PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Roger Brown was made to go to the train station back then, standing where they weighed logs and iron. The Detroit Lions’ scale didn’t reach such ungodly measures.
Weigh-in day came each Thursday, and most weeks this was nerve-racking and humiliating. In the early 1960s, Brown’s target weight as a defensive tackle was 280 pounds; for each extra pound he was fined $10. The team’s scale stopped at 250, and so away they went. He would stand there amid the other freight, a few teammates chiming in with oinks and grunts, while they waited to see that week’s number, which sometimes registered 300 or more.
“Today,” Brown says now, at age 77, “fans look at you as this big, healthy [butt] kicker. Back then, you were just an overweight blob.”
In the early 1960s, Brown was the biggest man in football — and, as the NFL’s first regular player to weigh 300 pounds, something of an oddity. These days, there’s nothing unusual about a player that size. Three weeks ago, when 256 players entered the league via the NFL draft, 57 were listed at weights of at least 300 pounds.
But what happens when the games end and a man no longer needs to be so big to earn his living? Some former players channel their competitive drives into new activities — former NFL linemen Matt Birk and Alan Faneca have recently appeared in public barely recognizable after astonishing weight losses — but others keep expanding. “Today, I look at the guys,” Brown says, “and, whew, they’re in trouble.”
The NFL is bigger than ever, and about a dozen years ago offensive lineman Aaron Gibson became the league’s first 400-pound player. Although league and players’ association officials suggest plenty is being done in today’s NFL to educate players about managing their weights after they retire, several former players say they feel unprepared for life after football. After years of having their sizes carefully managed and strength coaches and nutritionists keeping close tabs on their weights, some ex-players feel abandoned.
“Once you’re done, you’re done,” said Antone Davis, a former NFL offensive lineman who grew to nearly 450 pounds after he retired. “You’re out, and you’re on your own.”
During the autumn of 1985, a rookie defensive tackle whose girth was almost as amazing as his athleticism captivated America. The Chicago Bears’ William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a 335-pound defensive tackle, could stuff ballcarriers and play fullback, too, and that year he was one of two 300-pound players to enter the league. In previous years, only 22 players had ever been so heavy when their NFL careers began.
The Bears won that year’s Super Bowl and became icons with the “Super Bowl Shuffle,” and Perry became the gap-toothed face of a league that, in many ways, was growing.
The next year, nine 300-pound players — most of them interior offensive linemen, built to stop a defender like Perry — entered the league, and a year after that came 27 players who weighed at least 300. The trend continued, and three years ago, 132 men began NFL careers weighing 300 pounds or more.
Davis, now 47, was a rookie in 1991, and he struggled each year to reach his target weight range of 325 to 335 pounds. When the seasons ended, he would swell to 375 or so, he says, and when his career ended in 1999, there were no practices or screaming coaches to keep him in check. He ate as he had as a player, caloric amounts meant to feed a raging machine. Only now, with no workouts or games, the machine had ground to a halt. His career had ended with no exercise suggestions or diet to ease his transition, and so his weight kept climbing.
“When I retired,” he says, “I heard nothing. There simply wasn’t anything. Most guys don’t know how to do it. I thought I knew how to do it. I think it’s a huge mystery when it comes to: ‘What am I supposed to do?’ ”
His blood pressure spiked, his moods hit peaks and valleys and after a while he lost the desire to leave his sofa. Mentors and former teammates were dying in their 40s and 50s, and even years later, Davis can recite their names and causes of death. He read about how Perry, that hefty symbol of the gluttonous ’80s, passed 350 pounds and then 400, needing help in his late 40s to get out of bed. He now lives in South Carolina but rarely appears in public.
The NFL evolved, though true change has come slowly. The league and players’ association host wellness seminars and offer help to players transitioning to retirement, but even now most of the efforts are about as appealing as the healthy options at the team buffet. Dwight Hollier, a former linebacker who works with former players in the NFL league office, said an all-day “Transition to Fitness” program was held in October in Atlanta. Invitations went out to hundreds of former players — anyone, Hollier said, who had applied for severance pay — and promised to teach them about healthy cooking and manageable exercise. The event was free. Including spouses, Hollier said, fewer than 30 people attended.
“We are working very, very hard to educate players on wellness,” Hollier says. “It is ultimately the players’ . . . ”
He stops himself.
“We are working very hard,” he says again, “to educate players on wellness.”
