Increasing body sizes in football

hulktransformationThere existed no evidence of systemic muscle doping in American football—so said insiders, media, and fans. That was the basic public excuse during the problem’s first 50 years. Approaching 2010, America continued to avoid potentially painful reform over drugs in football, preferring instead to gorge on the nationalistic blood sport as it stood.

The smoking-gun evidence, meanwhile, remained right in the face of America, had for decades, at least since the 1980s when juiced specimens abounded. Unnaturally large sizes of players were obvious at every level of football, viewed on television or in-person at the stadium. As former NFL lineman Steve Courson maintained publicly, he once toted around bagfuls of steroids in Pittsburgh, but no one had to peek inside for grasping reality. People need only see his build and that of others in football to understand the picture. “One of the reasons I was always open with my steroid use was because it was so apparent with my physique, and I thought it foolish to try to hide something so obvious, legal and tacitly condoned,” Courson wrote to a former teammate during summer 2005, in correspondence never delivered. “Currently, as of recent events, the media has decided to report this more openly and accurately. Part of that locally I believe is related to Mike Webster’s death. BALCO had a lot to do with the change in reporting. After two trips to Washington I am definitely disheartened, but not surprised by the incredible (myth, image, fantasy, lie or synonym thereof) that NFL management continues to spin on this situation. It has reinforced my views as a person.”

Many voices backed Courson about increasing sizes and juice in football, led by athletes active and retired from multiple sports, along with coaches, weightlifters, trainers, sports organizers, medical experts, media, politicians, adult fans, and schoolchildren. “When you talk about the NFL, what’s the first thing you say? Guys who played in the 1970s would be a joke on the football field today,” said Curt Schilling, baseball pitcher. Hard data founded the argument, weight statistics and comparisons spanning football during the age of pharmaceutical and bio-identical drugs. Among numbers, the starting offensive line of the 1958 NFL champion Colts averaged about 240 pounds while O-line starters for the 2007 Giants, Super Bowl champions, averaged about 6-5 in height and 314 on scales.

Evidence suggested a concentrated wave of huge physiques first hit the NFL during the 1970s, and by the late 1990s the league had 200 players weighing 300 pounds or more. That number doubled the next decade, approaching the year 2010, with about 350 players of at least 300 pounds on game rosters and more than 500 in training camps. An additional 100 players hovered near the 300-pound mark. A Scripps Howard review found the average NFL body weights had increased 10 percent since 1985, before the start of steroid testing, to a 2006 average of 248 pounds. The average for offensive tackles jumped from 281 pounds to 318. “When I played, a 300-pounder was a freak,” said Art Kehoe, Dolphins associate head coach and former NFL lineman. “Today, if you don’t weigh 300 pounds, you are a freak.”

For major-college football, 300-pounders were the majority among starting offensive linemen in 2008, and the size was consistent on rosters across Division II of the NCAA. At the prep level, top-recruited offensive linemen typically hit 300 on the scales—the online rating service often listed a dozen or more players at that weight among its top 40 prospects nationally.

Obesity contributed, particularly in teen players, but numerous witnesses and qualified observers said the 2000s football environment—still stuck on “bigger, stronger”—remained mostly about performance-enhancing drugs. Dr. Yesalis, the epidemiologist, strength coach, and weightlifter, repeatedly remarked God had not “changed the recipe” for humans, always citing additional material evidence of an embedded epidemic. Testing was invalid and football’s documented timeline of muscle doping continually hardened. Organizers now acknowledged they were wrong about the 1980s, for example. Yes, they conceded in official consensus, the problem was in fact widespread during that decade. Confirmed history alone rendered anyone’s claim of cleanup as illogical, given time’s unfettered progression in performance that constantly placed current players as the largest and most athletic ever.

Nonetheless, the football institution denied a problem, as the vast majority of active athletes, coaches, and organizers stayed with dubious excuses. They said gigantic physiques were due primarily to strength training and eating. “Fat” athletes had taken over the game, shoving aside muscled juicers, according to a 2005 company line voiced by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, testifying under oath for the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform. “I think it’s nonsense…,” Tagliabue said of allegations about PEDs and sizes. “Today we have a young man who’s 6-feet-6 and 268 pounds playing quarterback. Are we to conclude that he’s using steroids? I don’t like to smear people in that fashion.”

Focusing on 300-pounders, Tagliabue contended drugs made “athletes lean and sculpted”—like that quarterback he failed to fully describe as such—and declared “high body fat” beset the league’s largest players. The 300-pounders “tend to be the antithesis of the sculpted, lean athlete,” Tagliabue testified. The commissioner maintained contemporary players simply lifted much harder and ate much more than erstwhile specimens—who had trained rigorously, consumed massive calories, and abused anabolic steroids but were significantly smaller than present-day behemoths. Players union director Gene Upshaw backed Tagliabue at the hearing. Upshaw likewise dismissed muscle doping as the key factor for sizes, saying random urinalysis was a certain preventive of that scenario. If anything, Upshaw said, colleges and high schools produced unhealthy football players. “They come to us the size that we get them,” he testified.

