- Kevin Van Valkenburg, Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
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MATT KALIL, A MAN ROUGHLY THE SIZE of a Kodiak bear, is sitting across the table from me in the Vikings' cafeteria at training camp, eating his lunch with all the enthusiasm of an assembly-line robot. Covering his plate are mounds of chicken Alfredo and penne pasta, piles of carrots and bell peppers and a stack of french fries the size of apple wedges. A thick piece of buttered garlic bread sits atop the pyramid, as if to taunt him. Over the next 30 minutes, much of that food will disappear one mechanical bite at a time.
When he's not chewing, Kalil is trying to convince me, despite my skeptical glances, that if he were to stop playing football, he could drop weight in no time. "If I just ate a regular diet," he says between bites of garlic bread, "like 3,000 calories a day, I could probably drop 20 pounds in two weeks. Easily. I weighed 312 pounds this morning, but I'm at 17 percent body fat."
Right now, however, Kalil is choking down 7,000 calories each day, which is
fairly typical for a growing NFL lineman. In the trenches, it's all about getting leverage on the guy on the other side of the ball, and being bigger than him is perceived as the way to do it. That's why the last four decades have seen a huge increase in huge linemen. They're called the Big Uglies, and we now take for granted that they pretty much all tip the scales at three bills or more. But for many of them to reach that weight, it's a never-ending battle to the bulge, and there's a definite downside to that mass consumption.
Not that anyone is overly concerned about a bunch of big guys who are forced to eat a lot. Concussions and suicides are the NFL's hot-button issues. The largest men on the field are often invisible; after all, they don't carry the ball or score touchdowns. So while the league and the media are in a frenzy over bounties and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), there has been no hysteria over the fate of the Uglies. This despite the fact that a recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study determined that NFL players with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more during their careers, meaning they were clinically obese, are twice as likely to die of heart disease as their teammates.
Just starting his NFL journey, the 23-year-old Kalil, the fourth pick in the draft, is concerned only with keeping on the weight he's working so hard to add. The left tackle is blessed with the kind of blazing metabolism most of us would kill for. Which is why every night, regardless of what he's eaten that day, Kalil must down a 1,200-calorie protein shake. To get the chalky liquid down, he blends in peanut butter. Nights after a big dinner out with friends, Kalil will return home and stare at the shake in silent misery. Imagine adding a loaf of bread to an already full stomach. And if he drinks the grainy gunk too soon before bed, it will give him painful acid reflux and keep him awake for hours -- as if his digestive system is staging a revolt.
None of this is new to Kalil. It's been his routine for years. That's how NFL linemen are built nowadays -- one protein shake at a time. When Kalil was 15,
he showed up for his first football practice at Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., and expressed interest in playing tight end. But his father, Frank, a former collegiate lineman who'd had a brief career in the USFL, walked up to his son's coaches and put an end to the fantasy. "Sorry," Frank said, "but my son is a left tackle."
That's the position Frank had trained Matt to play, drilling him on slide steps and blocking technique at the park near their house. At the time, NFL tight ends weren't the size of Rob Gronkowski, so Matt put away his dream and joined the linemen. And every day since that first high school practice, people have been shoving large plates of food in front of him. "It's always been about me gaining weight," Kalil says. "My dad was like, 'Did you eat today? What do you weigh?'"
It's still a constant refrain. Kalil was an All-America tackle for Southern Cal, a 6'7", 290-pound bulldozer with ballerina feet, the kind of lineman every NFL general manager dreams of plugging into his lineup so he can sleep better on Saturday night. But when Kalil decided to forgo his senior year at USC and enter the draft, he spent five months hearing one thing over and over from coaches, analysts and experts: You'll need to put on more weight if you want to be an elite lineman. Says Kalil, "Every question I got at the combine was, 'So, how much do you think you could weigh?'"
NFL lineman is one of the only jobs in the world, along with maybe sumo wrestler, for which an employer can look at a 300-pound man and suggest, with a straight face, that he's undersize. Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz -- who, like Kalil, played at USC and was a top-five draft pick -- played his entire Bengals career, from 1980 to 1992, at 278 pounds. That would be impossible today as linemen continue to get bigger. In 1970, there was one NFL player who weighed 300-plus pounds. Last season, there were 360.
So how exactly did a 280-pound lineman become a lightweight? There's little
doubt that the rise of performance-enhancing drugs was a factor. Steroids allow athletes to increase muscle mass and train longer and with more intensity, the perfect formula for a player looking to pack on pounds and gain an edge on the line of scrimmage. Though the NFL has one of the strictest testing programs in all of sports, a confidential survey published in 2009 by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that nearly 1 in 10 former NFL players admit to having used steroids. More than 20 percent of players from the 1980s admit to having used them. That number has dipped to 13 percent, but among the offensive linemen surveyed, 16 percent admit to having used PEDs.
