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Inside the NFL | Sam Farmer ON THE NFL

It's a Weighty Issue Beyond Steroids

October 07, 2005|Sam Farmer

A look at the before-and-after pictures of Brad Culpepper -- a 280-pound NFL defensive lineman in one, a 205-pound lawyer in the other -- leads to a perfectly logical assumption:

He had to be using steroids, right?

"I hear that a lot," said Culpepper, 36, who played nine seasons with Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Chicago from 1992 to 2000. "But I never even saw [steroids]. If I could have gotten away with using them, would I have? Maybe. The mind-set you have as an NFL player is, you'll do anything you can to get an edge."

And for Culpepper, getting that edge meant gorging himself until every meal left him feeling as if he'd just eaten a Thanksgiving feast. Even so, when he was with the Bears in 2000, he hid five-pound weights in his pockets for his Friday weigh-in so he'd be heavy enough to dress for Sunday's game. The only off-the-rack thing about him was the 500 pounds he could hoist off the bench-press rack.

"I felt like I was killing myself," he said.

After he retired, he changed his eating habits, did more cardiovascular exercise and lost nearly one-third of his body weight in eight months. He lost 10 inches at the waist -- he now wears size-32 pants -- and even ran a marathon. And he has gone from inflicting personal injuries to specializing in them as a personal-injury attorney in Tampa.

He's far removed from what he calls "the constant battle of pounding the food and pounding the weights."

The NFL might have the most comprehensive steroid policy in sports, but the relentless pressure on players to be unnaturally huge could take a serious toll.

"Once they eliminated steroid use, there was a premium put on size," Culpepper said. "There are a lot of side effects to being 350 pounds."

Exactly what role, if any, excessive weight played in Thomas Herrion's death is unclear. Herrion, a 335-pound San Francisco offensive lineman, died two months ago at 23 after collapsing in the locker room after an exhibition game. The coroner ruled that heart disease had been the cause of death and didn't specifically identify Herrion's gargantuan size as a factor.

Regardless, the way NFL players pack on the pounds cannot be healthy.

"When was the last time you saw a 350-pound person and thought, 'Yeah, their heart's probably loving it'?" said Ed Cunningham, a former NFL offensive lineman who shed 80 pounds after retiring in 1996.

Most NFL linemen have weight issues, Cunningham said. Either they're struggling to take it off or struggling to keep it on.

And, he said, most of them share something else in common: "For the most part, when you look at an offensive lineman out of his pads, he's an obese person."

When Cunningham was playing for the Arizona Cardinals in the mid-1990s, the team doctor tested his triglycerides, a form of fat in the blood. Anything over 200 milligrams is considered high and has been linked to heart disease. Cunningham registered 660.

Seven months after he retired, when the 6-foot-3 Cunningham had dropped from 300 pounds to 230, he was tested again and had a triglyceride level of 92.

"The doctor was blown away," he said. "He said, 'You have no idea how much you've improved the quality of your later years.' "

Cunningham is quick to point out, however, that not every lineman is built to drop a lot of weight when he retires. He was carrying too much weight for his frame. Some of his fellow linemen were naturally bigger and could handle life at 300 pounds. The challenge for them, he said, is not ballooning after their careers end.

Brad Hopkins knows that fear. He's the starting left tackle for the Tennessee Titans, and he's significantly undersized for his position. Although he's listed at 6-3 and 295 pounds, he said he's actually about 15 pounds lighter than that.

It wasn't always that way. In 1995, back when the Oilers were playing in Houston, Hopkins reported to training camp at 346 pounds. He felt he needed to be that big to keep his job. Unknowingly, however, he developed pneumonia during the season and played four games that way, losing about 25 pounds.

When he eventually got healthy, he realized he'd played better when he was lighter.

Over the years, he's lost even more weight. During training camp this summer, he dropped as low as 272, the size of a big tight end. He figured that was a little too light, however, and now he hovers in the 280-290 range. Being light on his feet pays off. Against Indianapolis last Sunday, he kept sack specialist Dwight Freeney away from quarterback Steve McNair all day, a tough feat for any lineman.

"My stamina is up there," Hopkins said. "My size is a real advantage for me."

It's the rare lineman who thinks that way. By the NFL's thinking, bigger is almost always better.

Culpepper, for one, doesn't miss being wide as a movie screen.

Well, maybe sometimes he does.

"When I got down to 195, that was too small," he said. "My wife told me I looked like a runner, that I'd become one of them. That was a blow to the ego, so I put on an extra 10 pounds."

Then, there was the time recently when he stopped by the University of Florida, his alma mater, and introduced himself to new Gator Coach Urban Meyer.

"He eyeballed me like he could take me," Culpepper said. "He was looking me up and down and said, 'You were the All-American here?' I could see it in his eyes. He thought he could take me. I was like, 'Don't even think about it, buddy.' "

The size is gone. The swagger remains.

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