“Big Men on Campus”

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The Story

“Big Men on Campus”
by Laura Beil
Texas Monthly, September 2016

The Pitch

Football’s Other Health Crisis
How the race to the top (of the scale) is ruining young athletes

In the 1980s, the era when William Perry earned the nickname The Refrigerator, the famed Chicago Bears lineman weighed around 325 pounds. Rare, in those days, to see someone so huge suited up for football. Now it’s rare not to, even in college. Baylor University senior LaQuan McGowan tops 400, and stands to become the largest draft pick in NFL history.

Journalists have noted the increasing size of players, especially linemen, with much awe but little depth. I can’t find any investigations into the more disturbing story: that in the race to be ever larger, young men are sacrificing their bodies, and their futures, to the game. One million boys in this country play football—more in Texas than anywhere else—but only a fraction of them will earn college scholarships. An even tinier number will ever make the pros. The vast majority will become, as one researcher told me, “just a 19-year-old, with a 300-pound body and a 5,000-calorie a day eating habit.”

In just the last few years, more than a dozen studies of players from high school to pro have documented what the arms race for size is doing to the sport, especially to linemen. To describe a few: One 2013 study in the journal Clinical Pediatrics noted that only 8 percent of high school lineman had a healthy weight, while 21 percent were considered morbidly obese. Last November, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital reported finding dangerous increases and blood pressure and left ventricle size among college linemen over just one season. Another study found the beginnings of metabolic syndrome—elevations in cholesterol, blood sugar and obesity that often precede diabetes—among high school and college players. A direct comparison a group of college football players to non-players just published in the International Journal of Vascular Medicine concluded, “collegiate football players remain an understudied population and may be at increased cardiovascular risk.” Writing earlier this year in FASEB Journal, experts from Georgia Regents University concluded that football “has unequivocally been linked to elevations in blood pressure and hypertension, especially in linemen” and warned that, “health strategies should be explored to prevent and treat the dangerous and damaging effects of football participation.”

Player size has become such concern that legendary trainer Mackie Shilstone (who counts Serena Williams among his clients) called linemen “the walking dead” in a column for the New Orleans Times Picayune. “Only the overweight lineman can convince the overweight lineman to make a change,” he wrote, “but I fear with a paycheck and a contract involved, it will take a heart attack to really make the point. Let’s all pray it doesn’t get to that. I pray that these player’s think of their families and the legacy they are setting for those kids in high school who think it’s necessary, even worse, ‘OK,’ to pack on the pounds in the hopes of a shot at the pros.” Robert Turner, a former pro player who is now a researcher at the University of Maryland, told me obesity “is a bigger problem than concussions” because it reaches far more players. CDC data find that lineman have a 52 percent higher rate of sudden cardiac death than the general population, and three times the risk of early death compared with their fellow players.

This is a national story with a perfect vantage point in Texas, which leads the country in the number of high school players. I plan to build a narrative scaffold through one of the most decorated teams in the state: the Cedar Hill Longhorns, near Dallas, claimed the 5A state championship in 2013 and 2014, and lost in the playoffs this year. Their coach, Joey McGuire, has a reputation for dedication to his players, even to the point of declining the offer of a coaching job at the University of Texas. Two players on their roster top 265, one is 300 pounds, and another is 315. The superintendent recently told me that one up and coming 8th grader weighs 275.

For the story, I’ll not only talk to the current team about the pressure to be big as possible (some wear bracelets that say “Time to Eat”) but will track down players from 2006—another state championship year—to see what has happened to their health after leaving the field. How does this story end? Did they lose their football weight? And if not, what does their health look like now?

I bring to Texas Monthly a combination of experienced medical reporting and honest narrative that will give fans a new, compelling dimension the state’s favorite game. This has been a neglected subject, yet it stands to shape the future of the sport as much as the concern over concussions. Refrigerator Perry, at just 53 years old, has ballooned to 425 pounds and is now confined to a wheelchair, suffering from the complications of diabetes. Unless the trajectory changes, a new generation of players face the same future.

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