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How 300 pounds became high school football’s magic number

North Carolina high school football linemen who want to play in college face a choice: Go big or go home.

As college athletes grow in size, high school football players, particularly offensive linemen, believe that they have to pack on pounds if they want to play at the next level. Some lift weights to build muscle. Others bulk up any way they can, even if they have to eat their way to 300 pounds.

Leesville Road senior offensive tackle Chris Pendergraft is 5-10 and weighs 310 pounds. The son of a former high school football coach, playing football has been a goal for as long as he can remember. He is one of three 300-pound starters on an offensive line that averages 285 pounds. The other two, seniors Alex Butler, and Bryan Henriques, are 5-11, 345, and 6-3, 325, respectively.

“Being big helps you move people out of the way,” said Pendergraft, who weighed 290 pounds as a freshman.

Players bulk up at the risk of developing eating habits and extra weight that can cause long-term health concerns. Adding excessive weight can create lifelong problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, elevated cholesterol levels, breathing difficulties and increased susceptibility to stress fractures and muscle and joint pain.

The push to get bigger is happening at a time when nearly 20 percent of American males between the ages of 12 and 19 are considered to be medically obese, based on federal health guidelines. Just 4 percent of males in the same age range were considered obese during the mid-to-late 1960s.

“With today’s training and nutrition, players can get big and strong,” said Clayton coach Randy Pinkowski, a former certified athletic trainer. “We have to make sure we aren’t making them bigger and stronger and fatter.”

Senior offensive lineman Tony Adams of Charlotte Independence, an N.C. State recruit, said his desire to play college football was a factor in weighing as much as 280 pounds by the time he was in the ninth grade.

“I knew I had to be big,” Adams said. “Ever since I was about 11 years old, my aspiration has been to play college football. I wasn’t that interested in playing pro football, but I wanted to play college football. I wanted a college education and the chance to play sports.”

It is not unusual for state high school football teams to field several 300-pounders. At least 127 high school offensive linemen in North Carolina weighed 300 pounds or more during the 2012 season.

Goldsboro High had two players who weighed about 400 pounds in 2011. Southern Durham’s offensive line in 2012 averaged 285 pounds, 30 pounds heavier than N.C. State’s offensive front in 1987.

The average player on the Garner team that played for the 2011 state 4A championship weighed 201.0 pounds, about 25 pounds more than the average player on Garner’s 1987 state championship team. The players listed as linemen in 2011 averaged 235.4 pounds compared to the ’87 line that averaged 191.3.

In 1987, Garner’s biggest player was 240-pound Rodney Gordon. Garner’s 2011 team had six players who weighed more than 268 pounds.

The growth of football linemen is at least partly due to changes in blocking rules that have put an increased emphasis on size and power. Interior blockers can no longer double team defenders by having one player attack high and another low. With more one-on-one blocking, size has become an important element as massive linemen rely on strength and leverage to push each other up and down the field.

The News Observer reviewed the listed sizes of more than 12,000 players on high school rosters from most state finalists since 1988, and found there were only six 300-pound players in 24 state championship games between 1988 and 1993, but 17 in eight title games in 2010. During the last nine years, an average of 14 300-pounders played in the finals each year.

Athletes and obesity

The American Medical Association says obesity is a disease that afflicts about 12 million children. About 4 percent of American boys between the ages of 12 and 19 were obese in 1966-1970. From 2009-2010, the percentage was 19.6.

U.S. teens are getting bigger overall. The Center for Disease Control’s most recent study shows the average American 17-year-old male is 5-9 and weighs 166.3 pounds, up 16.7 pounds from 1966-70. The average offensive lineman playing in the past eight state football title games weighed about 70 pounds more than the average male.

Based on government standards, many 300-pound football players would be considered medically obese using a body mass index that correlates weight and height. For example, a 6-foot, 221-pound male is considered obese. The largest high school players are in the extremely obese category. A study of 3,600 high school linemen published in the Journal of American Medical Association in 2007 found 45 percent of the players were overweight.

BMI is a mathematical formula that does not consider fitness. The BMI is derived by taking a person’s weight in kilograms and dividing by the square of his or her height. The BMI does not distinguish between a 6 foot, 215-pound man with a 34-inch waist and a 6-foot, 215-pound man with a 42-inch waist.

For many high school football players, the weight they gain to play a few dozen high school games is weight they keep for the rest of their lives.

“It is not the weight gain among athletes that is the problem,” said Abbie Smith-Ryan, an assistant professor of exercise and sports science at UNC. “Lean muscle mass can be good. But the eating habits and fat are a concern. If athletes are trying to gain weight, then they can start consuming more fat. They don’t need more fat in their diet.”

Dan Schuster, the head of the coaches education program for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said high school athletics has begun to think about obesity issues and coaches’ responsibility to consider players’ long-term health as American society has become more aware of weight problems.

