By Ken Reed

We’ve known for decades that a lot of former NFL players end up crippled from multiple injuries and surgeries resulting from their time on the field.  

Former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus has a hard time simply standing and walking due to numerous injuries he sustained while playing in the NFL.  Former Oakland Raiders’ center Jim Otto has it even worse.  He has had more than 70 surgeries, including 28 on a knee and multiple joint replacements.  He eventually had to have his right leg amputated in 2007.  

Yes, those might be rather extreme examples, but there are thousands of former players struggling with the negative health effects of their NFL careers.

And it’s not just knees, hips, backs and shoulders.  We’ve known for awhile that former NFL players are at a significantly greater risk for memory and mood disorders in relation to the general male population in the United States.  The number of former NFL players between the ages 30 and 49 that have received a diagnosis of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease” are 19 times the national average for that age group. In particular, NFL players suffer from Alzheimer’s at a 37 per cent higher rate than average.  Moreover, players who have suffered multiple concussions are three times more likely to suffer depression.  And, of course, former football players are at a much greater risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) than the rest of society due to the concussions and repetitive subconcussive impact they endured during their careers.

One NFL health issue that hasn’t received nearly the news coverage as others is obesity.

Today, there is a large number of college and NFL players that tip the scale at greater than 300 pounds.  When they retire from the NFL, many of these players find it hard to lose the excess weight, and, in fact, tend to add weight due to the decrease in physical activity they experience once their playing days are over.  Some lack the motivation to continue cardio exercise after their playing days are over while others simply can’t exercise due to injuries to their legs, backs, shoulders, etc.

Offensive and defensive linemen are especially vulnerable to obesity.  

“Their eating habits are hard to shed when they stop playing, and when they get obese, they get exposed to diabetes, hypertension and cardiac problems,” says Henry Buchwald, a bariatric surgeon at the University of Minnesota.  

Based on a study by the Living Heart Foundation, which was founded by Archie Roberts, a former NFL quarterback and retired heart surgeon, about two-thirds of former players — not just linemen — examined since 2001, have a body mass index above 30, which is considered moderately obese.  A third of those are at 35 or above, which is significantly obese.

Coaches at the high school, college and pro levels are constantly pushing football players, especially linemen, to get bigger. Retired offensive lineman Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns said that as a freshman in college he ate every few hours to gain the 40 pounds that would put his weight at the desired 290.  He snarfed down burgers, frozen pizzas and bowls of ice cream to accomplish that.

“It was see food, eat food,” says Thomas.

Obesity is a very serious issue for former football players.  According to a study in the American Journal of Medicine, for every 10 pounds football players gained from high school to college, or from college to the pros, the risk of heart disease rose 14% compared with players whose weight changed little during the period.

The health risks football players take in exchange for some hoped for gridiron glory are immense.  More needs to be done to inform high school, college and pro football players the extent of those risks.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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