As for Davis, he sipped cabbage soup and tried the Duke rice diet. He reduced his fat intake and then his carbohydrates. Doctors advised him to take baby steps, but after modest results, he grew frustrated and saw his weight climb higher. At 447 pounds, Davis appeared in 2011 on the reality-television show “The Biggest Loser,” where he said he finally learned how to eat and exercise for this stage of his life — to restart the machine after so many years.
“You kind of come up in that system, and you expect to be that big,” says Davis, who admits he has regained maybe 50 of the 202 pounds he lost. “And you expect it to almost be normal.”
Faneca says he heard stories like Davis’s, how extremely large men — not just former NFL players — became discouraged by trainers’ advice to lose two or three pounds a week, which, to a 315-pound former NFL lineman used to immediate results, seems like nothing.
He bought an outdoor elliptical bike, riding the contraption around his native New Orleans, and didn’t lift a weight for more than 18 months. As a freshman at Louisiana State, a coach had told him he looked like a “stuffed sausage.” Three months after his final game in 2010, he had lost 70 pounds.
On a particularly nice day, the nine-time Pro Bowler’s wife, Julie, invited him to run with her. The laps passed, and Faneca was surprised at how easy activity was now that he no longer weighed so much. He was alone on a run once, and where he normally turned back, he kept going, three miles turning into seven. Then there he was attending an NFL game, when he told a few former trainers that he had run 10 miles a few days earlier — and that he was planning to run a half marathon, and the trainers told him that would be easy. “I wasn’t looking for easy,” Faneca says now.
He hired a speed coach and ran longer and farther, abandoning his plans for the half marathon and instead focusing on finishing a full 26.2 miles.
Faneca says he believes he redirected his competitive nature into a new activity, which many players are unable to do as they wait for one more NFL contract. He says finding new physical challenges immediately after retirement was the difference between his story and so many of uncontrolled weights. And like Davis, he says he heard little during his playing days about how to drop weight after he retired.
“We’re already gone. We’re out of sight, out of mind,” says Faneca, who at 37 now weighs about 215 pounds. “It’s just another aspect of what we do to ourselves as professional football players that nobody really wants to think about or the league, especially, would want to talk about.”
In February, Faneca crossed a finish line in New Orleans after 3 hours 56 minutes of running — a solid time for any first-time marathoner and one that might’ve seemed impossible when Faneca was 100 pounds heavier. Afterward, he bought a bicycle and began looking up triathlons and Iron Man races. “Literally the next day,” he says, “I was like: What’s next?”
Back when he played, Brown thought his size was an asset. He was quick and strong, and running backs came to fear him. The fines and anxious weigh-ins — he used to plead with friendly teammates to sneak a hand under a cheek or belly roll to fool the scale and save a few dollars — were small prices for glory. But like all players, Brown’s career ended, in 1969, and he eventually ballooned to 448 pounds. Brown says most of his former teammates have died, many with heart problems or diseases related to the amount of weight they carried.
About a decade ago, Brown says, he was upstairs at his namesake sports bar in downtown Portsmouth — he owned eight restaurants after his playing career ended — when he passed out, hitting his head on the steps.
There he lay for a long time, his employees having thought their 400-pound boss had gone home. Brown, who once celebrated a successful weigh-in with bountiful dinners with teammates — 16 side dishes, he recalls, and many bottles of wine — developed an irregular heartbeat, and when he awoke and went to the hospital, a defibrillator was inserted into chest. “A hell of a way for your body to say: ‘Stop eating.’ ”
Brown lost weight slowly, finding his way as some former players do — onto a path that remains dimly lit for most and impossible to find for many. He followed his wife, Kay, to the YMCA and left most of his meals still on the plate. He walked and treated himself less frequently to favorite foods. These days, the hallway near the restaurant’s kitchen is lined with pictures of Brown alongside famous faces. But now weighing about 227 pounds, he says the biggest thrill of his life was buying clothes that hadn’t been tailored to fit him.
As Brown approaches 80, he says most of his former teammates are now gone — even the ones who grunted at him as he stood on the scale at the rail yard. “For years,” he says, “I wanted to be the best, biggest and fastest — and the toughest. So now I want to live the longest. And I’m planning to win.”
After sitting outside for a while, shaking hands with passersby and saying hello to the mayor, Brown lifts his 6-foot-4 frame from a chair and walks inside, slowly and carefully. It’s easier than it once was, anyway.
“I’ve got to take it easy on this body,” he says. “I got a second chance.”
Number of first-year NFL players weighing 300 pounds or more: