King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Study: NFL has a deadly weight problem. Solution: Two-way players? Plus: Super Bowl Media Day.


Salon Staff
February 1, 2006 10:00PM (UTC)

A Scripps Howard News Service study has found that NFL players die young at a rate that experts call alarming, and that many of their deaths are related to excess weight.

This is one of those studies that seem to confirm what the casual observer might think of as obvious. After all, the active or recently active NFL players who have dropped dead in the last few years -- Korey Stringer in 2001, Reggie White in 2004 and Thomas Herrion in 2005 -- were big linemen.

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"The heaviest athletes are more than twice as likely to die before their 50th birthday than their teammates," Scripps Howard reported after analyzing data related to the 3,850 pro football players who have died in the past century.

More than three-quarters of the 130 players born since 1955 who have died were heavy enough to be classified as obese according to body-mass index, the study reports. The NFL has long objected to the use of body-mass index to classify players as obese, pointing out that they're so heavy mostly because of muscle, not fat.

But Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor of health policy and sport science, is quoted in the Scripps Howard report saying that doesn't matter. "When you get that big," he says, "regardless of whether your body is muscle or fat, your heart is stressed."

Yesalis also says, "Clearly, these big, fat guys are having coronaries," and he advocates a weight limit of 275 pounds for NFL players.

That's obviously not a realistic solution to a very real problem. It would immediately bounce virtually every lineman out of the league, for one thing. For another it might lead to more health problems than it solved as players pursued all sorts of destructive strategies to get under the weight limit.

One thing the NFL doesn't need is a leagueful of behemoths with eating disorders and addictions to methamphetamines and diuretics.

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So how about reversing a rule change that helped lead to the incredible rise in the size of NFL players over the last few decades? How about returning to limited substitution?

Until the early 1960s in college football, there were limits on substitutions, which meant that most players had to play both offense and defense. The NFL has almost always had free substitution, though it experimented with limitations in the late '40s.

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But since NFL players were filtered through the colleges, the age of two-platoon, free substitution, which led to the development of the modern, giant offensive lineman and his less-common defensive counterpart, didn't really get going until the '60s. Since then, player weights have been going up steadily.

There have been other factors too: better nutrition, healthcare and training methods, and just the general trend of Americans getting bigger since the mid-20th century. But the age of specialization has led to players who do nothing other than block on the offensive line, or clog up space in the trenches as a defensive tackle.

Quickness and technique play a role in the skill sets of these guys, but their game is based on strength and the talent of being unmovable. The bigger you are, the harder it is for someone to move you. Hence, the 350-pound lineman.

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If these guys had to play on both sides of the ball, they just couldn't be that big. With five offensive linemen and two defensive tackles, there wouldn't be enough behemoths-only jobs to go around, and anyway I just don't see a 350-pounder playing 120 snaps.

Linemen might not all weigh less than 275 pounds under a limited-substitution system, but as a group they'd be a lot slimmer.

Some guys' career would end just as surely as if a weight limit were introduced. And the game would certainly change. Without specialization, there would be less skill on the field at any one time as brilliant running backs did their best to play safety while brilliant safeties muddled through as running backs.

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On the other hand, the skill level would still be pretty high, and the game might be sleeker, faster and more exciting overall.

Oh, and chances are you wouldn't have a huge offensive lineman keeling over dead in training camp every few years, and your favorite NFL players might have a decent chance of turning 70. Would that be worth it?

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Ten things I thought I was thinking, then I thought I forgot, then remembered I was thinking but didn't think they were worth mentioning, but then I changed my mind and thought they were pretty good thoughts, I think, about the Super Bowl [PERMALINK]

1. Tuesday was "Media Day" at the Super Bowl, and the assembled media had a great time, with not a single typist or chatterer complaining that there was no news, that the players and coaches spent the day issuing the same bland statements over and over to sequential crowds of cameras and microphones, that there were no big personalities like Terrell Owens or that Gilbert Gottfried, various former reality show runners-up and the inevitable 9-year-old were all credentialed.

2. You may not have heard this, but Steelers running back Jerome Bettis is from Detroit, and is very excited to be playing in the Super Bowl in his hometown in what might be his last game.

3. Hey, have you ever noticed how the only stories that ever come out of Media Day are stories about how no stories come out of Media Day, or stories about how Media Day is just this big crazy pointless silly thing? Media Day is a postmodern, deconstructionist event. It exists only to be talked about as a thing that exists for no reason other than to exist.

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It reminds me of a story I heard after the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco. Power was out downtown. A friend of mine, who worked at a suburban newspaper, told me a co-worker of his called the San Francisco Examiner, where I worked, for some reason. And yes I realize this sounds like an urban myth, which it probably is.

The co-worker asked to speak to this person or that one -- other newspapers were helping the powerless Examiner put out an edition -- but the operator told him that no one was there but her.

