Players Aren’t Thin-Skinned On Heavy Issue

By Greg Couch
Updated: August 25, 2005

Qasim MitchellLAKE FOREST, Ill. — Qasim Mitchell has dropped weight to pick up speed and gain stamina. It’s about eating better, exercising aerobically. He is, after all, a professional athlete. And after losing 28 pounds from his all-time high, the Bears offensive lineman is almost down to where he wants to be. He now weighs 352.

There’s an obesity problem in this country, and maybe an even bigger obesity problem in the NFL, where players supersize themselves to keep their jobs. Body Mass Index is what doctors call the standard measure in obesity studies. I looked up a BMI chart on the Web, and technically, Mitchell doesn’t qualify as obese.

He has to lose 58 more pounds before we can call him that. For now, he’s officially “morbidly obese.”

What an awful term. Think about it. You can carry two titles at the same time in this country: athlete and morbidly obese.

That’s even worse than San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Thomas Herrion’s BMI, which was “severely obese” when he died Saturday night after a game in Denver. Autopsy results will take weeks, and it’s possible that Herrion died from some undetected disease.

But when a severely obese man is running around for three hours, death doesn’t seem that shocking.

“I’ve been big all my life,” Mitchell said.

But morbidly obese?

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Mitchell, who would have to lose 142 pounds to be considered normal. “I know I have to stay in good shape. If I weren’t an athlete, if I were this big and just some guy working at Target or McDonald’s, that would be more of a factor.”

300 pounds the norm

I talked to some of the 300-pound Bears this week at Halas Hall. There are 15 of them on the roster, with Mitchell the heaviest.

Deep down, you figure, they have to know this isn’t right. They have to see Herrion and be scared about their own health.

But in talking with them, it became clear that isn’t it at all. We have normalized 300 pounds in the NFL. It doesn’t even sound like a lot anymore. When William “Refrigerator” Perry came in over 300 in 1985, he was the fat man in a carnival act.

Today, 300 carries no absurdity at all. As many as 350 players on current NFL rosters are over 300 pounds. Bigger is better. Smaller is unemployed.

“No, you can be lighter,” Mitchell said. “Olin [Kreutz, the Bears' center] is probably 310 soaking wet. And he’s a Pro Bowler. It has more to do with having the right technique.”

Did you ever think you’d hear anyone say “310 soaking wet”?

This is wrong. This is dangerous. A University of North Carolina BMI study this year said that 56 percent of NFL players are obese or bigger. The NFL responded that it didn’t believe in BMI, which measures only height against weight and doesn’t factor a person’s percentage of body fat.

The NFL is in denial. Or really, really hoping.

“People are trying to make a big deal because [Herrion] is 300 pounds,” said Bears offensive lineman Steve Edwards, who, at 6-5, 330, qualifies as severely obese. “A lot of guys have dropped down and died who aren’t offensive linemen. Until they show further proof, you can’t pinpoint offensive linemen and say there’s a problem.”

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue actually denied that NFL players are getting bigger. He cited “some numbers” he saw recently showing that 10 years ago, 400 players were 290 pounds or heavier.

“There doesn’t seem to be much of a change,” he said. “But we do recognize that we have athletes that are fitter than most people in society, bigger than most people in society and doing things that are different and more demanding than many people in society. … We’re very well aware of that, and we’re staying ahead of the curve in terms of understanding how big they should be, what kinds of characteristics they should be able to display.”

Paul, have you seen an NFL player lately? Even Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told the Rocky Mountain News that players at 350, 360 pounds today “at those positions were probably 260, 270 [pounds] 20 years ago.”

And if there’s such a thing as safely fit while morbidly obese, then that’s a medical breakthrough.

Life after football

Even if this weight is safe now, what are these guys supposed to do when they retire?

“I feel good now, through conditioning,” Edwards said. “But you’d have to be worried that you’re not healthy to be this big if you’re not exercising.”

At practice Tuesday, star offensive tackle John Tait, who’s 6-6, 315, stayed late to work with young lineman Bo Lacy, who’s 6-4, 301. They walked off together. In light of the death in San Francisco, they were asked, are you worried about your weight?

“I’m not,” Lacy said.

“We’re average weight for linemen,” Tait said. “The biggest thing is how you put on the weight and how you take care of yourself. I’d like to think I’m in good shape.

“When I’m done playing, I’m planning on dropping a lot of weight. But that BMI says I should weigh something like 225 or something ridiculous like that. I don’t think there’s any way I can get down to that.”

Really, 225 for a grown man? Ridiculous? What must normal people look like to these guys? I told Tait that I’m 6-4, 205.

“At least you can shop at the Gap,” he said. “That’s only a dream for me.”