The Forlorn figure on the broiling practice field jogged a few steps, then walked a few, jogged a few, walked a few. Sweat dripped from him like water from a leaky faucet. It was Bubba Paris's first day of practice at the San Francisco 49er training camp in Rocklin, Calif. Only it wasn't a real practice. The big tackle perspired in isolation, 100 yards away from his teammates, because his annual precamp crash diet had left him hopelessly out of football shape. His cholesterol count when he showed up for camp on July 16 was 400, a dangerous level for a 30-year-old male. Besides that, he was dehydrated and his kidneys were under stress—the results of his last-ditch fast.
After his workout, Paris was surrounded by 31 reporters and cameramen, a crowd larger than any that gathered around 49er coach George Seifert or Joe Montana that day. Bubba was big news by the Bay, you see. His struggle to meet Seifert's prescribed reporting weight of 325 pounds—though obviously suffering, Paris weighed in at 327—was the media's story of the day, and it would be debated by Sandy from San Jose and Pat from Palo Alto on the local radio talk shows. Had Bubba lost the battle of the bulge? Would the 49ers finally say enough is enough and cut him? Was Bubba's NFL bubble about to burst?
In pro football—indeed a big man's game—there's a fine line between being big and being fat. Some players straddle the line annually, daily even, with varying degrees of success. Atlanta Falcon tackle Chris Hinton and Dallas Cowboy tackle Nate Newton, who have learned to control their weight, are cornerstones of their respective lines. William Perry of the Chicago Bears continues to lose his battle with his waistline but keeps his starting job at defensive tackle because the Bears simply have no one to replace him. And Paris and guard Jeff Zimmerman of the Cowboys have been so unable to discipline themselves that their weight has threatened their NFL careers.
"Growing up playing football, people told me to get big," Paris says. "At Michigan, people told me to get big. Now, everybody's telling me to get smaller. It's a conflict I've had to deal with ever since I came into the league. The big people are the people who give football its character. Look at Art Shell, Art Donovan, John Matuszak. Look at me. We're mountains. We help give teams an identity, and we become a focal point for a lot of people who think, 'Now that's a football player.' Then we've got these other voices telling us we're too big, in football and in society."
On Aug. 20, the other voices, in this case those of Seifert and 49er vice-president John McVay, had some very discouraging words. Weary of wasting a lot of time with and paying a big salary ($625,000) to an unreliable player, they cut Paris.
By the end of last season, Paris had ballooned to 372 pounds and his blocking skills had diminished, leaving Montana vulnerable to blind-side hits. Then, when he showed up at camp, he was in no condition to redeem himself. In the end, he had fallen too far behind the other linemen and getting down to 322, his weight on cut day, was too much of a struggle. Said Paris, after learning that his 49er career was over after nine seasons, "I almost think I look sexy."
Well, the Indianapolis Colts, at least, thought Paris looked svelte enough to plug a hole in their injury-plagued line. On Monday, Paris found new life in the NFL when the Colts signed him to a two-year contract—with a weight clause, of course.
Just when is a lineman too big in NFL terms? Nine years ago the Cleveland Browns placed a 260-pound weight limit on their offensive linemen. Now the 260-pound offensive lineman is virtually extinct. Consider also that six of the 14 offensive linemen chosen among the first 100 picks of the 1991 draft weighed more than 300 pounds, while in the entire 1986 draft only one offensive lineman chosen weighed more than 300. By the end of last season, there were 26 players listed at more than 300 pounds on NFL rosters, but there were a number of 300-pounders whose weights are listed at 285 or 290 or 295 because team p.r. directors either spare some players the embarrassment or don't bother to update their rosters. It's getting to be a giant's game, and not just in New York.
But 300 pounds aren't necessarily dirty words to NFL linemen, whose bodies take various forms. Some are tall and strong and sculpted, like Kansas City's John Alt (6'8", 305 pounds) or Washington's Joe Jacoby (6'7", 310). Some are tall and strong and not so well defined, like Giants tackle John (Jumbo) Elliott (6'7", 305 pounds), who doesn't look like Atlas but who manhandled Richard Dent of the Bears and Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs last year. Some are monstrous men who can play, like tackles Howard Ballard (6'5", 335) of Buffalo and Newton (6'3", 327). Some are monstrous men who struggle, like Zefross Moss (6'6", 340) of the Indianapolis Colts, who was lined up opposite Smith when the Bills' defensive end had four sacks of Indy quarterback Jeff George in one game last season. Maybe the difference today from yesterday in the NFL is that the 300-pounders are being judged more on their ability than on their waist sizes.
"A player asks me, 'How much should I weigh?' " says Jim McNally, who coaches the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive linemen. "I say, 'How should I know? Weigh what you weigh. Weigh what you play best at.' "
The topic of weight is not usually a favorite conversation with big players. Says 295-pound guard Duval Love of the Los Angeles Rams, "I've got reservations about talking because I don't want to be in no fat article."
