This article appears in the June 8, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Less than six months ago Jeff Kendall and Cole Linehan were, as Kendall puts it, "Fat kids living the dream." They were senior linemen on Oregon's football team -- Kendall on offense, Linehan on defense -- and they shared a small two-bedroom apartment near Autzen Stadium on the outskirts of Eugene, a college town with blue-collar roots, where being a football player for the Ducks carries considerable cachet.
But on Dec. 31, the day after Oregon's season ended with a 42-31 victory over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl, Kendall and Linehan woke up to an unsettling reality: Neither had a future in football. There would be no invitations to the NFL scouting combine or to any training-camp tryout. Their football careers were over -- or, as Kendall says, "All of sudden you go from being a fat kid living the dream to, well, just fat."
Tales of NFL prospects bulking up for the draft are common, but what about departing players who need to slim down? Less than three percent of college players go on to play professionally; the rest are left without the purpose and motivation for which they have been eating and lifting for years. "What happens most of the time, especially with the linemen, is that they are tired of working out and worn down from playing, and they just want to rest," says James Harris, Oregon's nutritionist and assistant athletic director. "They don't change the way they live and eat. A few years later they are 370 pounds and have serious health issues. It's a big, big problem."
A few former players such as the 6-foot-3 Kendall and the 6-4 Linehan, each of whom once tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds, are outliers -- examples of what can happen when athletes get guidance as their careers wind down. With Harris' support, the two linemen changed their eating habits and workout routines, and less than five months after the Holiday Bowl, they are "fat kids" no more, having lost 35 (Kendall) and 30 (Linehan) pounds, respectively. They feel as if they've gotten their bodies back, talk of being "normal" for the first time in years and relish simple pleasures such as walking without their knees aching.
"You realize that our bodies weren't meant to be that big," Kendall says. "As you get to be a size that is more what you are supposed to be, you feel so much better. You have more energy, you sleep better, your mood is better. It changes your life."
The majority of football players know surprisingly little about nutrition. At Nebraska the nutritional staff has used color-coded cards next to food served at its training table. Foods labeled with a green card (such as fruits, vegetables and lean meats) should be incorporated into every meal. Those tagged yellow (rice, pasta, potatoes) are meant to be eaten in moderation and increased on hard-workout days. Foods carrying a red label (cookies, prime rib, fried chicken, ice cream) are to be eaten sparingly.
A few other Division I schools use similar systems, but no more than two dozen athletic departments employ full-time nutritionists. Kristine Clark, a registered dietician whom Penn State hired as its director of sports nutrition in 1991, believes she was the first. Clark assumed other schools would follow suit, as they did after Nebraska became the first program to hire a strength and conditioning coach in '69. "But it just hasn't caught fire like I thought it would," she says. Some schools hire outside dieticians for 10 to 15 hours a week to counsel athletes on nutrition or use a consultant from the university's health services department, but many don't go even that far. Notre Dame, with its $9 million-a-year NBC contract, only recently consulted with Clark about implementing a nutritional program.
If so few schools offer dietary guidance to current players, imagine how little is available to the guys who have used up their eligibility. "Unfortunately you can't spend as much time as you'd like with the kids who are leaving, because you've got a class of freshmen coming in," says Rob Skinner, Virginia's director of sports nutrition.
Had Oregon not hired Harris away from Nebraska in 2007, Kendall and Linehan would likely have been among the fat and forgotten. They had seen the school's previous nutritionist -- who had a part-time contract with the athletic department -- only intermittently, and their eating habits reflected it. When Kendall felt he needed to add weight during his sophomore year, he ate two lunches a day, one at Panda Express and the other at Subway. At night he would lie in bed with a tin of processed nacho cheese resting on his stomach and a bag of tortilla chips by his side. Linehan had a fondness for Slurpees and the taquitos sold at 7-Eleven. "I used to hit those hard," he recalls with a wry smile.
