When we think of big, we think of strong. Big enough to move another 325-pound man, strong enough to win a job on an NFL roster.
Thomas Herrion was big, listed at 6 feet 3 and 310 pounds. He was strong, too. He pancaked defensive linemen to the ground in college. He competed for an offensive line position with the San Francisco 49ers.
But when we think of big and strong we never think of vulnerable. At least not until someone like Herrion dies suddenly.
It could be weeks before the Denver coroner's office determines what killed Herrion after an autopsy was inconclusive. We still don't know whether he had an undiagnosed medical condition that led to his death, or if it had anything to do with his size and weight.
What we do know is that many players believe that bigger is better in the world in which Thomas Herrion was trying to win a job. It is a profession that has grown to become more about sumo-wrestling than zone-blocking, more about size and mass than agility and speed.
We also know the health risks that come with being greatly overweight. In the photos that have appeared after he died Sunday night, the 23-year-old appeared beyond burly or beefy or any other endearing term used to camouflage being fat; Herrion looked obese.
"I think a lot of kids coming out of school have the mentality that they have to be over 320 or something," said Washington right tackle Jon Jansen, using the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos as examples of relatively smaller, successful offensive lines that are not overpowering. "When you finally get here, you see guys who play center well at 280. You see you don't have to be 330 pounds."
Herrion, a year removed from his senior year at Utah, was four inches shorter but 10 pounds heavier than Joe Jacoby, the 6-7, 300-pound Pro Bowl lineman regarded as the behemoth of his day. Jacoby was one of roughly five players to weigh 300 pounds 20 years ago. Today, there are more than 350 players in the NFL living that large.
"I think part of this size thing happened because of steroids, the need to be bigger and stronger to compete with guys on the stuff," said Joe Bugel, who used to coach Washington's renowned offensive linemen -- "The Hogs" -- and returned to assist Joe Gibbs last season. "But I also think some of their mommies and daddies are just producing some mighty big boys. Right now, our interior players have to be over 300 pounds to take on the 320- and 330-pound guys on the other side. If you're a lightweight, you can get tossed around."
Bugel was asked to describe a lightweight. "Oh, 285, 290 pounds," he said.
According to most body mass index studies, a person carrying Herrion's weight on that size of frame is considered 100 pounds overweight. The NFL ridiculed a study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year by a University of North Carolina endocrinologist, a study that said as much as 56 percent of the league is considered obese by BMI standards. The league criticized Joyce Harp's findings for only using height-to-weight ratios rather than body muscle vs. fat ratios.
"This was not a serious medical study," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said at the time, adding there was no proof obesity is worse in the NFL than in other parts of American society, where about 30 percent of adults are obese according to the body mass index.
It is probably not a good sign when a league spokesman proudly contends that NFL players -- supposed elite athletes -- are no more overweight and out of shape than the rest of society.
"Unfortunately," began Harp in a telephone interview yesterday, "they took offense to the findings instead of what I was trying to get across. Just because you're overweight as a professional athlete doesn't mean you're immune to the things that the general population must confront -- things like diabetes, heart disease and obesity-related sudden death."
More troubling was the NFL's testimony on Capitol Hill this spring during the steroid hearings.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the head of the players' union Gene Upshaw and NFL medical adviser John Lombardo blamed the rise in players' size not on performance-enhancing drugs; they said football's changes in rules and strategy over the years put a premium on pounds. In pro football, it's now my blubber versus your blubber. The days of speed and agility on the line were dying. Huge defensive linemen, they essentially said, are plucked in the draft to combat the incredibly large men on the other side of the line.
An NFL official even testified how his son naturally managed to put on nearly 50 pounds in four years of college football, from 152 pounds to more than 200. William Saletan, the national correspondent for Slate, wrote how Tagliabue considered this an "exemplary case of 'perfectly clean' self-improvements.
"This is what happens when you equate unnatural performance enhancement with drugs," wrote Saletan. "You end up thinking that a kid who puts 33 percent more weight on the same frame is okay because he's 'clean,' and a sport that offers millions of dollars to guys carrying 90 pounds of fat is exonerated."
Ray Brown, Jansen's teammate and the oldest offensive lineman in the NFL at 42 years old, was asked at the team's practice facility in Ashburn yesterday if there would be 400-pound NFL linemen five years after he retired.
"I don't know if size was the biggest factor in it," he said. "I would think it would take more medical study and a more thorough checkup on what's really ailing guys. It says something about big guys and guys having major health issues.
"We have to address it," Brown added. "It has to become an issue, not just from a player perspective, but also from management's perspective, because it becomes a workplace issue. Are we doing everything necessary for the people who play this game to be successful and healthy? Are we putting them at any kind of risk? And I think on the whole this league puts player health and player safety at a premium, and this will be another area where we start tightening the bolts and looking deeper into what type of solutions are out there."
Tony Siragusa, the former lovable lout of the Baltimore Ravens, became a cult hero primarily because of his enormous gut. His antics, charisma and talent masked the fact that most NFL linemen's bodies look alarmingly unnatural. Whether they got that way from performance-enhancing drugs, over-the-counter legal supplements or simply a training camp buffet line should not matter. It is unhealthy to be that big, and at some point they may have to weigh the risks of health against fame and money.
It is unclear today if Thomas Herrion ever faced that choice. But, in the wake of his death, if his peers choose the latter, that's not big and strong.
That's just stupid and sad.