Seniors Joey Gaston and Ben Tamburello knew they would have to drop weight after Navy’s bowl game. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Senior Joey Gaston called it his “last supper.” His Navy team had just won the Military Bowl, marking Gaston’s final game anchoring the Midshipmen’s offensive line. Along with some teammates, Gaston went to a tailgate party run by parents in the parking lot where they all devoured hamburgers, ribs and sandwiches. They then visited a favorite restaurant down by the Annapolis dock, and Gaston polished off a plate of chicken and waffles, plus a homemade pop tart. Sufficiently stuffed, he started his diet the next day.

“I was convinced it was gonna be brutal,” he said.

But Gaston had no choice. Every Midshipman faces the same stern reality once his football career is finished: He can’t graduate without passing the Navy’s Physical Readiness Test (PRT). For big linemen such as Gaston, that means losing a significant amount of weight to conform to the Navy’s body standards and to successfully pass the running requirement.

A 6-foot-5 man such as Gaston should weigh 226 pounds, according to the Navy’s Body Composition Assessment. Gaston started the football season at 295. Right guard Ben Tamburello is 6-2 and weighed 290. Navy standards call for a man that height to tip the scales at no more than 211 pounds.

The linemen knew losing that much weight was unlikely, so they had their sights set on a secondary assessment: Anyone who exceeds the weight limit can still pass the PRT if his body fat percentage is below 22 percent.

That meant they had a lot of work to do. Technically, the seniors had until graduation to pass the PRT, but the entire brigade was scheduled to attempt the run right before spring break. The linemen all hoped to pass then to lighten their load the rest of the semester.

Tamburello doesn’t remember what it was like to be small. Even in high school he played between 275 and 285 pounds. After the Mids won their bowl game, he went home to Alabama for the holidays and started his diet in earnest right after New Year’s.

“I went to my grandma’s house — it was torture,” he said. “She had all this good food, and I couldn’t eat any of it. Banana pudding, all this good stuff, and I just had to watch.”

Ben Tamburello and Joey Gaston hit the road ... (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

... and the gym in an effort to lose weight and prepare for their Physical Readiness Test. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Cliff Dooman, Navy’s director of Olympic sport performance, brings together the seniors annually. He changes their workout plans and encourages them to buy new shoes. The linemen had spent their entire careers lifting heavy weights and doing short sprints. Now they would have to lose muscle mass and prepare to run 11 /2 miles in under 10 minutes 30 seconds.

“It’s usually the run they struggle with the most,” Dooman said.

He also brought in Jessica Frederickson, the academy’s dietician, to revamp their eating habits. She warned them against crash dieting and insisted they could all lose weight while still eating regularly.

“I don’t like being aggressive in general,” she said. “Aggressive weight loss is not my motive. My motive is overall health. It’s really all about balance: incorporating some more healthy foods along with the things you really enjoy because that keeps you normal.”

The entire brigade eats its meals buffet-style in King Hall and while there are plenty of healthy options, football players focused on adding or maintaining weight don’t always give much thought to their food.

“Last semester, I’d eat anything if it was fried or covered in gravy,” Tamburello said. “It didn’t matter. You weren’t thinking about it.”

Food for thought

With just two months before they planned to attempt the PRT, the players were suddenly loading up on greens and lean proteins. They skipped desserts and cut down on sodas. And once they got back to their rooms, they resisted the urge to order late-night pizzas.

They learned that dieting can be cheaper too. If they left campus for a meal, they might hit up a Chipotle and order something simple.

“It’s like seven bucks,” Gaston said. “Old Joey would go in and get a bowl, a quesadilla, guacamole and chips, soda. It’s almost 20 bucks.”

Navy had 32 seniors on its team last season, including the entire starting offensive line. They all needed to slim down, so they often worked out and dined together, encouraging each other but also competing, as they had as football players. Instead of trying to bench the most weight, they were now comparing running times.

Since their youth football days, the linemen obsessed over building mass, adding muscle and getting stronger. Suddenly they were in the gym and disappointed with the oversized figure in the mirror.

“It’s weird,” Tamburello said. “You kind of don’t know your purpose at first.”

After just a few weeks, simple things like climbing a flight of stairs felt easier. Tamburello could tell his clothes were fitting looser, hanging off his frame, and friends commented on his thinning face and neck. “I gotta buy new belts,” he said in early February.

Midway through his diet, he logged onto YouTube and looked up Navy highlights from just a few months earlier. He spotted a giant in the middle, No. 60, taking up space and pushing around a defensive tackle.

“I couldn’t believe I looked like that,” he said.

