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Obesity weighs heavy
in football
Posted October 19, 2005

Thomas Herrion was all over the place on the night of Aug. 20. He was surprisingly quick, throwing key blocks and fighting for a roster spot on the San Francisco 49ers in a preseason game.

Herrion, the 6’3,” 330-pound offensive lineman from Utah, walked off the field exhausted from the game. He walked into locker room, listened to the coach’s post game speech and then collapsed unconscious. Herrion was pronounced dead hours later. Autopsies later indicated that the death was caused by heart failure.

The death of Herrion was shocking to the football world. There have been other football-related deaths in the past, from the Minnesota Vikings’ Korey Stringer to Northwestern University’s Rashidi Wheeler. This one really hit home. Herrion’s death set off controversy on just how prevalent obesity is in football at all levels.

Most researchers define obesity as 25 to 35 percent heavier than what your body mass index indicates your ideal weight should be. The BMI is a formula based on your height and weight. The formula produces a number, which corresponds to an area on a table defining your BMI.

Herrion had a body mass index of 41.2, well above the obesity threshold level.

Despite the BMI calculations, Jim May, head athletic trainer at the University of La Verne believes that obesity can carry a negative connotation and its definition does not always correctly describe a person or a player. He also believes there are some health issues at all levels of football but he would not go as far as to define the problem as obesity.

“I think there is a weight problem,” May said. “Obese, in my mind, is absurdly overweight.”

Everyone has a different body type and not everyone can be categorized as obese if they do not meet the requirements set by the BMI calculations, May said.

Dennis Parr, defensive lineman for ULV, notices a weight issue among football players.

“There are definitely a lot of offensive lineman that are overweight,” Parr said.

Parr said that he recently played in a game against Cal Lutheran University where the lineman he faced was 305 pounds at 5’10”. According to the BMI, this lineman is more obese than Herrion.

Football is a big-time sport that makes schools and teams a lot of money. In most high schools, football is the most attended sport. With so much attention, coaches and players can sometimes feel extra pressures to succeed. The pressures grow as athletes continue into college where the possibility of becoming a professional becomes realistic for some.

Parr believes that pressure not only comes from the players but from coaches as well.

“My high school coach would make some kids gain weight,” Parr said. “They had to or else they would be moved to another position.”

May agreed that “without a doubt” pressures exist to stay at the same competitive level as your opponent.

“Your competition will push you to do what you need to do,” May said. “This exists at any level you want to talk about.”

Parr responded to his coach’s challenge to gain the weight in high school by eating foods, like pasta, which are known to help people gain weight faster.

In high school, I was stuffing 6,000 to 8,000 calories per day,” Parr said.

As a result, Parr gained his weight and contributed as a defensive and offensive lineman to his high school football team.

Parr, who now stands at 6’1” and 240 pounds, said that the La Verne football team is different in that it stresses quickness and speed more than just being large. However, Parr agrees that competition can be the ultimate factor in the reason to be larger.

“That is why I gain weight; every season I gain 10 to 15 pounds,” Parr said. “Bigger is better, but hopefully not at the expense of athletic ability.”

While increased weight can help an athlete to succeed as a lineman in football, it can be detrimental because excess weight can cause injuries that would not occur to those who are less bulky.

“(The weight) puts more stress on your body and your joints,” May said. “(Players) suffer more injuries because of the position they play.”

Parr agreed. He came into camp this year 10 to 15 pounds overweight. As a result, he suffered from shin splints, an injury that occurred from the excess weight he carried before getting back into playing shape.

“It was ungodly painful,” Parr said. “They were so painful, I almost quit.”

Besides shin splints and other football-related injuries, obesity can cause other long-term and more serious health problems. High blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease and sleep apnea are only some of the complications that obese people can develop.

Despite a lot of recent attention on football players, obesity is prevalent throughout the United States. Studies indicate that two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third is obese. Also, childhood obesity is at an all-time high.

“It is not a football thing; it is a life thing,” May said.

May said that although heavier football players are constantly active compared to other Americans, there will come a time when these players will have to shape up or face possible major health consequences in the future.

“The fact that they are playing is better than not playing,” May said. “But they definitely have some demons and life challenges ahead.”

Steven Falls can be reached at fallss@ulv.edu.