Mind, Body And Soul

From mental illness to sleep disorders to religious views, NFL players cope with more than game plans.

Players bulking up is risky business


February 04, 2005|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The attractions of professional football are apparent to anyone with the ability to reach that level, and for many others who don't. The modern player can count on glory and healthy salaries from his work.

That has always made the risks of playing seem worth taking.

"For 90 percent, they would say they would do it again," said Kevin Guskiewicz, research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina. "Fame, money. It was important to them, and it outweighs the complications that result later in life."

That doesn't make the hazards to the body any less dizzying in their ever-increasing array. A study commissioned by the NFL Players Association in 2002 found 47 percent of retired players were suffering from arthritis.

At Guskiewicz's CSRA - using 2,600 retirees - researchers were able to link recurrent concussions to depression.

The most alarming study of late has surrounded sleep apnea, which is defined as the intermittent cessation of breathing during sleep. If untreated, it can lead to life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, hypertension and stroke.

Sleep apnea was found in a disproportionate number of linemen, a group of players frequently encouraged to bulk up to weights beyond 300 pounds as part of a dangerous trend.

The New England Journal of Medicine gave the disorder attention in 2003, but it received further notice when Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White died in December. It's thought sleep apnea might have played a role in his death.

Kris Jenkins, a 335-pound former Maryland defensive tackle who became a two-time Pro Bowl player for the Carolina Panthers, had surgery before the 2003 season to alleviate sleep apnea.

"For me, it was a shock, because I never knew that he had it, and he was, what, 43?" Jenkins told the Charlotte Observer after White's death. "When I heard, it caught me off guard, because I had it and for me it was an issue. They said I didn't have it bad, but I know what the dangers of it can be."

Overall, players the size of White or Jenkins have gone from being novelties 20 years ago to becoming necessities in today's game. In 1980, there was one 300-pound player in the NFL. By the end of the 2003 season, there were 338.

You don't even have to pass Physics 101 to figure it out. Teams covet players able to create greater force on the offensive and defensive lines, most likely created by larger players. Between better nutrition and conditioning programs for strength or cardiovascular training, it's not uncommon to see a tight end turn into a starting lineman.

"This is something that's ingrained, that bigger is better," said Vyto Kab, a former NFL tight end who is co-managing director of SleepTech Consulting Group, which authored The New England Journal of Medicine study. "The NFL goes into trends. I thought we were going away from them, but it doesn't seem that way."

Dr. Arthur Frank, who directs the Weight Management Center at George Washington University, ticks off the increased risks for bigger people in general: diabetes, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease and prostate cancer, in addition to sleep apnea.

"It's great for football, but I would never recommend someone gaining weight. If you're going to do that, you're putting yourself in enormous risk."


Philadelphia (15 - 3) vs. New England (16 - 2)

6:30 p.m. Sunday

Chs. 45, 5

Line: Patriots by 7

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