The emergence of the big man on the NFL scene is not limited to particular organizations—everyone is loading up with bears—and a team's offensive style doesn't dictate the size of its linemen so much as it determines what big-man skills are most important to the success of the offense. The Giants went 13-3 last season and won the Super Bowl primarily because their offensive line, which averaged 6'5" and a muscular 288 pounds, pushed and smashed and cleared a path for big backs Ottis Anderson and Maurice Carthon. The most telling statistic in the Super Bowl was the Giants' time of possession—40:33.
On the other hand, the Houston Oilers, with quarterback Warren Moon rolling out of the run-and-shoot, need quickness from their linemen, who also average 288 pounds. The diverse Bengals average 296 pounds along the line; the smash-mouth Kansas City Chiefs, who are the AFC version of the Giants, average 297; and the wide-open Bills average 298. And we're not done. Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson wants to build a balanced offensive scheme, and by next season the Cowboys' starting tackles should be 310-pound Erik Williams and the full-figured Newton.
Big defensive linemen are in, too. The 49ers have a 325-pound nosetackle, Michael Carter, and two 300-pound defensive linemen, Dennis Brown and Ted Washington. "I saw Andy Robustelli standing next to Leonard Marshall recently," Giants strength coach Johnny Parker says, speaking of Giants defensive ends past and present, respectively. "Leonard absolutely dwarfed him. Andy could have hid in Leonard's coat."
But most of the dominating size has come on offense. "Thinking back," Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula says, "can you remember a 300-pound tackle who played and couldn't get out of his own way? Richmond Webb [of the Dolphins] is a 300-pounder who's light on his feet, has long arms and can move. I've never seen so many of these guys in the league at once."
"For whatever reason—and there are many theories—offenses have changed from pulling guards and wide sweeps to more of a north and south game," says McNally. "With bigger people, if you run the ball enough, the bigger men will wear down the smaller men."
"What I'm teaching isn't exactly new or innovative," says Chiefs offensive line coach Howard Mudd. "Big back. Big line. Man-to-man blocking. The strong survive. You lean on the guy in front of you and push him and keep him in front of you and then get the great skilled back to find a hole. If the other team doesn't have the ball, the other team can't win." Of course, the Kansas City line had better be big, because it has to lead 260-pound Christian Okoye and 240-pound Barry Word out of the backfield.
Vintage NFL weight story: In 1960, the Green Bay Packers took six-foot, 265-pound defensive tackle Royce Whittington in the 18th round of the draft. Whittington, a naive young man from Southwestern Louisiana, had been told by his college coaches he would have to get bigger to play in the NFL. So when he reported to Packer camp that July, he was a six-foot, 319-pound defensive tackle. Literally 45 seconds into his first practice, the very round Whittington was struggling through the first of several required laps around a track when Vince Lombardi bellowed, "You! Out!" Whittington said, "Me?" Lombardi said, "Yeah! You! Out!" Cut on the spot. "Shortest career in NFL history," Green Bay p.r. man Lee Remmel says.
Every team has stories like that, about past and present players. The New England Patriots tried every weight-loss gimmick with Steve Moore, a guard whose weight fluctuated between 280 and 376 in his five-year Pats career. In 1987, at the end of his patience with Moore, coach Raymond Berry appealed to Pats fans to send cards of support to Moore. "Make this a New England crusade," Berry pleaded. Moore got some cards. He also got a box of cookies. The Patriots cut him after the season.
Newton blows a $30,000 bonus every year because he can't meet a series of weight-related incentive clauses in his contract with the Cowboys. He would pick up the extra cash if he weighed 305 or less and had no more than 17% body fat. Plus, he's fined regularly for being over the Cowboys' prescribed weight of 317. "That's double jeopardy," says Newton, who usually weighs around 327. "Isn't that against the law?"
It figures that the Raiders would have an innovative approach to weight watching. Art Shell, estimated at 295, was the biggest linemen coach John Madden had ever seen when he arrived in Oakland in 1968, but he played so well that Madden didn't weigh him regularly. "I just told him, 'If I can't see daylight between your thighs, then it's time to lose a little,' " Madden says. In 1978, Al Davis plucked 310-pound tackle Bruce Davis of UCLA in the 11th round of the draft. Al Davis loved Bruce Davis's lower-body power, but the player was too slow. So Al Davis sent him to work with the Raiderettes' choreographer following his rookie year, and by 1982, Bruce Davis was a full-time starter.
