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Weight Matters

In Trend That Dangerously Tips Scales, NFL Has Nearly Six Times as Many 300-Pounders as a Decade Ago

January 29, 2002|SAM FARMER and DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At some point during John Michels' rookie season with the Green Bay Packers, the days became a blur of cheeseburgers and steaks, pizza and ice cream.

The offensive lineman was a first-round draft pick, selected for his quickness and technique, but at 285 pounds he was considered small in the modern, super-sized NFL. His coaches wanted him to reach the industry standard of 300.

So he ate.

"The battle became trying to eat six meals a day," he said. "It didn't matter if I was hungry or not, I always had to put something in my body."

Food became so monotonous that anything different, even liver and onions, was appealing. Each night before bed, if the bathroom scale read a few pounds light, he went back downstairs for a box of cereal or several peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. The next morning, just before weighing in at practice, he drank a nutritional shake.

And one more thing.

Creatine became a staple of his diet. The over-the-counter supplement, which promises to add bulk, has come under scrutiny by a medical community that suspects it might be linked to kidney damage. Michels shrugs off any mention of risk, saying his coaches needed him to protect Brett Favre from monstrous defensive ends and, if he didn't make weight, "it could cost me my career."

Such is the culture of a league growing by leaps and pounds. Not only have linemen gotten bigger each season, so have running backs and linebackers and safeties. The prototypical receiver runs like a sprinter and looks like a tight end. While size and speed have made the game more spectacular, an increasing number of medical experts--and players--wonder if there is a price to pay.

Simple physics suggest that more mass puts more stress on the body. The resulting collisions are more violent.

"We've forced ourselves to be bigger athletes, but our bone structure is the same as it was 50 years ago," says Ed Cunningham, who played for the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks in the 1990s and now works as a television analyst. "We're getting to a point where the norm will be catastrophic injuries--broken necks, broken femurs--on a regular basis."

Just as worrisome is the pressure to add pounds. While Michels speaks of gorging himself and ingesting a potentially dangerous supplement, others have been caught taking anabolic steroids. This dynamic reverberates throughout football, down through the college ranks and into the high schools.

"I thought the brakes were going to hit this one, really, 10, 15 years ago," New England Patriot Coach Bill Belichick said. "Each year, you walk out there and say, 'This year's group is bigger than last year's group.'"

Arms Race

Cunningham might be overstating things when he predicts more broken necks, but the league could experience an increase in other injuries exacerbated by players carrying more weight, the former president of the NFL Physicians Society said.

"Human bone and human articular cartilage has been formed to withstand a certain degree of stress," said Dr. Pierce Scranton, who spent 17 years as orthopedic surgeon for the Seahawks and recently wrote a book: "Playing Hurt: Treating and Evaluating the Warriors of the NFL."

Scranton believes large players are more at risk for non-contact injuries, their tendons and hamstrings rupturing in the heat of competition.

"Now, all of a sudden, the guys who are playing these games are 325 pounds and they're running 4.75 40s and benching 525 pounds," he said. "Their bones and joints just aren't made to withstand that."

With collisions "equivalent to a car accident," the doctor also expects more contact injuries ranging from concussions to pinched nerves. San Diego Charger defensive end Marcellus Wiley suffered the latter when he took on Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos.

Two months later, Wiley still has trouble turning his head.

"These guys are mountains, man, and they're fast mountains," he said. "You can't bring them down with just an arm anymore."

Consider the last 10 years in the evolution of the league.

In the spring of 1991, USC offensive lineman Pat Harlow was a first-round draft pick at 288 pounds. That seems boyish compared with last April's highest-rated lineman, 365-pound Leonard Davis of Texas. In the last decade, the number of 300-pounders in the NFL has increased from 50 to 290.

San Francisco 49er cornerback Ahmed Plummer learned the changing physics of the game by practicing each day against the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Terrell Owens. Though Plummer is 191, hardly light for his position, it's enough to make him yearn for a few more pounds.

"Wide receivers are bigger and more physical," he said. "They can get off bump-and-run coverage because of their strength. You don't ever want to get pushed around."

So, while some teams still favor athletic linemen or small, fast receivers, scouts often look for a player with, as they say, lead in his pants. Even quarterbacks are being evaluated by height and weight as front offices throw themselves into the arms' race.

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