“High school coaches have the responsibility of helping children,” Schuster said. “We have become more aware of the obesity problem as we see it exploding among our children and we are talking more about what can be done by our coaches. We can’t solve a problem until we realize there is a problem.”

Dr. Matthew Boes of the Raleigh Orthopaedic Clinic said weight-training programs should emphasize athletic improvement rather than weight gain.

“You want to be bigger, stronger and more athletic, not just bigger and stronger,” Boes said. “The players have a tendency to focus only on the maximum amount of weight that they can move. They overlook flexibility and they can lose some athletic ability.

“Nutrition is a key factor. It takes more time and effort to eat the right way and, frankly, sometimes the foods that are not the best for us taste good.”

UNC’s Smith says it is important for young athletes to receive guidance if they want to bulk up.

“One of the keys to adding strength and weight is who is giving the advice on gaining weight,” Smith said. “It is one thing if an athlete is involved in an organized weight resistance training program with an emphasis on nutrition. It is something else if the athlete is trying to gain weight by just eating more.

“There is nothing that can be done in the weight room to overcome what is done in the dining room.”

‘The big hog mollies’

The rosters for last year’s Super Bowl between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers featured 26 players who weighed more than 300 pounds. The Ravens defensive front in 2012 averaged 323 pounds and was anchored by 6-4, 349-pound Terrence Cody.

The Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome – four heralded defensive linemen in the 1960s – averaged 270 pounds. New York Giants tackle Roosevelt Brown, a nine-time Pro Bowl player in the 1960s, was 6-foot-3, 255 pounds. Compare them with Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie (6-8, 360) and former UNC and Ravens center Jason Brown (6-3, 320).

Jeff Saturday, 38, an all-star center at the University of North Carolina and a 14-year NFL player, reported to UNC at 6-2, 240 pounds in 1994. He gained 10 pounds a year for four years and weighed 280 as a senior. He added another 15 pounds while in the NFL.

“I think colleges are looking for guys who are great athletes who have the potential to get bigger,” said Saturday, who is now a commentator for ESPN. “With their nutrition and weight programs, colleges can add the weight the right way.

“Getting to 300 pounds shouldn’t be the goal of most high school players.”

Saturday retired in January and has lost more than 60 pounds in six months. “I have a wife and children,” he said. “I lost the weight for them. Carrying that much weight is unhealthy for the joints and for your organs. I told my children I had to be big for work, but I needed to be smaller for health.”

A recent study of 510 retired NFL players found that nearly 60 percent had metabolic syndrome, which can include high blood pressure, raised levels of blood glucose and increased triglycerides.

But NFL executives know that large players get big results.

“Big men allow you to compete. So we’re certainly going to look at the big hog mollies,” Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said before the NFL Draft in April. “We have an interest in those guys. Those big guys are line-of-scrimmage changers.”

Needless weight gains

Pinkowski, the Clayton head coach, had two 400-pounders play for him while he was the head coach at at Pikeville Aycock. He doesn’t like the trend toward 300 pounds.

“It is fine if the kids want to add lean muscle mass, but it isn’t healthy to add a lot of fat,” Pinkowski said. “The weight they try to gain really doesn’t help them.”

One of his 400-pounders at Aycock came to the school as a freshman already weighing 400 pounds.

“I told him he couldn’t play in a game until he got into the 350s,” Pinkowski said. “By the time he was a senior, he was down to 359 and he could play. But it was tough on him to lose the weight.”

Pinkowski said weight lifting builds strength, helps prevent injury and can add muscle mass.

“There is a reason they say bigger, stronger, faster,” said Brown, the former Ravens center who played at Northern Vance High and UNC. “They want you bigger.”

And that can make dietary supplements tempting. Brown remembered that while he played at UNC there were players who had a hard time putting on weight, regardless of how much they ate. He said there was a name for them: “hard-gainers.”

Brown, 30, who was 6-3 and weighed 315 pounds as a high school senior at Northern Vance, said he took dozens of supplements during his NFL career from 2005-2011 with the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams.

“None of them was worth a damn,” he said. “Good nutrition is better.”

The N.C. High School Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations have issued positions opposing the use of supplements and steroids to gain weight or improve athletic performance.

Brown recalled when UNC wanted him to lose some weight and he’d do extra work using a stair climber or treadmill. “But there was food always around,” he said. “I’d work out an extra hour and pick up a couple of doughnuts on the way out.”

Brown said that now that he is not playing, the weight is hard to lose. His goal, he said, is to look at the scales and not see a “3” in the first number. “It is time for me to leave the 300-pound club,” he said.

Leesville Road lineman Henriques already thinks about the time he’ll have to lose weight.

“When I’m finished playing, I’d like to lose some,” Henriques said. “Not a hundred pounds, but after football, I’d like to lose 40 or 50 pounds.”

Leesville’s Pendergraft says he is focused on football, not weight loss.

“I’m trying to play college football,” he said.

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