As a sophomore at Wootton High School, Greg Smith decided he wanted to play college football. He anticipated one small problem: his size.
Standing 5 feet 10 and weighing 185 pounds, Smith knew he needed to bulk up in order to draw interest from college recruiters. Over the past two years, he has combined a comprehensive weightlifting program with a calorie-laden, protein-heavy diet to turn himself into a 6-1, 240-pound defensive lineman.
"My goal is to play college football and in order to do that, I'm going to have to gain weight," said Smith, who hopes to get up to 260 this year. "As long as I can maintain my speed and conditioning, I want to get as big as possible."
There are plenty of high schoolers like Smith who try to get bigger in an effort to become better football players. While the risks associated with dietary supplements and steroids have drawn attention in recent years, health experts say that young athletes who bulk up simply by eating more food and lifting more weights also face potential problems. They say the players neglect the potential for obesity and its long-term health consequences.
"At the end of the road, if they don't have a plan to come back down in size . . . then five, 10, 20 years down the road, they're going to suffer," said Arthur J. Roberts, a retired heart surgeon and former NFL quarterback. "When we generalize this to young men that are emulating [NFL players], we're talking about millions of people" at risk.
Roberts runs the Living Heart Foundation, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that provides screenings for cardiovascular disease, targeting high school, college and professional athletes as its clientele. But health officials are not the only ones who are concerned.
"Nowadays, everybody tells them, 'You've got to get bigger, you've got to get faster, you've got to get stronger,' " said Gary Chilcoat, the football coach at Varina High School outside Richmond. "But I've seen kids who don't make it to the next level and nobody tells you what to do after that."
Obesity trails only smoking as the nation's leading preventable cause of death, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. It leads to increased risks of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, prostate and colon cancer and osteoarthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"What [football players] want to do is get more muscle, but what they wind up getting is more fat," said Arthur Frank, medical director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program and a board member of the American Obesity Association. "If you go from 180 [pounds] to 210 on the assumption you're putting on 30 pounds of muscle, you're wrong. You're putting on maybe five pounds of muscle and 25 pounds of fat."
Last season, from 93 area high school teams that submitted rosters to The Washington Post, there were 427 players weighing at least 245 pounds -- 10.2 percent of the 4,172 players listed. Private-school power DeMatha had eight players weighing at least 275 pounds, and Osbourn, a Manassas public school, had six. Three years ago, Liberty's four-man starting defensive line averaged 300 pounds per player.
In 1994, Maryland's 21-member recruiting class averaged 6 feet 1.8 inches and weighed an average of 223.6 pounds. Four players weighed more than 250 pounds. The 21 players the Terrapins signed last February averaged 245.1 pounds and 6 feet 3.1 inches. Seven signees weighed at least 275.
Washington Redskins rookie free safety Sean Taylor is 6-2, 231 pounds. When the Redskins last won the Super Bowl in 1992, free safety Brad Edwards also stood 6-2, but was 24 pounds lighter than Taylor. Only seven Redskins topped 275.
With players competing for starting positions and playing time at every level of organized football, an inherent peer pressure to bulk up has sprung.
"I don't think the coaches push it on you," Smith said. "But if I put on weight and other people see it, then I look at it as I'm pushing them to get bigger. . . . [Smith's doctor] mentioned the long-term effects after I'm done with football, like, if I'm increasing my weight, it's harder to get rid of it. I could get heart problems. . . . It's not really in the back of my mind. With my size, I'm in really great shape."
Said Gayle Smith, Greg's mother and a former registered nurse: "It didn't scare me that he wanted to be bigger. I thought all along that you have to eat right and be concerned with your cholesterol. . . . I told him that you need to think long-term with what you want to do with your body."
Teenagers are notorious for bad eating habits, said Pamela Peeke, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and team physician for the Washington Wizards. And football players have some of the worst patterns, she said.
"They eat pretty sloppily," Peeke said. "They skip breakfast. They eat the lunch from hell, usually fast food, and then at dinner, all hell breaks out. They're used to getting a little cocky about it, like, 'I can eat anything.' They wear big pants. Then, the [high] blood pressure hits or the [high] cholesterol. It hits them that it's not an old guy's disease."
Obesity is not only a threat to larger football players. An average man's rate of metabolism peaks around age 20, according to nutrition experts. A player who is normally 180 pounds, but plays more effectively at 210, will increase his caloric intake to sustain that higher weight. Those eating habits are tough to break.
"I remember going to my high school reunion," Liberty Coach Tommy Buzzo said. "The skill-position players are now the fatties and the big old linemen are now thinner."