Five months later, however, a 300-pound NFL player dropped dead at the age of 23: Thomas Herrion, 49ers lineman, whose autopsy showed an enlarged heart and artery blockage. In addition, publicized studies found systemic hazards in league body weights. Within this context, management spoke differently than when testifying for Congress. Here the NFL contended that fat or unhealthiness was not the primary reason for player weights alarmingly in excess of healthy standards set by the universal Body Mass Index. Now officials contended the NFL primarily featured muscled specimens with low body fat, so the league could argue BMI standards were an invalid application for its athletes.

League medical liaison Dr. Elliot Pellman said the question of obesity among players still had to be answered by research. The league was commissioning its own studies. “There’s a 1-in-200,000 chance that an individual the age of Mr. Herrion will suffer a sudden death,” Pellman said. “It happens, and no one knows why it happens.” Pellman said obesity was a cultural problem, not football’s. Officials dismissed a study, based on the BMI, concluding that virtually all NFL players were overweight or obese. Bears nutritionist Julie Burns said NFL players were abnormally muscular humans. Tagliabue said, “We have athletes that are fitter than most people in society, bigger than most people in society, and doing things that are different and more demanding than many people in society.” PEDs, meanwhile, did not apply.

“Huh?” remarked Sam Donnellon, Philadelphia Daily News, on mixed messages from the league. Basically, official football answers on increasing sizes followed that “fat” athletes were the foremost reason, not drugs; however, if criticism focused on obesity, not doping, then the players were portrayed as muscular and healthy, possessing uncommon physiology. NFL and NCAA rhetoric alike reasoned that modern players gained incredible mass without stuff like steroids, HGH, IGF-1, clenbuterol, and GHB. The necessary presumption held that substances readily available and potent were undesirable, obsolete for modern players.

Impossible, critics responded collectively, a growing legion of insider witnesses and close observers of football, including media, athletes, coaches, and doctors. They rejected official word on drugs from painkillers to amphetamines, anabolic steroids, and HGH. “Can it really be true that the NFL, with more than 300 players who weigh more than 300 pounds each, really has no drug problem?” dismissed Dave Perkins, Toronto Star columnist. “Where’s the proof—other than the NFL saying it has no drug problem?” Anti-steroid trainer Sal Marinello always chortled at football drug rhetoric, contending the NFL and colleges were an historic haven for widespread PEDs. The strength guru and former college football player wrote for that “off-the-field training, nutrition and legal modes of supplementation cannot be given credit for the ever-growing NCAA and NFL players.” News writer John Eisenberg, Baltimore Sun, wrote, “A wise doctor who knows about steroids once told me to trust my eyes above all when trying to detect abuse because, as he put it, lifting weights can only do so much. Well, my eyes are telling me that college football, like the pros, has more than its share of juicers.”

Dave DePew, personal trainer and nutritionist, told The San Diego Union-Tribune he was turned off by pro athletes and PEDs, through with consulting for them. “Steroids will definitely help you, and I think most athletes know that,” DePew said. “The unfortunate reality is that most of these athletes will take advantage if they know they’re not going to get caught.” Player agent David Caravantes said pro football wanted “guys who look like Tarzan and don’t play like Jane.” The late Lyle Alzado contended the NFL could have few genetic wonders packing extraordinary muscle at any size without dope, perhaps a percentile among a thousand bodies. Charles Yesalis extended Alzado’s observation to include absurd sizes in college and prep football, and many agreed, such as David Meggyesy, 1960s NFL linebacker and retired union official. “I think [doping has] escalated even more, and the pressure on kids playing football, it’s there,” Meggyesy said. “If the steroids are there, they’re going to do it.”

“You can see all the signs,” said Bill Curry, a coach and former NFL center, in 2008. “You gain 40 pounds over the summer, there’s something wrong with that. All of a sudden you can’t get your headgear on, and your jaws are doubling in size, and I’m callin’ ya in and we’re gonna do a test.” Curry used anabolic steroids to make the NFL in 1965. In his day he saw 300-pounder players genuinely fat, but none could compete. “We just murdered ’em,” said Curry, who peaked in weight at about 245. “You could keep them on the ground all day; that’s where they wanted to be anyhow. They didn’t want to run to the ball.”

Fat was a factor for the largest modern players, Curry said, but he still saw drug use for their sustained speed and athleticism. More big bodies of the NFL astounded Curry, the many hundreds ranging from 250 to 300 pounds with tremendous strength, speed, agility, and minimal body fat. Summing up, Curry said, “Now you got guys that are cut-up 300 pounds, and then you got [athletes] that are 400 pounds who are obese, and they’re out there in the heat and cold, and they’re gonna die. When I watch an NFL game now, I find myself—I would love to just enjoy the football, but I start worrying about [jersey] number 76. He’s gonna die. Soon. He might die in this game, while I’m watching him. I know what he’s been doing, and it breaks my heart.”

“People want to see gladiators, and you just don’t get that way by eating your fruits and vegetables,” said Linden King, former Raiders linebacker and self-confirmed steroid user of the 1970s and ’80s. Former NFL safety Bruce Laird, who retired in 1982, said there was “no question” drugs impacted contemporary sizes of players, who he believed faced health risks in the present and future. “You know those guys aren’t doing it on peanut butter, and beer, and whatever,” said Laird, a leader in the retirees’ cause for improved disability and pension benefits.

