Weighty Challenge: A Lineman's Life After Football

Oct 9, 2011
Originally published on October 9, 2011 4:39 pm

Orlando "Zeus" Brown, an offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens, was found dead late last month in his Baltimore apartment. The cause: diabetic ketoacidosis, common among those with diabetes.

Brown was 6 feet 7 inches tall and 360 pounds when he played in the NFL. That may sound like a lot for a football player, but it's not uncommon among today's offensive and defensive lineman, who rarely weigh less than 300 pounds.

Brown is one of five NFL lineman who have died in the past decade from weight-related ailments. A few years ago, Scripps Howard News Service surveyed former players and found the heaviest ones are more than twice as likely to die before their 50th birthdays.

College Linemen Also Struggle With Weight

But the NFL isn't the only place where weight is an issue. College linemen who, for a variety of reasons, are not going pro, also find themselves grappling with the health issues that come with their sizes.

James Harris, nutritionist and assistant athletic director for the University of Oregon, tells Robert Smith, guest host of weekend on All Things Considered, that he worries most about his offensive lineman when they leave. They still have the appetites, but no longer have the structured workouts to burn those calories.

"I have a guy who's come back to me after four years to say, 'Will you help me?' because he's 380 pounds and he was 280 pounds when he stopped playing," Harris says.

Going from 308 pounds to 240 pounds

That's something that former NFL player Ben Lynch can understand. He was an offensive lineman for four NFL teams; his longest stint was with the San Francisco 49ers.

When he retired, he weighed 308 pounds, a far cry from where he started.

"When I got to high school, I was 6'2, 180 pounds, and when I got interested in football, I obviously had to start putting some weight on so it took a lot of eating and a lot of work in the weight room to put the weight on," Lynch says.

During his college days, Lynch says that he drank a gallon of milk a day and ate just about anything throughout out the day.

"It really was pretty much a nonstop process of getting as many calories into my body as I could," he says.

Lynch sustained a knee injury that ended his career in 2003. The injury, and the nine surgeries to correct it that followed, were a wake-up call. Lynch now weighs 240 pounds, a weight he's been able to sustain thanks to a structured diet and workout routine.

"For me it was my knee injury where I realized I wasn't indestructible anymore and that I was susceptible to injury and I was susceptible to the same health problems as everyone else," Lynch says. "It sounds strange but it took the knee injury and it took my football career ending to realize that."

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ROBERT SMITH, host: Orlando Brown was found dead last month in his Baltimore apartment. He was only 40 years old. He'd been an offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens. His playing weight was 360 pounds. That's big, but it's not that much heavier than other linemen. The cause of death? Diabetes. Brown is one of five NFL linemen who have died in the last decade from weight-related ailments.

In 1970, only one NFL player weighed 300 pounds, that according to the Associated Press. In training camp last year, 532 guys were that heavy.

JAMES HARRIS: For some reason, offensive linemen think that they have to be this mythical 300 pounds. And if they're 298, that's not enough. Three hundred is the - and I have to debunk that myth.

SMITH: That's James Harris. He's the nutritionist for the sports department at the University of Oregon, and he says he worries most about his linemen when they leave school. They still have these huge appetites, but they no longer have the structured workouts to burn the calories. Ben Lynch found that out the hard way. A knee injury ended his NFL career in 2003. By that point, Ben Lynch weighed 308 pounds, a far cry from where he started.

BEN LYNCH: When I got to high school, I was 6'2", 180 pounds. And when I got interested in football, I obviously had to start putting some weight on. So it took a lot of eating and a lot of work in the weight room to put the weight on.

SMITH: So every time you upped your game, as it were, you had to up your weight.

LYNCH: That's basically it. When I was in high school, I always thought I'll never weigh more than 270 pounds when I get to college. And then at my sophomore year, I weighed 270 pounds and realized that the game keeps changing and players keep getting larger and larger.

SMITH: When you were in the NFL, were you trying to actively gain weight all the time? Is that what you thought of every day?

LYNCH: When I first got to the NFL, absolutely. I was thinking about how can I put weight on or maintain my weight.

SMITH: So what was an average meal for you back then?

LYNCH: Oh, man.

SMITH: What put on the weight?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: I'm sorry. This is going to make you hungry just talking about it, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LYNCH: Or sick to my stomach because I'm thinking about everything that I ate. So when - I would eat just about anything. When I was in college, I made a point of drinking a gallon of milk a day by myself.

SMITH: Oh, man.

LYNCH: Yeah. It was a lot of milk. And for breakfast, I'd have oatmeal or eggs. If I walked by a doughnut shop, I wouldn't be afraid to grab a doughnut or two. And during lunch, I would eat a minimum of two sandwiches and preferably three. If I was down a few pounds, I might have a protein shake, too, where you throw some protein powder in a blender with some milk and some ice cubes.

And, you know, heck, there was an afternoon snack and then dinner, and then I'd have a peanut butter sandwich before I went to bed. So it really was pretty much a nonstop process of getting as many calories into my body as I could.

SMITH: Now, you left the NFL because of an injury, correct?

LYNCH: That's right. Yeah. I had a left knee injury.

SMITH: And all of a sudden, you're not playing football anymore. And how did that change your health and your view of your weight?

LYNCH: It was probably after my fourth or fifth knee surgery where I really knew I had to make a change. And the further I got into the knee surgeries, the more I realized and the more incentive I had to drop the weight. And once I dropped 15 or 20 pounds and felt the difference, it really gave me a lot of motivation to keep shedding the weight because it made such a difference on the impact with my - with the bad knee that I was having the trouble with.

SMITH: Did anybody warn you about this problem? You know, you were on a professional football team. There were probably plenty of guys around who had retired and were a little bit large, but did anyone say to you, hey, buddy. This weight gain needs to be temporary because when you're out of here, this could really hurt you.

LYNCH: Somebody may have told me. I really don't remember. But when you're a guy that's in your early mid-20s and even late 20s, and, heck, even early 30s, you don't really have a clear view of your mortality. And especially on the football field, if you look at the way that players throw their bodies around on the football field, I think if you have a firm grasp of your own mortality, then maybe you'll hesitate for the split second that can be the difference in making a great play on the football field versus getting beat on the football field.

So I think when you're at that age and that competitive level, then your own mortality really doesn't come into play. And it's not until - you know, for me, it was my knee injury where I realized I wasn't indestructible anymore, and that I was susceptible to injury and I was susceptible to the same health problems as everyone else. And it sounds strange, but it took the knee injury, and it took my football career ending to realize that.

SMITH: So how long did it take you to lose this, what was it, 60 pounds?

LYNCH: It's been a process, you know? And it's something that - I've been at 240 for probably six or seven months now. And shedding the 60-plus pounds, it took me a number of years to do it, and that was just getting the diet dialed in and the nutrition dialed in and figuring out what worked for me and my body type.

SMITH: Are you not doing a gallon of milk anymore?

LYNCH: The gallon of milk disappeared with the 300 pounds.

SMITH: That's Ben Lynch. He's a former NFL offensive lineman who advocates for the health and safety of athletes through the Sports Legacy Institute. Ben, thanks for taking the time.

LYNCH: Hey. Thanks for having me, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.