Hulking masses of flesh, fat and muscle, linemen are relentless bulldozers in the trenches of football.
A block here or closing a gap there, their sometimes subtle work without the football creates their teammates’ opportunities, dictates the tempo of the game and yet, receives little fanfare. An unnoticed lineman is usually an effective one.
But today a dangerous trend is creating a large buzz in what once was a lineman’s silent world.
Five NFL linemen weighed more than 300 pounds in 1985, but in 2004, 11 players on the MU Tigers’ roster alone tip the scales at 300 pounds or more. But the Tigers’ linemen aren’t the only ones getting bigger. Of the 30 first-team offensive linemen selected by Athlon Sports magazine in the six power conferences this year, 22 weigh more than 300 pounds.
But linemen’s mammoth weights today put them at risk for health problems down the road and on the field, such as heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and heat stroke.
Who’s responsible for this trend, and what price do players and coaches have to pay?
Big men growing on field
Dave Christensen, the offensive-line coach and offensive coordinator for the Tigers, remembers when the game sported sleeker linemen.
“I can remember back in 1978 when Washington went to the Rose Bowl, I believe both their starting guards were 230 pounds,” he said. “When I played (offensive line) there in 1980-1982, I think the biggest guys were about 265, 270 pounds, and we thought they were big then.”
Although there’s no agreed-upon primary cause of the increasing size of football players, Rex Sharp, director of sports medicine for MU athletics, said most of the weight-gain is actually a natural phenomenon.
“Much of it has to do with heredity,” he said. “I was over at the volleyball camp, and there are about 15 girls over there that are 6-foot-2 or taller; when I was in school, there were no girls who were 6-foot-2.”
The head physician for the St. Louis Rams, Matt Matava, said better technology and increased strength and conditioning has had a considerable impact on players to add size. He added the importance of weightlifting has spurred competition that might not have been as intense decades ago.
“Players don’t have the luxury of taking time off,” Matava said. “Football is an all-year sport compared to years ago.”
Improved training also has helped to improve all players.
“The biggest area of change is just the understanding of how to develop athletes and make them bigger, stronger and faster,” Christensen said. “It’s much like medicine in that it gets better and better every year.”
To help add weight, some athletes depend on supplements, such as creatine, protein bars and shakes. The supplement industry, like most of the people who use it, grows every year.
Sharp recognizes the popularity of the industry but is hesitant to believe all of the supplement makers’ promises.
“They’re not regulated at this point by the Food and Drug Administration, so you could come up and say just about anything that you think would sell,” he said.
Korey Stringer’s death in 2001 in NFL training camp was connected to a now-illegal supplement, ephedrine, which athletes used to lose weight and increase energy.
Stringer’s death, at the Minnesota Vikings’ camp, shocked the sports world but didn’t have as much of an effect on the supplement world. Although the industry remains controversial, it’s still strong because athletes depend on it to meet their demanding goals.
But not all the changes that help develop linemen have taken place on the field or in the weight room.
Dan Dierdorf, an NFL Hall of Fame offensive tackle, said a difference made in the rulebook in 1978 revolutionized the game at the line of scrimmage.
“In my mind, the offensive line players in the NFL have gotten bigger basically for one reason, and that is, in the late ‘70s, they began changing the rules about what was legal for an offensive lineman to do as far as pass protection was concerned,” he said. “They created an entirely new way of blocking.”
This addition to the rulebook changed more than the style of play. It also helped to change the size of the players.
“Now you can use your hands all the time; it’s become much more of upper-body game, which is why these guys are so big now,” Dierdorf said. “It’s nothing resembling the way line play used to be played back in the ‘60s or ‘70s.”
“Anytime you weigh what some of those guys weigh,” Sharp said, “and you perform the physical activity they do, it takes a tremendous toll on the joints, ankles, knees and hips just from their everyday activity.”
As a result of the constant pounding on their bodies, many linemen spend almost as much time on the operating table as they do on the field. Curt Marsh, a former ex-offensive lineman for the Raiders, has had more than 30 operations. Jim Otto, a center for the Raiders in the ‘60s and ‘70s, has had 40.
Christensen has had three knee surgeries and said the risk of injury in football, especially for the linemen, is probably increasing.
“The players are getting bigger, stronger and faster, but the body’s joint mechanisms aren’t changing,” he said. “A knee is a knee; no matter if you’re a 260-pound guy or a 350-pound guy, the knee joint is still built the same way.”
Football linemen can also have other health problems.
Studies have shown that heart problems, arthritis, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and a host of other life-threatening illnesses are higher in overweight people.
On Dec. 26, Reggie White, a former defensive linemen for the Green Bay Packers, died from what appeared to be complications from a respiratory disease compounded by sleep apnea. White, who retired after the 2000 season as the NFL’s career sacks leader, was elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times. He was 43.
A decade-old study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reveals a telling statistic: NFL linemen had a 52-percent greater risk of dying from heart disease compared with people of normal weight.
To compound matters, sometimes football players battle weight problems when they stop playing. Dierdorf said that to remain healthy after retirement, linemen should think more about their futures.
“I think that professional football players, especially the big linemen, have to realize that there aren’t many 80-year-old, 360-pound people walking around and that nobody’s going to take care of you except yourself,” he said. “So if you’re going to get artificially big, you better have some sort of a game plan in mind how you’re going to get back to some sense of normalcy when your career is over.”
Christensen said that discipline is key to getting back to a sense of normalcy after retiring.
“The guys who have problems keeping weight off during their playing time generally are going to have a hard time keeping it off after their playing time,” he said.
Link between size, heat
Is there a link between size and heat-related injuries in football? Some doctors, and common sense, say that bigger bodies are less suited for such hot practices.
The Rams’ physician, Matava, said the majority of his players who receive intravenous fluids are linemen. He said that there is a common association between a player’s body type and ill effects of the heat. A lineman’s extra body fat provides for greater insulation, Matava said, and puts him at a disadvantage compared with others.
Larry Armstrong, professor of environmental and exercise physiology at the University of Connecticut, has studied heat-related effects on performance for 24 years. He also has conducted on-the-field experiments to see how football players respond to the heat.
“The conventional wisdom involves the fact that a person who’s large and has a great body fat percentage is at a greater risk (of heat illness),” Armstrong said. “It’s true for a couple of reasons.
“First, their cardiovascular fitness is usually not at the same level as a lean wide receiver or someone who is running constantly rather than taking a few steps at the line of scrimmage. Second, they have greater body fat, which makes them less efficient; it would be like wearing a backpack with a large weight in it.”
Still, despite the potentially fatal problems inherent with weight gain, Christensen said that overall the linemen aren’t worse off today.
“I haven’t looked at the latest injury reports and compared them over the last five to 10 years, but I don’t see a drastic increase in injury at all, which one might think there would be,” he said. “I think athletes today are trained better, and I don’t know if they’re more athletic, but they’re certainly as athletic, and they’re about 30 or 40 pounds bigger.”