Packing the line

Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Jason Meer | 18 years, 8 months ago

Obesity in linemen raises questions about coaching pressure

Thomas Herrion was a player looking to fulfill his NFL dream. A former University of Utah offensive lineman, Herrion joined the San Francisco 49ers in December. But on the night of Aug. 20, Herrion's life took a turn for the worse.

The 6'3", 330-pounder threw a key block on the final play of a scoring drive, walked off the field for coach Mike Nolan's post-game address, knelt for the Lord's Prayer and collapsed on the locker room floor. Herrion died hours later from heart failure, setting off a controversy about how obesity affects football players from high school to the pros.

Herrion was just one of the quarter of all NFL players who are considered morbidly obese, according to Joyce Harp of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Obesity is especially prevalent along starting offensive lines, where 30 of 32 NFL teams average over 300 pounds per player. Linemen maintain heavy weights in order to better block for other offensive players. While the emphasis on large-scale weight gain has long been important to success in professional football, Blazers are also finding that weight can be an issue that makes or breaks their chances.

Shouldering the load

For senior David Ufford, a 5'10", 220-pound starter on Blair's varsity offensive line, there was intense pressure to add bulk throughout the offseason. Ufford's coaches said he needed to add weight if he wanted to play well. "They told me I looked too small," Ufford recalls.

Another key starting lineman, junior Scott Lavon, says that his natural bulk stopped coaches from demanding that he eat more. "I've always been one of the bigger guys, so they've never pressured me to get way bigger," Lavon says. In order for Lavon to maintain his size advantage, coaches recommended that he consistently use the bench press.

Weight training is all the Blair coaching staff recommends in building mass, according to head varsity coach Jeff Seals. "Kids go to the weight room; that's all I need out of them," he says.

Seals says he would feel better about the varsity linemen's sizes if they spent more time in the weight room. Lavon, for instance, is unable to lift as often during the winter and spring, when he is playing ice hockey and lacrosse, respectively.

Multiple sports cease to be an issue for college athletes, according to former Blair lineman Martin Brown, who plays football for Salisbury University. At Salisbury, Brown says, the football team's weight training is more effective because it is required. "Everyday that's not a game day is time for lifting," he says.

Even with daily weight lifting and more intense training, Salisbury's Division III football team focuses less on weight than most top football programs. "They don't care about your weight as long as you can play," Brown says.

Too much of a bad thing

Steven Horwitz, a certified sports physician in Silver Spring, affirms that, although unhealthy weight fluctuation among football players is an issue at major universities, the pressures can affect players at all levels. Horwitz recalls cases of athletes as young as nine years old with coronary blockages caused by obesity.

Besides the long-term health risks, like diabetes and heart disease, associated with being overweight, Horwitz says that athletes can lose in-game skills. "They tend to lose speed and have more chance of hurting their lower extremities," he says. Horwitz finds it counterintuitive that linemen are told to gain weight when they should build muscle and reduce bulk.

Brown thinks that the Blair team could deal with weight issues more efficiently if they solicited nutrition advice. "[The Salisbury] trainer talks to the team about what to eat. He makes sure we have healthy diets and can play our best," Brown says.

Last year, Collin Reed, a junior starter alongside Lavon and Ufford, was instructed to lose 20 pounds. Reed believes that the coaching staff sent conflicting messages about his size when they inflated his height and weight on the roster, a practice used to intimidate opposing teams.

Seals denies that his coaches deliberately pad the statistics. "We might give a kid like 10 pounds if he's really, really light," he says. Reed estimates his weight to be 235 pounds, but he is listed at 260.

"Massive" proportions

With the issue of weight so ingrained in the high-school football culture, Horwitz says that athletes are unlikely to recognize health risks unless they compare their weight to their height. The accepted comparison system, known as Body Mass Index (BMI), is a relatively accurate gauge of a person's risk for disease. A BMI reading between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal, and readings between 25.0 and 29.9 identify overweight individuals. Anything higher signifies obesity and high risk for related health problems.

Lavon, Reed and Ufford's BMI scale readings are 31.2, 34.7 and 31.6, respectively. However, Horwitz says that BMI measurements are unreliable for most athletes who weight train because they tend to have higher muscle mass. Though lighter individuals are always at lower risk for disease, Horwitz says that a disease risk evaluator like BMI "doesn't apply if the guy is in good shape and lean."

Conversely, checking Herrion's BMI might have been useful in saving his life. At the time of his death, Herrion's BMI reading was 41.2, well over the threshold that indicates risk. Horwitz hopes that linemen and coaches at all levels can learn from the Herrion tragedy. "Stronger and faster is always better than just big. Unfortunately, at those line positions, you will get pressured to put on weight," he says.

Seals does not think that Herrion's death will change the way he coaches the team, because none of his players are morbidly obese. "If you're strong and small, it doesn't matter in high school," he says.

Lavon says that Blair's line, considered to be average in size compared to the rest of the county, will be able to do the job. "We're not the biggest, but we can still be successful," he says.

Jason Meer. Jason Meer is a RISING SENIOR who needs to get more sleep. When awake, he finds time to facebook, watch SportsCenter and World Poker Tour, and listen to varied musicians from Chamillionaire to Sigur Ros to Kelly Clarkson. If you see a red-haired guy walking … More »

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