Then there's Perry, the biggest weight-problem child in the NFL. Bears brass believe that making an estimated $4 million during his Fridge-manic rookie season of 1985 dulled Perry's desire and pride. For whatever reason, he has been totally undisciplined about his weight, reporting this year, to the Bears' shock, at 370 pounds. They would like him to be around 315. It's almost inconceivable that an iron-fisted coach like Mike Ditka would let Perry get away with this. But there is a law of the jungle in the NFL: If the guy's better than the man playing behind him, hold on to him. Perry's a decent player at 350 and very good at 325. The other tackle in the Bears' 4-3 scheme, Steve McMichael, is 33, and his career is winding down. Dan Hampton just retired. Fred Washington, a promising second-round pick in 1990, died in a car wreck at the end of his rookie season. There's nobody else remotely good. Perry might not be able to jump over a barrel, but he sure has the Bears over one.
The strangest weight story? Friends and teammates say they have had no contact for several weeks with Zimmerman, the Cowboys' backup guard. A quiet guy who hadn't been very competitive since being drafted in the third round in 1987, Zimmerman went into a funk at the end of last season, perhaps because of the constant harping on his weight by the Cowboys and the Dallas media. He should have been playing at about 315, but he ballooned to about 350 by the end of last season. Then he didn't join the Cowboys' off-season conditioning program, and he was left unprotected during the Plan B free-agent period. When nobody signed him and Zimmerman did not show at the Cowboys' training camp on July 14, he was placed on the "reserve: did not report" list. As of Monday, the Cowboys still had not heard from him.
According to Hinton of the Falcons, the players with weight problems survive only through discipline. "I feel sorry for guys who can't discipline themselves," Hinton says. "It's a constant battle. Early in my career, I could pretty much not do a lot [of working out] in the off-season and be O.K. And I used to be able to eat everything in the house. German chocolate cake was my weakness. And cookies. And ice cream. But that German chocolate cake.... You know what I used to do? Sometimes I used to get so hungry in the middle of the night—two o'clock or so—that I'd go to the 24-hour supermarket, buy a German chocolate cake mix, come home, mix it up, bake it and then eat half of it."
Hinton's weight has fluctuated from 283 pounds as a Colt rookie in 1983 to an uncomfortable 310 pounds late last season in Atlanta. Now he's at 300, and he claims that he'll be smart enough to stay within a few pounds of that figure for the rest of his career by sticking to a regular diet, eliminating late-night snacks and lifting weights year-round.
Some clubs are taking similar steps to help maintain the conditioning of all their players. The Browns have a nutrition consultant, dietitian Susan Kleiner, who has radically cut the fat content of the team's training table. Out are fried eggs, whole milk, traditional french fries and fried chicken. In are fresh fruit (a 16-foot-long table of it, replenished at each meal), cholesterol-free egg substitutes, skim milk, skinless baked chicken, fresh pasta with meatless sauce.
"At first, I think the players thought I was trying to turn them all into vegetarians," Kleiner says. "There was grumbling, but I stressed to them that fat in the diet becomes fat in the body, and fat won't fuel the muscles."
But then there's the guy who can carry 330 pounds easily, like Ballard of the Bills, who weighed 342 in Buffalo's last preseason game and still moved nimbly in a pulling and trapping run-blocking scheme. Ballard's an oak tree. He's as tall as a power forward, with the legs of a sumo wrestler, the upper body of a lumberjack, the neck of a powerlifter and the feet of Bob Lanier. "I'm blessed, compared to some of the other guys who are big," Ballard says. "Nobody's ever told me to gain weight, and nobody's ever told me I needed to drop 15 or 20 pounds, because I don't. I'm natural. It's God's gift to me that I'm big-boned and I can handle my weight."
The struggle for some big linemen ultimately will extend beyond their football careers. When their playing days eventually end and they are able to back away from conditioning programs once and for all, their overall health is more easily threatened.
"You just look at some of these guys and know they're walking time bombs," says University of Texas kinesiology professor Jack Wilmore, who has been a fitness consultant to players on six pro teams. "It's so tough to reverse what they've established."
Some players just flat don't care. Newton has a 4'11", 200-pound grandmother in her 80's, and you can't tell him he had better watch his diet so he'll live a long life. Paris says he isn't worried about life after football, believing he will one day find a comfortable weight and end the wild fluctuations brought on by trying to meet his NFL job requirements. Perry? He refused to be interviewed by SI, preferring to avoid discussions about his weight.
"If they don't develop good habits now," Kleiner says, "they could get huge and have heart disease after they retire. They'll lose control."
Former Charger guard Ed White has heard all of this and has learned to live with it. He was 6'2" and 285 pounds when he retired in 1986, and he's hovering around 300 today. "Being big was part of my role to play," he says. "But to be positively reinforced about being big made it a tremendously hard thing to control. You name the diet, I've been on it, but they're all temporary. When I think of the word buffet, my mouth still starts watering."
Are you listening, Bubba?