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.' "