Tamburello and Gaston had watched older teammates successfully lose weight after football. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
New kind of training

For Gaston, a Knoxville, Tenn., native, the typical challenge has been adding weight. He graduated high school around 230, then added 20 pounds in prep school and another 20 his first couple of seasons at Navy. He spent the summer before his senior year eating five or six meals a day, spending all of his time either in the weight room or dining hall.

“I was just constantly eating,” he said. “It felt like so much work to keep the weight on.”

Gaston weighed 295 pounds at the start of his final season. But the grind of the sport and tempo of Navy’s practices and games took their toll. In the team’s bowl game, Gaston weighed in at 280.

It’s not an unusual scenario at Navy, which recruits undersized, athletic linemen.

“Our linemen are not 375-pound guys that play at Wisconsin or Ohio State or something like that,” said Jim Berry, assistant athletic director for sports medicine.

That means it’s usually easier for players such as Gaston to lose weight in their final semester. Strength coaches gave Gaston some circuit workouts, a series of high-paced exercises built around speed, not weights. He squeezed in training runs wherever it fit in his daily schedule, usually after lunch or following afternoon classes, and tried to attack working out with the same mentality he did as a football player.

“They already have that mind-set that they’re going to work hard, that they’re going to train,” said Mike Brass, Navy’s senior associate athletic director for sport performance. “That’s what they’ve been doing since they got here. It’s just a different way of doing it.”

Gaston had his measurements taken the first week of February and found that he was already within body-fat standards. But he still felt he was carrying too much weight to complete the run. “I don’t want to be cutting it close or anything,” he said.

The linemen all took comfort knowing the task was achievable. This year’s seniors had watched their teammates each of the previous three winters grind and diet.

Now that it’s their turn, they took tips and inspiration from past teammates, guys such as Jake Zuzek, a lineman who graduated last spring. Zuzek finished his senior season weighing 325 pounds, and the younger linemen watched as he shrank in a matter of weeks. He lost about 70 pounds in less than three months and was down below 260 when he took the PRT. The momentum carried over, and Zuzek, now a second lieutenant with the Marines, got down to 237, looking nothing like the beefy lineman once charged with protecting a quarterback.

“Honestly, it was probably one of the best things that could happen to a college football lineman,” he said recently. “You see these guys who don’t make it to the NFL and they just blow up. They’re still eating the same, but they’re no longer working out. This makes our lives a lot healthier because it forces us to lose that weight and change our habits.”

The finish line

Alarms went off at 5:30 a.m. It was 32 degrees and snowing one morning earlier this month as the linemen walked from their rooms at Bancroft Hall to the indoor track at Wesley A. Brown Field House, where they’d take their PRT.

Gaston came into the final run weighing 240. His body fat was 12 percent. He had lost 40 pounds and about five inches in his waistline.

Since the bowl game, Tamburello had lost 58 pounds in a period of barely 67 days. He weighed 232 pounds. He hadn’t been that small since his freshman year of high school. His body fat fell from 24 percent to 12. He’d fared well in his recent training runs, so Tamburello felt confident.

None of the players had any problem with the required sit-ups and push-ups. They lined up on the track in the third heat, about two dozen seniors in all.

“No one wanted to fail in front of your friends, so we were all cheering each other on,” Gaston said.

The linemen were able to track their pace over the 12 laps on a digital clock in the field house. Gaston breezed, completing the 1 1 /2 -mile run in 9 minutes 50 seconds. He was still catching his breath when a sprightly Tamburello crossed in 10:08. All the senior linemen, looking nothing like actual linemen, successfully passed the PRT.

Following an afternoon class, a few of the linemen got together to celebrate. They ordered three pizzas — buffalo chicken, Hawaiian and pepperoni — and didn’t worry one bit about the calories. Still, they drank Diet Coke out of habit and found themselves discussing their diets.

“It really wasn’t that hard,” Gaston explained later. “None of us killed ourselves. We just worked hard. The whole process has made us more aware of what you’re eating, something we never thought about before. Like maybe you don’t need an appetizer or that piece of cake. Little subtle things go a long way.”

Tamburello knows he can’t let up. Because he’s joining the Marines, he must also pass the more demanding Physical Fitness Test by the end of April, which calls for a three-mile run and pull-ups. When he returns from spring break, Tamburello will have to train even harder. Gaston is signed up for surface warfare, which means he’ll soon be in Norfolk, stationed on the USS San Jacinto.

With a big weight lifted, many of the players prepared for a spring break trip to Florida. They had just one more thing to do: buy swim trunks that fit.