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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."