Alan Faneca isn’t missing much about his old self — the aching joints, the Santa Claus belly, the big and tall clothing shops.
But there is one memory that still haunts his thoughts.
“Those chocolate, peanut butter protein shakes with big scoops of peanut butter,” Faneca said with mock sadness in his voice. “They were about 1,000 calories each, and I used to eat three a day. I definitely miss those.”
Since retiring from the NFL and the Cardinals in 2011, the nine-time Pro Bowl guard has dropped about 100 pounds from his playing weight of between 315 and 320 to his current weight of 220. He lost the first 70 in about three months, which had friends and family members jumping to conclusions.
“People thought I was sick or something because it was coming off me so fast,” said Faneca, who played 10 of his 13 seasons with Pittsburgh. “If you didn’t see me for two weeks, I’d look totally different the next time. It was hell on my closet. I couldn’t buy clothes fast enough. They would just hang on me like drapes.”
Faneca, 36, wasn’t sick. In fact, he was shedding weight to avoid just that problem. While a lot of attention – warranted – has been paid to brain injuries and their impact on players’ long-term health, Faneca believes weight is another significant issue that deserves more discussion among retired players.
“Most guys should think about it,” he said. “Especially in this new era of the NFL. Big today isn’t necessarily all muscle. You can you be 340, 350 and still move. But that’s not necessarily healthy, and it’s not going to prolong your life, especially when you’re out of football dealing with post-football injuries.”
Cardinals team physician Wayne Kuhl can rattle off a laundry list of health benefits for retired players if they lose weight, including “a reduction in blood lipids and therefore a reduced risk of cardiovascular events including stroke, hypertension and cardiac events like heart attacks.
“Blood pressure is also related to weight and the propensity toward diabetes is lessened when you carry less,” Kuhl said. “Not to mention the risk of knee, back and joint problems is greatly reduced when you think of the pounds per square inch of stress that is being exerted on them.”
That is where former Redskin Pro Bowl lineman Mark May has noticed the greatest difference.
“After I retired and stepped on the scales, I weighed about 317 pounds,” May said. “With all the knee surgeries I had, that wasn’t going to cut it.”
So he embarked on a metrics diet, used an elliptical machine every day and steadily shed about 70 pounds.
“I’m 53, and people see guys in their 40s and assume we’re the same age because I’ve stayed in shape,” May said. “It’s really a mindset that you have to get into. A lot of guys, when they retire, they say ‘I’m not going to work that hard any more.’
“It seems, with linemen in particular, it goes go one way or the other. Either they either lose a bunch of weight, or they get sedentary and gain weight because there’s nobody pushing them any more.”
Faneca’s dramatic drop may be the most eye-popping transformation in recent NFL history, but former Cardinal lineman Ed Cunningham, who dropped from his playing weight of 300 to 220, gave him a run for his money.
When Cunningham played for the Cardinals in the mid-1990s, the team doctor tested his triglycerides, a form of fat in the blood that is linked to heart disease. Anything over 200 milligrams is considered high. Cunningham’s was 660.
Retirement can bring an even more dramatic change.
“When you’re used to eating a lot and burning fuel, then you stop cold turkey, it is definitely a shock,” said Faneca, who lives in New Orleans. “It’s hard enough to adjust to not playing football. Now you have to change who you’ve been for the last 20 years and how you’ve been eating for two-plus decades.”
When Faneca lost the first 40 pounds with the help of a StreetStrider, he noticed an immediate difference.
“When I got off the floor I didn’t make that old-man moan and I could play with the kids a lot easier,” said Faneca, who wore a BodyMedia armband to monitor caloric intake and other vital information.
Kuhl is not certain if NFL weights have reached the point where they are unnatural. According to the NFL, there were 361 rostered players at the start of the 2012 season tipping the scales at 300 or better. But as he noted, muscle mass has also improved with size, so “the body composition is much better.”
But that’s not the case in retirement.
“When you’re 300 pounds, done playing and not lifting but still eating, you’re adding fat not muscle,” Faneca said. “You’re going the other way as far as body composition goes.”
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded in 1994 that offensive and defensive linemen are at more than 50 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. In 2005, a Scripps Howard News Service study of almost 4,000 players found that offensive and defensive lineman are twice as likely to die before reaching 50 as other positions.
No one can say for certain how much, or even if weight is linked to linemen’s deaths over the years. Did it contribute to deceased lineman Orlando Brown’s diabetes? Was weight a factor in Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White’s fatal cardiac arrhythmia in 2004? Or Lee Roy Selmon’s stroke in 2011?
We may never know if it contributed to 23-year-old 49ers’ lineman Thomas Herrion’s death after collapsing in the locker room after an exhibition game due to heart disease. But as Cunnigham told the Los Angeles Times, “When was the last time you saw a 350-pound person and thought, ‘Yeah, their heart’s probably loving it’?” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter