Carrying a heavy burden

Linemen feel need to bulk up for college, but risks are huge, too

December 19, 2007|By Stefen Lovelace | Stefen Lovelace,Sun Reporter

Jeff Braun lets out a long, deep breath as he drops a massive barbell to the weight room floor.

The Winters Mill offensive lineman is dripping sweat and approaching exhaustion as he finishes a typical weightlifting routine. Football season is over, but the hard work is just beginning for the 6-foot-5, 320-pound senior.

Braun has accepted a full football scholarship to West Virginia and realizes he will need to train harder and get stronger to compete on the Division I level. Along with the weight training, he'll have to eat more to maintain the enormous size that college coaches crave on the offensive line.

"I feel that on the field, because of my size, it's an intimidation factor," he said. "On the high school level, it's a huge advantage, but not as much of an advantage at the next level. Once I get up there, everyone's your size."

But for linemen such as Braun, how big is too big?

In Division I, most linemen weigh more than 300 pounds. At Maryland, for example, the average weight for the starting offensive line is 315. That puts pressure on high school senior linemen to add bulk.

"A lot of the linemen will go out and see how big the D-I guys are and think they have to come in and be as big as they can be," said Dwight Galt, the University of Maryland's director of strength and conditioning. "They tend to come in with a lot of fat to try to get their body weight up, and that's the worst thing you can do."

A study in January that measured the body mass index (BMI) of 3,683 high school offensive linemen in Iowa found that 9 percent had severe adult obesity.

The goal should be to build good eating habits when adding weight, said Rob Skinner, a sports nutritionist for the University of Virginia.

"What we look at is two things, quality and quantity of food," Skinner said. "You can't just gorge on cheeseburgers and hope to perform at an elite level. Quality whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats like nuts, seed and fish is what we recommend."

But even if offensive linemen stick to a healthy diet, there is still a risk in being that big. While the rigorous schedule of weightlifting, practices and games can help athletes stay healthy while being extraordinarily heavy, problems can arise once a player's career is over.

"They're used to a lot of physical activity, so they could take in a lot of calories but burn them in activity and be weight-stable," said James Hamberg, a professor of kinesiology at Maryland. "Now they have to cut back on a lot of calories, and that's tough to do."

Joey Eisenmann, an assistant professor of pediatric exercise physiology at Michigan State who helped conduct the Iowa study said: "There's a variety of cardiovascular disease risk factors associated with child obesity. [The] more important thing we know is that adolescent obesity tracks into adulthood and they're highly likely to remain obese as they go into adulthood, leading to severe clinical problems, diabetes and increased likelihood of heart disease."

Kyle Schmitt, a former offensive lineman at Maryland who is a graduate assistant with the Terps, said he wishes he would have changed his eating habits earlier.

"Basically, you just ate from the beginning of the morning to the evening," said Schmitt, 26, who was 6-4 and 300 pounds when he played at Maryland from 2000 to 2004. "I'd get up and eat breakfast. Eggs, sausage, always doughnuts were around. Then lunchtime. Then all-you-can-eat, anything-you-want dinner here.

"Then at night, we would do `late nights,' which were wings, nachos, pizza. I lived with a lot of offensive linemen that did it."

Once Schmitt's career was over, he realized he had to lose weight to stay healthy. Since his playing days, he has dropped 35 pounds.

"It's not what I eat, it's how much I eat," Schmitt said. "We would eat a whole pizza or 10 McDonald's cheeseburgers just to prove we could do it. Now, right before I get full, I've learned to push away from the table."

Some high school players say they believe that they will also be able to lose weight when they stop playing.

"I don't think it'll be that difficult, because as a football player, you have the qualities of discipline," said Calvert Hall senior Sean Boyle, a 6-5, 280-pound lineman. "Instead of, `Oh, you got to eat five meals because you have to gain 20 pounds by next season,' it's `You have to lose 20 pounds so you don't get heart disease when you're 50, " added Boyle, who, along with twin brother Pat, will attend Temple on a football scholarship.

When athletes add bulk, steroids also can be a factor, but Braun says he believes the use of drugs to get bigger is more likely for undersized linemen rather than those who have significant size.

"[Steroids are] going to remain a possibility at the high school level until they implement some kind of testing material," Galt said. "There's some very effective legal supplements to get significant gains. [Supplements are] fairly commonplace, especially with freshman and sophomore collegiate players."

Said Schmitt: "You see some results [from steroids]; I don't think they're mind-blowing. ... It still comes down to pumping iron in the weight room."

As Braun continues to build up his body, the risks of being big are not lost on him.

"I have thought about it, especially with my father, who passed away from a heart attack," Braun said. Jeff Braun Sr. died at 39. "I always think about that stuff. If there's a time for me to go, God's going to take me, I guess."

Even with the health risks, however, linemen know they have to be big to be successful at their position.

"Definitely for a regular or normal person, 290 pounds is not the right way to be," Schmitt said. "For the game we play, it is probably essential."

stefen.lovelace@baltsun.com

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