During Kendall's and Linehan's senior season, Harris planted a seed. "Think about what you are going to do after the season ends," he would say. "I'm not going to let you sit around and get fat." He educated them about proper nutrition during the season and introduced them to the Bod Pod, an egglike capsule that analyzes an athlete's body composition, including the percentage of fat and muscle. (Linehan's body-fat percentage at the end of his senior season was 30 percent; Kendall's was 33 percent.) Then, after the Holiday Bowl, he pushed them to construct new diets and workouts. Linehan had surgery to repair a torn labrum shortly after the season ended, and Kendall had a third operation on his left wrist in February. Harris used that to their advantage: Neither player would be able to lift weights for months, which would force them to turn their focus away from the muscle-building that had once been the goal.
The methods Kendall and Linehan used to reclaim their bodies differed significantly. Kendall, who grew up in San Jose and Colorado Springs, was named to the Pac-10 Conference All-Academic team last season, and he plans to attend law school in the fall. (He has been accepted at six schools, including Oregon.) The science of nutrition -- specifically studies about the effects of eating whole, unprocessed foods -- became his obsession. He pored over articles by food experts such as Michael Pollan and then took what he learned to Harris for feedback. After reading that organic whole milk can help heal broken bones, Kendall found a farm 25 miles from Eugene that sold it and drove there every other week to buy a 1.5-gallon bottle.
His passion for nutrition was evident one morning in April as Kendall stood in his kitchen making an omelet. It was his "second breakfast," he explained. He eats a small meal when he wakes up and then a bigger one at 10 a.m. This one consisted of organic eggs with organic spinach and sauteed elk meat that he had gotten from the father of a teammate. "That way you know for sure there are no hormones in the meat," he said. Later he would take his eight-month-old bassett hound, Abigail, on a trek to the top of Spencer Butte in Eugene, his big workout for the day. He would choose the steepest route up the 700-foot incline. The reward was a clear view of the Willamette Valley. "I've been doing this weird thing called hiking, which is something that was totally foreign to me until recently," he says with a cackle.
Kendall believes his focus on nutrition helped him manage the psychological challenges of losing football. A few months ago his former teammate Max Unger, a center who was drafted by the Seahawks, stood in front of his house near campus and tried to figure out how to get his scooter, a 194-pound Honda Ruckus with a four-foot wheelbase, into the back of his pickup truck. "Unger finally just picks it up and clean-lifts it right into the back," says Kendall. "It hit me that I would never again be that strong. That [realization] might have been harder [on] me if I hadn't learned that just because I am not as big and strong anymore doesn't mean I'm not healthy."
Kendall's quick and total embrace of a new diet is unusual among football players. Amy Bragg, the director of performance nutrition at Texas A&M, finds it so difficult to change the eating habits of former players that she gives them a PowerPoint presentation that includes pictures of plates of food. "I show them what a postfootball plate [should look] like compared with a plate they were eating when they still played," she says. Still, many football players ignore such advice or never learn about nutrition at all, and the consequences can be dire.
Michael DeLaGrange preceded Kendall on Oregon's offensive line and weighed about 350 pounds when he finished his senior season in 2004. He returned to Grant's Pass, Ore., to run the family's insurance business that his father, David, had managed before dying of a heart attack in 2004. "Right away I started a job where I sat at a desk all day," says DeLaGrange, 27, who now weighs 400 pounds. "I can't be this big for the rest of my life, or it's going to be a short life. I know I need to do something, but it is hard to break old habits.... If I had gotten some support back when I finished playing, that would have helped."
There have been several studies of the health problems common among former NFL players, including one in 2006 that found obese players were more than twice as likely as their slimmer teammates to die before the age of 50, mostly because of weight-related illnesses such as heart disease. The wellness of former college football players, in contrast, has gone largely unexamined, although anecdotal evidence supports similar concerns. "I get e-mail from former players five or six years after they've left saying, 'I'm in trouble. Please help me. I am prediabetic or my cholesterol is very high,' " says Penn State's Clark. "It's so sad." Skinner, Virginia's nutritionist, says he recently received a plea for help from a player he worked with 10 years ago who now weighs 370 pounds. "I feel an obligation to try and help him," Skinner says, "but the goal is to get offensive and defensive linemen into what I call a 'deconditioning program' long before they get to that point."