That means the vast majority of players are getting bigger naturally, through diet and weight programs that have become more sophisticated and precise in the past three decades. "I went to high school in the '70s, and I never lifted weights until I got to college," says Titans coach Mike Munchak, a former guard and nine-time Pro Bowl selection with the Houston Oilers. "Now high schools have year-round weight-training programs. You're seeing guys develop sooner. When I got to the Oilers in 1982, there wasn't an offseason program. Guys just didn't make enough money. They were doing other jobs."
Munchak can still remember when he heard that a few NFL players had crossed the 300-pound threshold. "I thought, Oh my gosh, we've reached the limit here," he says. "I thought, Well, we've really maxed out. I just can't imagine guys getting much larger."
Up close, Kalil's chest looks like the hull of a small rowboat. There's a reason the Vikings made him a rich man and predict he'll be a big part of their future. It's not just that his college coach, Pete Carroll, believes he's already tough enough and smart enough to be a star. It's because he's a giant. Put him in front of Adrian Peterson and Christian Ponder and they're less likely to get concussed by the large, fast, violent men chasing them. Kalil is the brawn tasked with protecting a superstar's brain.
That's not a job you can fake. And that's why Kalil is already 20 pounds heavier than he was in college. To get there, he's been forcing himself to eat every two hours no matter what. "If I'm out with friends and we're not eating, I have to tell them, 'Hey, guys, I've got to eat a meal,'" he says. "It's wired that way in my head because I've been doing this since my freshman year in high school. If I get off my routine, there's a little voice in my head saying, 'Hey, you need to go eat right now.'"
He's eating right now, still working on lunch in the cafeteria. I ask Kalil what he thinks he can weigh once his NFL career is over, which could be 15 years from now. There's a thunderstorm outside, and raindrops the size of jelly beans are pelting the window a few feet away. Kalil is oblivious to the noise. He's thinking hard about his answer. "I'd like to be around 240," he eventually says. "I need that California beach body when I'm older, right?"
CHUCK SMITH, AN All-Pro defensive end for the Falcons in the 1990s, knows what it's like to stare at a plate of food feeling a mix of boredom and dread. Twenty years ago, he was standing in Kalil's shoes, except on the other side of the football. In college at Tennessee, Smith was an outside linebacker who weighed 236 pounds. But the Falcons saw him as one of the first 3-4 hybrids and asked him to bulk up to play end. "I used to call myself a pumped-up cruiserweight," Smith says. "I was the Evander Holyfield of the NFL. But for two years, people told me, 'The only way you're ever going to play is if you get bigger.'"
Smith started by shoveling down five plates of chicken and pasta or something equally carb-laden before every meeting, just like most of the other linemen. But because Smith was trying to add so much weight, he slathered everything in peanut butter. For breakfast, he would slam down six to 10 eggs. He'd drink whole milk at meals and down beer every night. It wasn't long before he weighed 274 and was lining up across from offensive tackles, his hand anchoring a three-point stance.
Today, Smith is 50 pounds lighter than during his NFL career. He also speaks out on an issue he believes is largely ignored: retirement obesity. In football's effort to protect its stars from violent hits, the health risk might simply be shifting to the fat guys up front.
Smith knows he's one of the lucky ones. His wife, Mynique, a personal trainer, asked him to see a doctor after he retired in 2000. That's when he realized he was at risk of dying because of high blood pressure and bad cholesterol. "My wife changed my life," Smith says. "She didn't pressure me, but some people need that. The alternative is losing a husband or losing a brother."
Smith now co-owns WPI Fitness, a football academy outside Atlanta that helps former NFL and college players lose the weight they had to pack on in their 20s. "Coaches love to have the big greasy Southern fat boy in the middle," says Smith, who is tied with John Abraham as the Falcons' all-time leader in career sacks. "But guess what: You've created a monster, and the monster doesn't know how to take care of himself."
There's plenty of data to support his argument. While the NIOSH study did not indicate a higher mortality rate due to cardiac disease among offensive linemen compared with men in the general population, defensive linemen had a 42 percent higher rate of death resulting from heart disease. In 2005, Scripps Howard News Service examined nearly 4,000 deceased players from over the past century and discovered that the heaviest were twice as likely to die before age 50 as their teammates. A 2009 Mayo Clinic study found that nearly 60 percent of retired NFL linemen (average age of 54) suffer from sleep-disordered breathing.
Smith still aches when he thinks about Reggie White, the Hall of Fame defensive end who died of a combination of sleep apnea and cardiac arrhythmia at age 43 in 2004. White was never considered fat, but he played the majority of his career at 300 pounds. In Smith's opinion, White's death
should have set off alarms around the NFL. "I'm sure the league is thinking about it," he says. "But there is no time for more research. It's time to find the answers now. I'm not waiting around; if any guy needs help, he can call me now."
In 2010, Smith coached at his alma mater, where he and another assistant held morning workout sessions for ex-Volunteers. Everywhere he looked, he saw fat guys afraid to ask for help and uncomfortable about going to their local gym. They didn't want to be embarrassed. Plus, who's going to spot for them on the weight bench? "NFL players can't work out with everyday guys," Smith says. "There is no place to go."