Former defensive tackle Charlie Krueger said he saw anabolic steroids sweeping the NFL as he left in the early 1970s. Krueger was convinced muscle doping drove modern football, especially for requirements in size, strength, and athletic ability. “There are many large, large people in [pro] football, college football, and some in high school football,” he said in 2008. “And they must be [juicing]. … I’m glad I was gone before this stuff invaded because you would be forced to use it or lose your job.”

In the debate over Herrion and health, one team official was pragmatic. “Is it good or bad that the league is so big? It doesn’t matter, because the players are not going to get smaller,” said Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. “If anything, they are going to get bigger. Colleges are loaded with 300-pound linemen.” One coach conceded PEDs were at least a factor. “I think part of this size thing happened because of steroids, the need to be bigger and stronger to compete with guys on the stuff,” said Joe Bugel, Redskins line coach.”

Overall, valid scientific study on muscle doping was lacking, but a wealth of research supported increased health risks of football because of large bodies. Public debate on football brutality, the game’s traditional issue, reemerged during the 2000s through concerns funneling back to physiques, including orthopedic injury, brain concussion, and physiological malady linked to excessive weight. Media examined topics like obesity and sudden cardiac death of young athletes, along with NFL retirees’ body maiming, painkiller addiction, cortisone damage, and more disabling setbacks. The issue of healthcare topped the personal agenda of practically every American, and many NFL retirees banded together in complaints against the union administration of the fund for pensions and disability. Press analysis of health issues in football—including size statistics compiled by Scripps Howard, Newsday, and The Palm Beach Post—stimulated public discussion of medical information and witness opinion, so much that politicians dove in to stage a hearing on the disability issue in pro football.

Medical personnel said public focus on increasing sizes was overdue. “Football players have gotten so huge that it has become dangerous from a health standpoint,” said Dr. David Bindleglass, orthopedic surgeon and former college player. “No one in the world loves the game of football more than I do, but it concerns me that players seem to get bigger and bigger, and intrinsically, there has to be some natural limit to it. … Rationally, you have to look at this and wonder where it’s going.” Cardiac surgeon Dr. Arthur “Archie” Roberts was an All-American quarterback at Columbia who later played three years in the NFL. “There’s no question that the super-sizing that’s occurred in the NFL, college and high school [levels] the last 30 years has tipped the scales in a negative way,” Roberts said. “It means there is a serious alert for a health imbalance.”

Dr. Joyce Harp, the University of North Carolina, led a study team that concluded more than one in four NFL players in 2003 qualified for class 2 obesity on the BMI, according to height and weight. About three percent of players approached 400 pounds, ranking them class 3 obese. The NFL labeled the conclusions invalid because its players were unique specimens of the human race, but no independent scientists objected to the research. Harp remarked, “I don’t know what’s going on in the minds of trainers, coaches or other people who drive what happens in the NFL, but clearly there’s something going on when they have these guys getting so big.”

A veteran player indicated something was up about steroids, if not injuries, while airing gripes at the league in 2008. Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot was mad about player fines over uniform attire. “I think they’re worried about all the wrong [stuff],” Fred Smoot told Dan Steinberg of “If you really want to do something, stop everybody from using steroids that’s using steroids, instead of worrying about how the hell I’m dressed when I walk out there and play. You know what I’m saying? Worry about stuff that count, like people getting paralyzed.”

In the controversy over NFL disabilities, opposing parties avoided mention of anabolic steroids and growth hormone. Despite the contemptuous discussion and allegations—sordid details like debilitating injuries, painkillers, amphetamines, dangerous weights, fraud, and personal bankruptcy—the topic of muscle doping slid by quietly. “That has not been part of the argument. No one’s really brought that up,” said Ron Mix, Hall of Fame lineman and an attorney in worker’s compensation. “I got a feeling that’s part of the equation. … Just increased size by itself is an extra strain on the entire system, the skeletal system, the joints, and also the various organs. I mean, you have to be clinically overweight just to play [NFL] football now. That’s a requirement. Just about every position, the guys weigh far more than what physicians say is the ideal weight for them.”
Meggyesy said muscle doping was bound by silence in the league, “but there’s a whole range of issues around injuries, and the elephants in the living room are performance-enhancing steroids.”

Meggyesy said a retired player had a monetary interest for denying doping, such as healthcare and disability coverage, while management would not admit anything that left the league vulnerable. “It comes back to liability,” he said. “It all comes back to who is responsible.”

About the Author

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, publisher and teacher living in Missouri. A former college football player, Chaney specializes in issues of sport, producing reports and commentary for publications such as The New York Daily News and The Kansas City Star. For his master’s degree thesis, Chaney analyzed media coverage of anabolic substances in American football from 1983 to 1999. His previous nonfiction books are: My Name Is Mister Ryan and Legend In Missouri. Chaney and his wife, Laura, operate Four Walls Publishing. For more information, visit