With apologies to February's Fat Tuesday, our nation's real Fat Day just passed. As we watched Tampa Bay Tubby Warren Sapp get the best of Rotund Raider Frank Middleton on Sunday, millions of us challenged our digestive systems with beer and chips and chicken wings topped with—I actually saw a recipe for this crime against nature—"Cheez Whiz sauce."
The earthy, and girthy, Sapp-Middleton jabberathon that preceded the game—"It's like getting two fat boys in the ring, and whoever wins gets to eat," Middleton said—illuminated that rare but conspicuous sports figure: the Capable Corpulent. Sapp and especially Middleton are bigger than even NFL linemen need to be, but they thrive gleefully at their weights (303 and 360 respectively). The Yankees' All-Star pitcher David Wells has produced a 16-season multimillion-dollar career while carrying some serious baggage above his beltline. Charles Barkley, the self-proclaimed Round Mound of Rebound during his spectacular playing days, has built his regular TNT weigh-ins into an ongoing comedy routine. (It's infinitely more fun when he gets bad news than good from the scale.) And as White Sox general manager Ken Williams said last month after acquiring 5'11", 240-pound pitcher Bartolo Colon, who went 20-8 for the Expos and Indians last year, "Am I going to worry
about five pounds here or five pounds there?"
Maybe Williams should worry. Colon and company notwithstanding, athletes often pay a price when they get too heavy. Last month Jennifer Capriati came to the Australian Open with what one reporter called a "plum-pudding" stomach and was knocked out in the first round. The Nets took one look at pudgy point guard Chris Childs in the preseason, suspended him and sent him to the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. As for Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn, who looked like a whole right side of the infield last season, management has decided it wants to see less of him. Get fitter in the off-season, Mets owner Fred Wilpon told Vaughn in October, or face the possibility that your contract will be voided for violating the standard requirement that he stay in "first-class physical condition."
Vaughn, who had difficulty bending for ground balls last year and led the majors in errors by a first baseman (18), and Childs, who's only played five games this year due to poor conditioning and injury, are already the subject of bar-stool ridicule. They follow in the tradition of former heavyweight champ Buster Douglas, former NBA players Oliver Miller and John (Hot Plate) Williams, and others who have eaten themselves out of sports.
But nobody should be laughing at these guys. Obesity is about as funny as cancer. A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that nearly one third of Americans are either over-weight or obese. We have more heart disease, more weight-related diabetes, more of certain cancers and other diseases in part because we eat too much and get too fat.
Our larger-than-life athletes might be more vulnerable than anyone. A recent HBO Real Sports chronicled the severe health problems of NFL linemen who played at massive weights. Korey Stringer's size (336 pounds) may have contributed to his death on a sauna-hot Minnesota practice field in the summer of 2001. A New England Journal of Medicine report showed that, primarily because of their large size, NFL football players are five times more likely than other men their age to suffer from sleep apnea, which can lead to heart disease and stroke.
A more compelling Super Bowl story than Sapp-Middleton was that of Raiders offensive lineman Lincoln Kennedy, who has battled depression and an eating disorder that repeatedly landed him in weight-loss clinics. Kennedy, who once called himself a "food addict" has spent years slimming down from a high of 415 pounds to the 335 he played at on Sunday.
The message in all this is that weight issues leave no corner of the population spared. When putting limits on their careers and their lives by eating poorly or simply too much, athletes are just like the rest of us.