If there is a common link among those who successfully got their bodies back after football, it is that they began the process almost immediately. If Kendall had waited even six months before changing his diet, he would likely have felt as offensive lineman Kirk Elder did not long after his career at Texas A&M concluded in 2007. "I was 24 when I was done and weighed about 310 pounds, but my body felt a lot older, and I was burnt out on working out," he says. "I just took it easy for the rest of the school year. I didn't realize that I was losing muscle and gaining fat even though my weight was the same." As summer approached, Elder noticed his weight ticking upward and felt lethargic. "My body wasn't producing as much testosterone, and I wasn't getting the endorphins I used to get from working out," he says. "I felt terrible."
Elder was hired as a graduate assistant coach at Texas A&M in early 2008 and reconnected with Bragg. "I am down to 280 now," he says. "If I get to 250, I should be able to go to the mall and buy pants off the rack. I haven't been able to do that for years."
Former Nebraska center Brett Byford weighed 305 pounds in May 2008 when he was cut by the Jets after signing as an undrafted rookie free agent. Sensing that his chances of playing in the NFL were slim, he returned to Lincoln and concocted a diet that would make a nutritionist cringe. "For the first week I just ate one meal a day. Then I fasted for two days," he said. "I know it wasn't healthy, but I needed to do it to let my body know that I was in charge."
Byford also tried to walk as much as he could. "If I was going to Wal-Mart, I would park as far away from the door as possible." He eventually began jogging around his neighborhood. "I would run to one light pole, then walk to the next one and then run to the [one after that]. A few days later I could run to two light poles. I just built it up like that -- one light pole at a time. On the first day of September, three months after starting a diet in which he avoided unnecessary sugar and fat, ate more fruits, vegetables and lean protein, and drank "tons" of water to curb his hunger, Byford weighed himself. He was 230; he had lost 75 pounds in three months.
"I look back now and think losing all that weight so quickly was me psychologically burning a bridge," he says. "Late in the summer, an [NFL] team called and offered me a tryout, but I had already lost so much weight that it wasn't an option. It forced me to move on."
On May 4, approximately one year after he gave up football, Byford, who is down to 225 pounds, ran a marathon. "My quality of life is so much better [now]," he says. "I wish every one of my former teammates could feel like I feel right now."
Linehan, a Portland native who started 25 games for the Ducks, is unlikely to ever complete a marathon; he used to tell his fellow linemen that when football was over he'd never run again. But as Kendall focused on nutrition, Linehan consulted with Harris on new workouts that would help him shed weight and satisfy his competitive urges. He made changes to his diet (swapping chips for carrots, for example), but mostly he obsessed over the numbers that the Bod Pod spit out when Harris measured his fat and muscle. (His body-fat percentage was down to 24 percent as of April.) He tried any workout that would help him better his marks, and eventually settled on . . . running.
"When I started I would jog for a couple of minutes and then have to stop and walk, but I built up my endurance over the weeks," Linehan says. "[Before] every run I'd say to myself, 'Ten minutes more. Ten minutes more.' "
Harris fed Linehan's competitiveness with passive-aggressive comments. On April Fool's Day he posted on the wall of Linehan's Facebook page, "Today is the only day I can say your body looks good." The taunts seemed to do the trick. "If James weren't here, I probably would have eaten the same and gradually worked out less," Linehan says. "We used to joke in the locker room about who was going to be the fattest lineman 10 years from now. I never thought it would be me, but if I hadn't gotten help, it could have been."
On a sunny Tuesday in April, Linehan went for a run on Pre's Trail near campus, named for former Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine. He picked up the trail near Autzen Stadium and ran a four-mile stretch along the Willamette River. Early in the run Linehan was passed by Nick Symmonds -- winner of the 800 meters at the last U.S. Olympic Trials -- who glided, shirtless, as if his feet weren't touching the ground. "Pretty soon I'm going to look like that," Linehan joked.
There was nothing smooth about Linehan's stride; he is still a very large man. But he found a comfortable pace, ticking off a mile about every nine minutes, and he just kept going, one mile and then two and then three. Not long after he turned around for the run back to his car, he saw a familiar figure walking toward him: Nick Aliotti, Oregon's defensive coordinator. "Cole Linehan running?" Aliotti shouted. "I never thought I'd see that!"
"Hey, coach," said Linehan, who seemed a little embarrassed. Once Aliotti was behind him, the former fat kid smiled and picked up the pace. His last mile was his best.