Like many kids who grow up in rough urban neighborhoods, Lysander Amado spent his childhood looking for a way out. But it wasn't until age 14, when the 5'7" freshman hit 190 lbs., that he found it. Showing up for football tryouts at Somerville High School outside Boston, Amado walked into the locker room and caused a stir. "The coaches saw me," he recalls, "and said, 'Oh—you look big!'"
There was just one problem: Amado—who saw football as his ticket to a college scholarship—wasn't quite big enough. Never mind that according to the government's body-mass index (BMI) he was already overweight. Today the average NFL lineman is nearly 30 lbs. heavier than 20 years ago. And as this bigger-is-better mentality has trickled down to youth leagues, the average lineman in a top high school program now weighs in at a hefty 232 lbs.—with coaches and parents encouraging teenage boys to engage in extreme eating so they can adapt to this new body standard (see box).
Across the country, weekly "carbfests"—enormous buffet dinners piled high with seemingly unlimited quantities of fried chicken, pasta and mashed potatoes—have become commonplace for teams before game day. "If you see it, eat it," was one coach's mantra at Monrovia High outside of Los Angeles, says former player Brian Salazar, while James Pacella, who starred at Longmeadow High in Longmeadow, Mass., recalls participating in frequent burger-eating contests with his fellow linemen. "It was very animal kingdom," he says, describing the scene. "We took pride in being big guys."
Over the past year or so, however, obesity researchers and doctors have begun sounding the alarm about this practice of overfeeding high school football players. In January '07 a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that looked at more than 3,600 high school linemen found that 45 percent were overweight (only 16 percent of the national teen population is overweight). Another 9 percent had "adult severe obesity," a condition rarely seen in teens and one that places them—at the age of 18 or younger—at high risk for developing high blood pressure and diabetes.
And those risks grow even higher once these teen athletes stop playing. "It's alarming; we see these guys become sedentary after high school but still eating the same foods," says Dr. Tom Peterson, a childhood obesity expert. "And then because they're so big, it's very difficult for them to stay active." Adds Joe Vilaine, Amado's former coach at Somerville High: "Being big is encouraged, because you need that weight on the field. But we as coaches don't look at the ramifications of gaining 70 lbs. in four years on the health of a teenager."
If they did, the picture would not be a pretty one. Take Amado, who says he followed his coaches' advice that he "get bigger" by downing two steak-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch and adding a pre-practice snack of either three slices of pizza or a couple of burgers and fries. His high-calorie eating plan paid off in one respect: By the start of his senior year, Amado stood 5'11" and weighed 265 lbs.—a 75-lb. gain in only three years. "I told him, 'That's a lot of weight,'" recalls Amado's father, Greg, who works as a hospital attendant at Boston Medical Center. "He said, 'Dad, I know—but it's for football.' I didn't see it as a problem."
It quickly became one: After colleges failed to recruit Amado, he stopped playing and packed on another 20 lbs. His doctor recently told him he is at risk for diabetes. "I'm only 21," he says, "so that scares me."
Pacella, too, faced health problems from the weight he gained to play football. At Longmeadow High, "feeling that we needed to be bigger was an unspoken code," he says, and thanks in large part to those burger-eating contests, by the end of his senior year in 2003, the 6-ft. Pacella weighed in at 300 lbs.—100 lbs. heavier than when he was a freshman. "Weight never really came up," he says. "If you could move, the coaches didn't care."
But weight started to matter a lot after Pacella hung up his shoulder pads while a student at Cambridge's Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I went from being muscular to being fat," he says. At a routine doctor's visit in November 2007, Pacella, who by then had gained another 35 lbs. from inactivity, learned that he was at risk for high blood pressure. "My doctor told me I had to lose weight," says Pacella, 23, who has since shed 110 lbs. on the Smart for Life diet plan. "I thought I was going to die by the age of 50."
Roger Shultz says that the poor eating habits he learned as a football star at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa stayed with him for so long that it's part of the reason why he ended up on the fifth season of NBC's weight-loss reality show Biggest Loser. "There aren't a lot of sports where you have to put on weight," points out Shultz, who estimates that to gain weight in high school he typically ate about 12,000 calories a day. "Not with basketball or soccer, but with football you have to."
Now a motivational speaker, Shultz, 41, is talking to the NCAA about providing information to college players about keeping the weight off when football is finished. "I was with some guys I played with, and we talked about how we'd eat snacks at 10 o'clock at night, like a large pizza," Shultz says. "You think 300 lbs. is a sign of strength—but you're just fat."
In fact, many high school coaches insist their players can be healthy even when their BMIs classify them as overweight or obese. Over at top-ranked Long Beach Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif., Coach Raul Lara says that his linemen "usually are already big guys. We try to train them to be quick and agile." Take his star player Tyller Robinson who at 6'4" and 305 lbs. has a BMI of 37. That puts the high school senior in the high end of the obesity range—but Lara doesn't see a problem. "He's the most athletic offensive lineman we've had in a very long time—which tells you that the kid is not fat, he's just a big kid," Lara says. "In fact, we think that he should put on more weight."
Experts like Dr. Peterson dismiss that attitude: "Putting on weight is seen as a positive," he says, "when really it's [just] fat." And with that degree of fat comes health risks ranging from sleep apnea to high cholesterol to early-onset diabetes. John "Big Boo" Eatman was already obese as a 5'5" lineman at Dorsey High School in L.A., where he tipped the scales at 300 lbs. as a senior. But in the three years since graduation, he has packed on another 75 lbs. and suffers from chronic asthma so severe that his mother wanted him to undergo gastric-bypass surgery to slim down.
Trouble is, his doctor thinks the 21-year-old is too unfit for any surgery. "To have Boo sit next to me and hear him breathing like that—it's really scary," says Eatman's mother, Terri Gaines, 43, a homemaker. Explains Dr. Kelly Laurson, the head researcher for the JAMA study on high school linemen: "At the levels of BMI we're talking about, there's an important impact on quality of life."
Amado knows that firsthand. In a desperate attempt to try and regain his health, he is, ironically, back to playing football. "The sport keeps me big," he admits, "but it also keeps me in the gym"—something he found difficult to do without game day as incentive. "I thought I would just lose the weight, but it wasn't that easy," says Amado, who's a senior at Becker College. "I tried to work out, but cutting my food was difficult."
So difficult in fact that Amado is seriously thinking about enrolling in Army boot camp, viewing it as his last best chance to shed the pounds. "If I lose the weight, I'll be a new person," says Amado, who dreams of getting down to 200 lbs. "I could start over."