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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 7, 2002

Now we know why they call it big-time football

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ray Brown considers himself lucky.

49er lineman Ray Brown, left, is one of 354 NFL players who weigh pounds or more. Brown weighs 318.

Bruce Asato ð The Honolulu Advertiser

In the NFL for 16 years, he has never worried about his weight.

At 318, he's large and in charge. Always has been, always will be.

"I'm just blessed with this size," said the veteran guard for San Francisco. "I don't worry about it."

But some do.

Size seems to matter in the NFL, a league that's growing in leaps and pounds.

Consider this: Ten years ago USC offensive lineman Pat Harlow was a first-round draft pick at 288 pounds. Last year's highest-drafted lineman, Texas' Leonard Davis, weighed in at 365 pounds.

According to current NFL rosters, there are 354 players (including those on the injured reserve) who are at least 300 pounds. That's more than six times the number of 300-pound players 10 years ago.

In Saturday's Pro Bowl alone, 18 players tip the scales over 300.

"The game has changed quite a bit, as far as players," said Bears 331-pound tackle and Pro Bowler James "Big Cat" Williams, who's been in the league for 11 years. "They're so much bigger, so much stronger, so much faster. Every year it changes."

Growth spurt

Linemen have always been big. They need to be big. They use their body weight to stop the rush, to create holes for running backs, to penetrate the pocket and sack the quarterback.

 • WHAT: NFL Pro Bowl between AFC All-Stars and NFC All-Stars.
 • WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
 • WHERE: Aloha Stadium.
 • TICKETS: Available at TicketPlus at 526-4400 or in advance by calling Ticket Plus at 877-750-4400 or at: www.ticketplushawaii.com
 • Parking: $3.

Today: 9 a.m.—NFC photo day and practice at Ihilani Resort (closed). 10 a.m.—AFC practice at Aloha Stadium.

Tomorrow: 9 a.m.—AFC photo day and practice at Ihilani Resort (closed). 10 a.m.—NFC Practice, Aloha Stadium (Admission free).

Williams, who switched from defense to offensive line in 1992, doesn't feel the pressure to stay big. He is big. Period.

But he acknowledged that linemen fall somewhere between 290 and 350.

"We're all about the same," he said.

Not only are linemen getting bigger, but so are wide receivers, running backs, even safeties.

"They're getting real big," said Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. "That's why you have to continue to do well because the competition has gotten so much better, so much stronger."

Though speed still matters, especially with receivers, heft and bulk count.

Once the brunt of weight jokes, bulky linemen have become the norm, coveted even.

Mass destruction

But not without concern.

Some experts wonder if the combination of size and speed, which has made the game more spectacular, is dangerous.

More mass puts more stress on the body, resulting in collisions that could lead to serious injuries.

"WIth increased weight, there's certainly more pressure on your joints and particular ligaments and tendons around those joints," said Dr. Michael Reyes, an orthopedic surgeon who works in Straub's Bone and Joint Center. "You're subject to more stress and injuries."

Common injuries are ligament sprains and tendinitis, both of which could sideline a player for 4-6 weeks. A torn ligament could immobilize a player for up to 8 weeks and possibly require surgery.

"In general, the more weight you have on any joint, the more stress you put on that joint," Reyes explained.

The possibility for injury is greater in football, a high-impact contact sport, he added.

Some players, such as Brown, are built for the weight. Others, however, force the increased bulk, downing cheeseburgers and doughnuts by the dozen.

This kind of weight gain "could be unhealthy," Reyes said. The increase in body fat could lead to health problems such as high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.

Risks involved

With the promise of adding bulk, creatine has become part of players' diets. But some medical experts suspect a link between the supplement and kidney and liver damage.

The sudden death of Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer last August also raised questions about unnatural weight.

Stringer, who died of complications from heatstroke, had a weight problem early in his career. At times in 1996 and 1997, he dangerously hovered around 375 pounds.

Even naturally big players feel the pressure to maintain their bulk, making offseason training critical.

"They say each year we get bigger, faster, stronger," said Packers tight end Bubba Franks. "That's something you really gotta live up to."

At 6 feet 6 and 260 pounds, Franks is a menacing tight end with speed, averaging 8.9 yards per catch last season with nine touchdowns. He's making his first Pro Bowl appearance after two seasons at Green Bay.

During the offseason he goes back to his alma mater, Miami, to work with the team.

"They help me and I help them," Franks said.

Speed helps

But not all players feel the need to bulk up.

Cowboys linebacker Dexter Coakley uses his smaller size to his advantage.

"My biggest asset is my speed," said the 5-foot-10, 230-pound Pro Bowler. "(Other teams) try to match me up and create some mismatch with the backs so linebackers have to cover backs now. And with receivers gaining as much weight as they're gaining, you still have to be big enough to tackle receivers. So the game has definitely changed."

He doesn't feel any pressure to get bigger. In five seasons, he's been selected to the Pro Bowl twice.

"So (my game) definitely works," Coakley said, smiling.