Could he leave a message? No. Could she tell him how to get ahold of this person or that one? No. Finally, the operator grew exasperated with the line of questioning and said, "I can't do anything. I'm sitting here in the dark risking my life so I can answer the phone and tell you I'm sitting here in the dark risking my life."

That's Media Day. A bunch of reporters spend a day running from booth to booth asking pointless questions and getting dumb answers so they can tell you how silly it is that they spent a day running from booth to booth asking pointless questions and getting dumb answers. The good news is that no one is risking his life. Except maybe Gilbert Gottfried.

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4. Little-known fact! Bettis' parents have never missed a game he's played. And not just NFL games. When Jerome sits down to play Madden 2006 with his nephew, here come Grandma and Grandpa.

5. To a man, the Steelers and Seahawks have made it clear to anyone who will listen that they are getting plenty of respect and don't think they have anything to prove to anybody.

6. You know who else is from Detroit? Smokey Robinson. Uh-huh. Also Madonna and Eminem and there was this record company called Motown that was in Detroit and had tons of hit records before moving to Los Angeles. Bet you didn't know that. Ever heard of Diana Ross? Yup. Detroit.

7. Who has further to go: Matt Hasselbeck to be the greatest prematurely bald quarterback of all time or Ben Roethlisberger to be the greatest quarterback ever to have four syllables in his last name?

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It's a tough call. Partly because it's really hard to research bald quarterbacks on short notice and I think I thought of this thought within about an hour of my deadline. But off the top of my head -- ha -- Hasselbeck is looking up at the chrome domes of Y.A. Tittle and Terry Bradshaw, and I think he always will be. So I think the answer is Roethlisberger.

Some quick research on multisyllabic quarterbacks, which is easier to do, allows me to make the statement, without fear of being contradicted, that Marcus Tuiasosopo is already the greatest six-syllable quarterback in NFL history, all one touchdown and five interceptions in 10 games over four years of him.

But seriously. Roethlisberger has vaulted over a taxi squad of four-syllable-plus guys in short order. Only in his second year, he's already better than Todd Marinovich and Scott Milanovich ever were, already ahead of Mike Taliafero and, considering era, maybe better than George Taliafero, who made the Pro Bowl in three straight years in the early '50s with three different lousy teams: the New York Yanks, Dallas Texans and Baltimore Colts.

Taliafero threw for 200 yards three times in those years. I mean 200 yards in a season. And he made the Pro Bowl. The NFL was a slightly different game in the early '50s.

Anyway, Roethlisberger is better than Sean Salisbury and Jim Druckenmiller, way ahead of Harry Theofiledes and Ron Vander Kelen, and while most of the guys at the top of this list are Italian, Roethlisberger's already got Bob Avellini, Bob Gagliano, Tony Grazioni and Steve Pisarkiewicz in his rear-view.

Just wanted to see if you were paying attention there. J.T. O'Sullivan and Sam Etcheverry? Thanks for playing.

There are, I think, four or five guys in this conversation, the one about the best four-syllable-plus quarterbacks. That depends on whether Boomer Esiason's last name has four syllables (es-eye-uh-son) or three (ee-sigh-son), which would mean a diphthong was at work. For purposes of this discussion, we'll assume it has four syllables and keep the diphthong out of sight, making the column safe for work.

Two of five I think Roethlisberger has already passed, though reasonable people could disagree: Vince Ferragamo and Dan Pastorini.

The others are Vinnie Testaverde, whom I've never thought of as a great quarterback but who has hung around forever plus five minutes and is among the all-time leaders in just about every passing stat, and the Mad Bomber, Daryle Lamonica.

I really don't know how to compare Lamonica, who was pretty much through when I was 10, and Esiason, both of whom I think were better than Testaverde. They were both very good at their peak, though Esiason was a good quarterback for a lot longer.

My impression of Lamonica in his day was better than my impression of Esiason in his, but that's colored by Lamonica standing out in an era dominated by running and the fact that I was a little kid and more easily impressed. He also played for nothing but good teams as a starter, while Esiason struggled through his share of losing seasons.

At any rate, Roethlisberger hasn't caught either one yet, just as he hasn't caught Vinny Testaverde. I'm a big fan of Roethlisberger's and I think he will be ahead of Testaverde in a few years.

Whether he'll eventually be at the top of this ridiculous list -- quarterbacks with four or more syllables in their name, remember? -- we won't know for a long time, but, unlike Hasselbeck and the list of bald quarterbacks, I think he's got a shot.

8. Detroit is in the northern part of the United States, so it's cold at this time of year and the golf is terrible. There also aren't any palm trees or beaches, which are often common in Super Bowl cities. This is the kind of Super Bowl-week info you can't get just anywhere.

9. Willie Parker of the Steelers is already the third leading rusher in NFL history among people named Willie. He needs 2,039 yards to pass Willie Ellison and become No. 1. When I was 8, Willie Ellison was my favorite football player.

10. It isn't just Jerome Bettis who's from Detroit, you know. His parents are from Detroit too.

Previous column: The 12th Man

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