Correction: An earlier version of this column gave the incorrect name for Loretta DiPietro’s department at George Washington University. She chairs the department of exercise and nutrition sciences. This version has been corrected.
Cal Snowden knows exactly how he got fat: “No activity, and high calorie intake.”
But the 67-year-old’s tale has a back story, starting in the 10th grade, when he joined the Roosevelt High School football team. The native Washingtonian had a knack for the sport, and he kept on playing at Indiana University. His pre-med plans fell apart when he attempted to tackle organic chemistry. So instead of medical school, Snowden wound up going to the NFL.
At 225 pounds, the 6-foot-3 rookie was a smallish defensive end. “I struggled to maintain even that,” Snowden says, but his coaches insisted he get heavier. A beer-and-carb diet did the trick. By the time he retired in 1973 (after playing five seasons for St. Louis, Buffalo and San Diego), Snowden tipped the scales at more than 250 pounds.
These days, he’s aiming for that same target — only from the opposite direction. In April, he weighed 335 pounds and had borderline hypertension and prediabetes. In other words, he looked like a typical retired professional football player.
Studies have shown that NFL alumni have a much higher risk of obesity than the rest of the population. They start out bigger. And although they may enjoy exercising, lingering injuries and the shift to a sedentary daily life often prove to be a dangerous combination.
Just ask Archie Roberts, a former NFL quarterback and heart surgeon. “When you’re young and forceful and vital, it’s hard to believe that could ever change,” he says. But, he put on weight over the years, and his blood pressure and cholesterol went up. “I’m supposed to know what that all means,” notes Roberts, now 71, who ignored the mounting warning signs until the day he had a stroke.
The experience inspired him to found the Living Heart Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to the health of retired athletes. Its latest initiative is a program called HOPE (Heart, Obesity, Prevention, Education), funded with support from the NFL Players Association. It started with a research study at Temple University in Philadelphia two years ago and has since expanded to other sites.
One is the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. Snowden was one of seven players who participated in a six-month intervention that wrapped up there last week. And it’s why, as of today, Snowden is at 300 pounds and dropping.
HOPE welcomes a customized approach, says GWU’s Melissa Napolitano, a clinical health psychologist and one of the investigators on the study. So her team adapted the school’s existing diabetes prevention protocol, which involves food logs, weigh-ins and regular meetings to discuss strategies and offer support.
For the football players, researchers tacked on a 30-to-45-minute physical activity at the end of each chat. The exercises varied but emphasized hand-eye coordination and balance. One skill they learned? Juggling. The goal wasn’t to work up a sweat so much as it was to form connections.
“We thought that exercise would engage them early on in case they weren’t talkative,” Napolitano says.
Turns out, they were talkative. Despite a considerable age range — 42 to 69 — the former players immediately developed a locker-room-worthy rapport, and were forthcoming about when they’d strayed at an ice cream shop or fast-food drive-through.
To keep the players on track between sessions, the researchers asked each participant to pick a “coach” (in most cases, a wife), to monitor behavior and also participate in the program.
Thanks to a donation from Fitbit, the whole crew was also given activity trackers. The gadget’s mobile app allows them to see who has taken the most steps each day. Or, as Snowden views it, the person he has to beat.
“I’m not going to be last or in the middle of the pack,” Snowden vows on a recent afternoon as he sets off on his walking route from his house in the District’s Shepherd Park neighborhood. An earlier doubles tennis match at Rock Creek Park has brought up his tally to 7,476 steps, but he is still in third place.
As Snowden heads up 16th Street to Silver Spring, he doesn’t have the most graceful gait due to his double knee replacement and arthritic back — two ailments he can trace directly to his years as a ballplayer.
Snowden, the president of Washington’s NFLPA former players chapter, is disappointed by his ex-employer’s lackadaisical response to widespread health problems. Although he went back to school and got a federal government job and benefits when he left the league, many other players have been left financially strapped and unable to obtain medical treatment.
“We were as expendable as the pen you’re writing with,” he says.
That’s why Snowden has been championing HOPE as a path to a better life, not just for him but also for the thousands of others in the same cleats. (The D.C. area has 600 former NFL players, he says.) The best part of a football career, he says, is the team experience, and that’s what these studies are replicating. Snowden never succeeded in altering his behavior on his own, but camaraderie — and a little friendly competition — is making the difference.
“Instead of salty chips, I now eat carrots and hummus. Instead of a cookie, I’ll have an apple,” he says. And instead of watching TV while lounging on the couch, Snowden pedals his indoor bike. He’s learned to slip his Fitbit on his shoe to rack up extra steps. Using this technique later that night, Snowden finally pulls ahead of his pal Boomer to take first place.
But that victory is bound to be brief, according to John “Boomer” Stufflebeem. The 62-year-old Alexandria resident, a former Detroit Lions punter and Navy admiral, is just as determined to win the step war — and his personal battle of the bulge. When he takes a walk, he often wears a weight vest.
And as he chats with Snowden after a GWU meeting, Stufflebeem picks up a resistance band to do some biceps curls. “I’m getting more reps in,” he taunts.
“You can’t go to sleep because I’m going to get you,” Snowden ribs him right back.
Fred Dean, 59, lets them have their fun. The former Redskin just had a wisdom tooth pulled, so he’s taking it easy today. But normally, he explains, he’d be in first place. Every morning, the Howard University dorm director gets up before dawn and walks vigorously off campus for a few hours — one day, he managed a whopping 35,000 steps (more than 15 miles). Then he rewards himself with a Greek yogurt and granola.
“This program has taught me that once you start walking, it doesn’t feel far anymore,” says Dean, who’s lost nearly 40 pounds and is no longer on hypertension medication.
Getting to a point where this obesity problem is under control doesn’t feel so far away now, says Andre Collins, a former Redskin who’s now an executive in the NFLPA, which plans to continue funding these studies throughout the country.
“I even see it having an impact on guys not in the program. They talk about wanting to lose weight, too,” Collins adds.
And they need to, says Loretta DiPietro, chair of GWU’s department of exercise and nutrition sciences and another investigator on the study. What worries her is that the older players, despite their age and weight, actually seemed better off metabolically than the younger guys, who were encouraged to put on increasingly more pounds as the sport supersized.
“The earlier that weight gain occurs, the longer you’re carrying it,” says DiPietro, noting that this also applies to high school and college players who never make it to the NFL.
The successes of the HOPE program may also be applicable to other folks, Roberts adds. He hopes that football players who lose weight can then champion the cause.
“They’re recognized by the population — not withstanding [players’ recent scrapes with the law]— as heroes,” he says. And if they can help turn around the country’s biggest health challenge, they’ll live up to that reputation.
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