NATE NEWTON, ONCE considered the clown prince of fat NFL linemen, believes that asking for help saved his life. He readily admits he never thought about his future while playing guard and tackle for the Cowboys from 1986 to 1998. He lived in the moment, and like plenty of other Cowboys from his era, he lived large. During training camp, he would regularly send rookies to pick up a 60-piece meal from Popeyes and a case of beer for him. Newton's girth turned him into a celebrity; he was a favorite of TV analyst John Madden, who celebrated Newton's size. The Cowboys did put incentives in Newton's contract in an effort to control his weight, but "the Kitchen" just ignored them.
After he retired, Newton kept eating, and without any exercise, his weight eventually ballooned to more than 400 pounds. "I never saw myself reaching a day over 50, man," he says. "I was going to die. I was going to be buried in a piano-size coffin. Who was going to carry me at 400 pounds, though? A crane? I lived like a joke, and I was going to die a joke."
Food became an emotional crutch, a way to deal with his boredom and lack of direction. He missed the camaraderie of the locker room too. "You have no desire to work out," Newton says. "Nothing to drive you. You continue to eat
the same, and all of a sudden you've added 30 pounds. You tell yourself, I'll work out tomorrow, but before you know it a year has passed, and that 30 pounds becomes 60 pounds."
By 2009, Newton had reached a point where he couldn't walk into a room without immediately looking for a chair. He says he hit rock bottom when a mall security guard accused him of plotting a robbery. "I guess he thought I was going to steal something because I was looking so hard in certain areas," Newton says. "I just had to tell him, 'I'm looking for the nearest damn seat. I'm looking for where I can rest.' I mean, can you imagine that? You walk into a mall, and it looks like you're looking around the mall trying to steal something, bro. It scared the s-- out of me."
So in early 2010, when a friend suggested he meet with Dr. David Kim, whose Dallas and Fort Worth clinics specialize in helping obese people lose weight through surgical methods, Newton jumped at the chance. Kim told Newton that he had diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea and that his BMI was 50. He was living on borrowed time. Kim performed a procedure called a gastric sleeve resection, which reduces the volume of the stomach by 75 percent. Essentially, says Kim, Newton's stomach went from the size of a football to the size of a banana. That's still bigger than the average person's stomach, which is roughly the size of a fist.
Newton's transformation took time and required a renewed dedication to exercise. But he was so eager to begin that when Kim called him shortly after his release from the hospital to encourage him to try walking around the block, Newton answered his cellphone while on a stroll of a mile and a half in his Texas neighborhood. Within a month, he had lost 70 pounds. Within a year, working out two hours a day, Newton had dropped nearly 200 pounds. At age 50, he looks like a different person -- pretty good for a guy who didn't think he'd even live this long. "People think concussions kill," Newton says. "Well, when you're fat, you got heart problems. When you're fat, you got
diabetes. When you're fat, you got high blood pressure. Fat is a fact, Jack."
MATT KALIL WILL be different. He is certain of that. He's been studying the science of eating, and instead of gorging himself, trying to cram all of his calories into one big meal, he breaks them down into those two-hour increments. He takes multivitamins and omega-3 fish oil to help with his arteries and joints.
He also meets every few weeks with the Vikings' team nutritionist, Carrie Peterson, to plot strategy on balancing meals and workouts. "Sports nutrition, you'd think it would have been around forever, but god, it just hasn't been," says Peterson, who began working with the Vikings after one of their linemen, 335-pound Korey Stringer, died of heatstroke after a 2001 practice. "Even in the '80s and '90s, there wasn't anybody working with teams."
Kalil has another advantage over other linemen: His older brother, Ryan, has not only survived in the NFL as a 295-pound center, he has thrived. As a rookie with the Panthers in 2007, Ryan played in just six games. But once he showed that he could use his quickness to maintain leverage, concerns about his weight disappeared. Ryan, now a three-time Pro Bowler, isn't telling his little brother not to bulk up, but he's stressing that success as an NFL lineman is all about technique and putting on what he calls good weight. "I told Matt something I learned from a former strength coach: You can put a lot of extra muscle weight in your back," Ryan says. "Not only are you getting stronger, but you're putting on extra weight in a healthy way. Little things like that are huge."
Last year, Ryan suggested that Matt sign up for a meal delivery service called Sunfare. Ryan had used it and raved about the benefits, Matt says. The company delivered premade healthy meals to Matt's house each day, and when he started eating salads and chicken instead of junk food twice a day,
he started to feel a huge difference. "I went from 25 percent body fat to 18 percent," Matt says. "The biggest difference I noticed was how much more energy I had. I felt like I had more endurance, more stamina."
So maybe Kalil really is different. After we shake hands, he gets up from the table, and it's hard not to notice that he's left almost a third of his lunch uneaten. A handful of french fries remains, along with some pasta and most of his steamed carrots and bell peppers. I wonder if our conversation had any effect on his appetite. Either way, in two hours, it will be time for Kalil to eat again.
In ESPN The Magazine, Kevin van Valkenburg writes that players like Viking Matt Kalil pack on the pounds to compete in the NFL, but that added weight can be a life-threatening burden.