Number of 300-pound NFL lineman still ballooning

Ten or 20 years ago, Nate Newton and William ”The
Refrigerator” Perry were on a short list of larger-than-life
rarities in the NFL. The 300-plus-pound behemoths made headlines
simply for existing. Their every move shook the field and made
people take notice.

These days, though, players their size hardly make a dent. Such
is life in the ever-expanding world of the NFL.

An analysis of league rosters shows the number of 300-pounders
has risen dramatically over the decades: From a single player (Gene
Ferguson of the Chargers) in 1970, to three in 1980, 94 in 1990,
301 in 2000 and 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, when told of that figure. ”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
they have to do to keep their jobs, and in this case that means
staying big. So, this August is once again littered with scenes of
300-pounders sweating through hot training camp practices. 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 during camp. There haven’t been any heat-related deaths in
the NFL since, which in turn has dulled the debate over whether the
NFL is becoming an overweight league.

But the biggest players never forget the perilous edge they’re
on. They live with it every day.

”It’s been a struggle, but it’s something you’ve got to work
through,” said Redskins nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu, who was in
the 400-pound range last season when he tore his Achilles while
playing with the Panthers.

A struggle how?

”Eating right, getting back 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’s possible some use – or
have used – performance-enhancing drugs and slipped through the
NFL’s testing system to get to where they are. And some of this
season’s weights may be inflated now that a bright light has been
shined on products such as StarCaps – the banned weight-loss
supplement that led to the suspensions of a handful of players.

For the most part, though, the big players come by their girth
honestly and are forced to walk a tightrope.

They spend the offseason 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 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,
either by a teammate in practice or another team’s player when
games start for real.

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 realized 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, when
asked what prompted the diet.

As the players get older, the work gets tougher. Of the
dozen-or-so players interviewed by The Associated Press for this
story, almost all acknowledged that they’ve 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 Bengals
11-year veteran guard Bobbie Williams. ”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.
It’s a sign of how much things have changed.

Stats LLC provided the AP with a statistical snapshot of four
NFL rosters – the Saints, Colts, Bears and Steelers – at the start
of each decade, beginning in 1970.

The Bears – the brawny, bruising, so-called ”Monsters of the
Midway” back in the day – didn’t register their first 300-pounder
until 1990, when The Fridge (at 335) and William Fontenot (300)
were on the team. (They both were on the team earlier, as well, but
the study only looked at years ending in ”0.” The weights, in
most cases, were what the players weighed in the last year of their
career.)

Likewise, the Steelers won all four of their 1970s Super Bowls
without a single 300-pounder on the roster. By 1990, they had
four.

The Colts and Saints – last year’s Super Bowl teams – combined
for 10 players on this year’s preseason roster at 330 pounds or
heavier.

According to heights and weights listed on rosters, 97 percent
of 2,168 NFL players had body-mass indexes (a formula that
considers weight and height) of 25 or greater, which is 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’s
notable that 56 percent have BMIs of more than 30, which is the
threshold for obesity, and 26 percent are at 35 or greater.

It’s a recipe for problems, whether 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 Steelers offensive
lineman Max Starks, who by almost 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 grueling
sport and you’re going to have injuries.”

There’s no sign of things lightening in the college ranks.
Macedonio cited another study that showed a sampling of collegiate
offensive lineman averaged 27.4 percent body fat – the healthy
range is 8 to 19 percent – and that 69 of 70 players already had at
least one condition – high blood pressure, waist circumference of
40 inches or greater – that predicted they would be susceptible to
heart disease later in life.

”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 under 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 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 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. ”I don’t
want a heart attack because I’m 400-something pounds. If I die, let
it be something else, not something I can do something about.”

AP Sports Writers Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh, Joseph White in
Washington, Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Steven Wine in Miami, Teresa
Walker in Nashville, Stephen Hawkins in Dallas, Gregg Bell in
Seattle, Dennis Waszak in New York, Bob Baum in Phoenix and Pete
Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C. contributed to this report.