Taking It Off
When Brandon Miller quit the University of Maryland football team in the spring of 2001, it wasn't that hard to turn in his playbook. Dropping the extra pounds he had put on while rising up the depth chart, however, was different.
"The biggest thing that sticks with you is the eating," said Miller, who played at Good Counsel High and was a walk-on for two seasons with the Terrapins. "Eating stays with you until you make a conscious decision to stop."
Ex-players and experts agree that breaking the habit of overeating is easier said than done.
"You just can't say, 'Hey, I'm going to stop doing this,' " said Terry Culbertson, who played at Liberty High before two years of ankle injuries ended his career at Shepherd College last season, before he could play in a game. "You get to the point where that's what you eat and that's what you want to eat.
"After you eat that for four or five months, you want it. It's really like an addiction."
Ray Easterling played safety for the Atlanta Falcons from 1972 to '80, and three years ago opened the Easterling-Zacharias Health Institute in Richmond, which teaches weight management techniques. He said there is an inherent psychological association for football players with food. After several grueling hours on the field, the dinner table with a bottomless menu awaits.
"When they're playing, it's deny, deny, deny, then reward. Once they retire, it's reward, reward, reward. There's no deny," Easterling said. "As much as they know about training, they know squat about nutrition. . . . Their training turns against them because they've been able to eat like crap and get away with it."
Said Miller: "In college, they tell you this is your career, your life. You train seven days a week. You eat four, five times a day. It was 6-, 7-, 8,000 calories every day, if you could. For eight years [of high school and college], you're training your body to work out every day.
"In real life, you can't keep up that training regimen."
When players realize it is time to start cutting weight, they have to do it on their own. They may have had coaches and trainers teaching them how to put on weight, but they rarely have anyone to help them take it off.
"The minute [an athletic career] ends, nobody has a conversation with them," Peeke said, "and that's where they run into all sorts of trouble and start putting on a few. When you're big, it's very insidious. It builds slowly and surely."
Brian Gleason invited two of his Centreville High teammates over to his house for breakfast on Friday mornings last fall during their senior season. They each stuffed themselves with four waffles, four eggs and bacon before playing later that night. The 5-foot-9 Gleason, who was a 160-pound freshman, weighed 240 last November.
"After football, I realized I didn't need any of that stuff," Gleason said. "We turned around, looked at ourselves, and said, 'We've got to get rid of this.' "
Gleason stopped working out and cut his portions dramatically. By the time he graduated in June, Gleason said he weighed 180, and felt fine, though he would like to lose another 10 pounds.
Experts consider Gleason very lucky.
"The general rule of thumb is if you're losing more than two or three pounds a week, you've got to raise a red flag," said Alan Stein, the co-founder of Elite Athlete Training Systems, a strength and conditioning center in Montgomery County. "What people need to lose is body fat. If you cut off your leg, you'll lose weight, but that doesn't make it right."
"You've got to say that is damaging to the individual, to make such changes to their bodies in such a short time," said Roberts, whose Living Heart Foundation offers screenings and early intervention for warning signs of heart disease. "There's little data for this. . . . [But] intuitively, it's not a good idea. It's not been studied in young males athletes, but I could postulate a number of [consequences] -- being dehydrated, damage to your blood vessels, stroke or heart attack."
Dave Crisp was more concerned about the long-term risks of being overweight. In his high school days, dinner was a daily holiday for the now-32-year-old. He was motivated to get onto the field, and play enough to get the attention of college recruiters. To do that, he knew he needed to get bigger.
"I would easily put down four or five pieces of fish and two [chicken] thighs and a leg," said Crisp, who played at DuVal High School from 1987 to '89. "There'd always be broccoli and either potatoes or macaroni and cheese. . . . Every dinner was almost like Thanksgiving."
Crisp and his teammates doubled their portions during football season, but he continued that after the season, and after his high school career. His grades were too low to play in college, so he went to work for his father laying ceramic tile. Crisp was too tired at the end of each day and stopped working out, but he still ate as if he were playing football.
Fourteen years after he last played, his 5-foot-11 frame had ballooned to 340 pounds, he said. Crisp, now an assistant coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, said the alarming moment came when his obese frame prevented him from showing players how to do drills properly.
Last January, the 32-year-old got scared. His meals are now considerably smaller and he tries to exercise. He has lost 40 pounds and knows he has a long way to go.
"The alert of heart attacks and other ailments with being overweight concerned me," said Crisp, "I have two young daughters. That's my main motivation now, to be around them. . . . I just wanted to get back into shape."