims was forced to say goodbye to.

For Sims, it was a reality check.

"My own life flashed in front of my eyes – if that could happen to Harry, what about me?" Sims says. "That when my ‘ah-hah’ moment came."

During an 11-year NFL career with Miami and Washington, Sims had always played at more than 300 pounds. He had always been a big kid, putting on 100 pounds during high school before starting college at 300. He was a lineman – people expected him to be big.

For most of that time Sims weighed in along with his teammates on a weekly basis. The expectation was that he’d remain at a manageable weight, but he struggled to do so, constantly battling temptations to over-eat. Once the season ended, though, he’d release that pent up frustration of constantly battling the bulge and would gain 25-30 pounds – only to lose it again before the next season began. Like many players, Sims wasn’t aware of the long-term damage carrying that much weight was doing.

"You feel like you’re such a good athlete and you’re playing at the highest possible level in the world," Sims says. "You’re able to accomplish that and you’re lifting, you feel strong.

"But you don’t recognize how much it affects your heart, your lungs, your whole system when you’re carrying 300-plus pounds."

When his career ended, life without football, coupled with a divorce, began Sims on a journey that he calls an "unhealthy roller coaster." He packed on 60 pounds and topped out at almost 400 pounds.

He looked at pictures of how he looked in the past and compared them to what he looked like in a photo at Dan Marino’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2005 and he became disgusted.

"I became a big, fat retired football player," Sims says. "And I began to jeopardize my own personal health."

Like Shultz, Sims picked up poor eating habits. After his divorce, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Sims to go out for dinner, start with an appetizer of 10-20 chicken wings, have a burger with fries, add 3 or 4 sodas and then finish with desert. Later that night, capping a furious few hours of eating, he would digest a 1-pound bag of peanut butter M&Ms while watching television.

Following Galbreath’s death, Sims – who is now 45 – scheduled lap-band surgery. He had researched bariatric surgery before and while it would be no magic pill for permanent weight loss, he knew it could help

Within 10 weeks of the surgery, Sims dropped to 275 pounds. He has kept the weight off for two years and now weighs 280 – a weight he hasn’t maintained since his junior year of high school.

He has gone from a waist size of 48-50 down to a 38 and still finds shopping a little awkward two years later. He now works with former players through the NFL’s Player Care Foundation and hopes this fall to launch The Hope Program, helping players with obesity and making the transition into retirement.

"it used to be a joke – who was the biggest guy in the room" Sims says. "Well, it’s not funny anymore."

"It’s a huge issue and when you let your weight and your health get that out of control, there’s a lot of shame that goes along with it," Sims says. "I was a world-class athlete and I let myself get to be a meal away from 400 pounds."

While weight issues among former players become more serious the older they get, Dr. Tucker says it’s one that should be addressed much sooner in life. After conducting the study involving more than 500 active players five years ago, Tucker has begun targeting recently retired players for more research he hopes to begin within the next two years.

Tucker says he plans to use simple criteria for a study he hopes will involve several hundred players. He will investigate how players’ cardio risk factors compare at age 35 from when they were active in the NFL. He’ll monitor how much they are exercising, whether they are losing or gaining weight, how their cholesterol and blood pressure looks, along with other factors that could help Tucker determine exactly how much risk players who have completed in the NFL over the past 20 years really face.

Tucker, who also works with the Player Care Foundation, says he is still trying to determine the best way to communicate concerns over cardiovascular issues to current players and those who have just left the league. Players in their late 20s and early 30s, Tucker says, tend not to worry about diseases and other health-related issues, thinking they won’t be affected by them for another 30-40 years.

"We don’t want them to wait until they’re 60 before they start worrying about it," Tucker says. "We need to try and get this on their radar when they’re 25 or 30, especially if we find out that the super-sized era player has more of a risk than we want them to have."

Sims says the issue is one that must be addressed more among NFL alumni. When he meets with former players, Sims will ask them how they’re doing, how their health is and if they’re watching what they eat.

"When we’d get together, it used to be a joke – who was the biggest guy in the room" Sims says. "Well, it’s not funny anymore."

It’s a reality Kris Jenkins is just beginning to realize.

Two years after his retirement, he is starting come to grips with some of the issues of being a retiree. Just a few years into his 30s, Jenkins has a long-term plan for his physical health.

His weight isn’t where it was two years ago, and Jenkins has started to address some of the concussion-related concerns like chronic traumatic encephalopathy and post-traumatic stress disorder following a career that brought collisions he says are 10 times worse than being involved in a car crash or on a carnival bumper car ride. But in an time when concussion lawsuits grab daily headlines, Tucker and players like Sims insist obesity among former players also remains a reality former pros like Jenkins must address sooner rather than later.

"I’ve got to connect the dots in my life," Jenkins says.

When he’s ready, he’ll drop the weight and hopes to start teaching offensive and defensive linemen about the health risks they could face if they continue to carry the weight they’re convinced is needed to make them stand out on the field.

But for the time being, he’ll focus on himself, ready to live life large once again – just not as large as he once did – now understanding that his life may depend on it.

About the Author

Jeff_arnold

Jeff Arnold is an award-winning sports journalist who has covered everything from high schools to Big Ten football and basketball and the Final Four and Super Bowl. Over the past 20 years, he has made career stops in Michigan, California, Tennessee, Missouri (back to Michigan) before recently taking his talents to Chicagoland. In addition to newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald, Jeff's work has previously been seen on Yahoo! Sports, ESPN.com and SI.com.

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