Battle of the Bulge: SU linemen cope with pressure of playing positions with dangerously increasing weight levels
 
 
By Zach Schronbrun Daily Orange

Syracuse, NY (CSTV U-WIRE) -- At 6-foot-7 and 320 pounds, Eugene Newsome, a junior offensive lineman, is the tallest and heaviest player on the Syracuse football team. He can barely fit a uniform over his shoulder pads. But in order to earn playing time in 2006, he wants to gain even more weight.

Newsome's size comes with the position he plays in a sport that within the past few decades has seen a dramatic increase in physical proportions. This trend, a spiral of demands for the enormous and the growing, has caught the attention of many health experts. A February study by Scripps Howard News Service found the heaviest players are more than twice as likely to die before their 50th birthday than their teammates, begging the question: How big is too big, and when do the risks outweigh the rewards?

Despite these concerns, the possibility of health problems in the future has not hindered the approach of Syracuse's heavyweights in the present.

"I've heard the rumors but, I mean, you can't really live your life that way," defensive tackle Tony Jenkins said. "My dad played college football, and I know other people that played in college and they're healthy, they're fine, so I'm not going to worry about that."

The average weight for an offensive lineman in the NFL is 318 pounds, up from 281 in 1985. A football player above 300 pounds was rare two decades ago - now, more than 500 were listed at that weight at the start of last season.

The trend naturally trickles down to college teams as well. Texas's national championship team this year had 13 players listed at over 300 pounds, USC had 11 and Michigan had 16. Syracuse had seven last season, but is bringing in six for this fall. More so than ever, the requirements for being a Division I college lineman start with tipping the scales at over 300.

College of Human Services and Health Professions professor Sarah Short said she was first concerned with some of the players' size when working with the Chicago Bears in the early 1990s.

"I (used to ask the players), 'Where did you get these weights?'" Short said. "They didn't know. But that was the weight that they thought they should be, which is crazy in the head."

Short was a sports nutritionist for SU athletics for 20 years until 1999, focusing primarily on football and wrestling. She said some of the most common risks that come with being a large-sized football player are knee problems and heart problems. On a shelf in her office lie dozens of bottles of supplements, weight-gainers, weight-losers and steroids. She keeps photographs - framed and unframed - of former linemen she has worked with, and some still currently on the team. She knows they are becoming bigger, and it worries her.

The red alert was in August of 2001, when 335-pound Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer died of heartstroke after a mini-camp workout in sweltering heat. His death - the first of its kind in the NFL - signaled to some that the size of many of professional and college football's linemen is too big, and they are risking their health in order to play.

"I asked in class (recently), 'Are you willing to trade many years of your life for many millions of dollars?'" Short said. "Some people said yes."

The enormity of their size and stature does not discount the fact that most linemen are in excellent physical condition. Each Syracuse lineman is tested once a year for physical conditioning and stay in good shape throughout the off-season and spring workouts. Newsome said it's not fat that makes up the weight; it's muscle.

"I'm more athletic than a person that is my size and not playing any sport," Newsome said. "I hate hearing about what happened with (former Chicago Bear lineman William) 'Refrigerator' Perry - how he blew up when he left football and got real fat. Hopefully that won't happen to me."

"We work out so much," Jenkins said. "People look at us and think, 'Oh, they're big, they're fat,' but we're probably in better shape that the average person."

Short explained that most linemen, especially at a college level, do not bulk up especially on junk food or garbage. Their diets are as balanced as any health-conscious individual, only at an exceptional scale.

"One football player on the offensive line that I was tracking his diet, he ate 16,500 calories a day," Short said. "Was he the biggest? No, he was not. You know what he did? He never was still. He was using up calories all the time, just by moving his feet all the time.

"They're eating the same as you. Except if you have a hamburger, they have six. For breakfast they have what you would probably eat in a whole entire day. It's not like they are going and eating a pound of butter."

Syracuse Assistant Athletic Director Tim Neal is a member of the National Athletic Trainers Association, is a liaison to the NCAA Football Rules committee and has been head athletic trainer at SU for six years. He believes that football players are well informed about their health and activity.

"I know they think about it; we talk to them about it," Neal said. "If you walked around campus today you'd find more people out of shape than on the football field."

Short said she worries most about large players after the season or after finishing their career because she has seen them put on huge amounts of weight. Neal and others in the athletic department created a program to help alleviate that problem and make sure SU athletic graduates stay healthy after their careers are over. Called "When the cheering stops," the program is given out to all athletes, but linemen are a particularly strong target.

"They are used to being in a routine but now they are on their own," Neal said. "It just informs them about caloric needs, meals, nutrition, fitness. It's important for them to understand that (after their careers are over) they are not in a setting to burn calories."

What drives these players to such lengths is athletic peer-pressure, starting at the top with the NFL. Like the height obsession in the NBA, football teams crave the largest bodies to fill the trenches and plug the gaps, a position that used to be crafted by brutes topping out at 250 pounds. Now the top linemen weight 100 pounds more.

This puts pressure on colleges to find size, too. In 2005, five 300-plus pound high school linemen landed on Scout.com's top 25 prospects list, up from just four in 2002 and 2003 combined.

"Back in the day, people used to be 250 playing my position," Newsome said. "I'm 320. I'm facing guys 340. I have to be this size or I can't play."

Jenkins also understands the pressure put on college linemen to fit a certain mold.

"The key for lineman is being big, fast, and strong," Jenkins said. "A lot of it is just genetics. You've got to get as big as you can. No matter how much you work out your body will only allow you to get so big."

Most health experts support the idea of a NCAA-wide weight limit - most likely at 275 to 285 pounds - though the NCAA has not taken any measures to impose such a regulation, and it does not look like it will in the near future. The NFL, which never has had a 400-pound player, may be heading in that direction, forcing schools like Syracuse to continue to search for the biggest in order to be the best.

"Nobody is going to cut (weight) down unless the coach says so," Short said. "Many years ago the coach wouldn't let a football player play because he was overweight. We got creamed. Next time, now everybody had to be 20 pounds more. Coach said so."

BMI

Body Mass Index is a measure of body fat based on height and weight and is a way for some players to see where they stand on the Department of Health and Human Services' scale of weight. By plugging in your height and weight, the index will calculate your score and then rate it as either underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. See more at nhlbisupport.com/bmi/.

(C) 2006 Daily Orange via CSTV U-WIRE


 
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