I Want My Body Back
What happens to the biggest men on campus when their playing days end?
Three percent of college players reach NFL; many others face health challenges
Two former Oregon linemen bucked the trend and got serious about their health
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.