clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Chasing glory: Big buildup — Players' push to add pounds today may bring grief tomorrow

A 185-pound center, Cody Larsen decided he'd better bulk up after getting knocked around by some big boys in a varsity football game his sophomore year.

"I just saw how big they were and knew I had to gain a couple of pounds to compete with those guys," he said. The Jordan High defensive end went to work in the weight room and at the dinner table.

Two years and 55 pounds later, Larsen, who stands 6-foot-4, is one of the big boys. But he's not done yet. College recruiters have told him they'd like him to get up to as much as 257.

"I'm competitive right now at this level," Larsen said. "If I move up to the college level, I have to gain pounds and increase my speed."

Back in the day, teams were lucky to have a couple of 200-plus pounders on the offensive line. Now boys that size are carrying the ball.

Greg Shepherd had a 235-pound lineman when he coached at Granger High School in the late 1970s. "That was considered a really big guy," he said. At Hunter High School where Shepherd is now the strength coach, the offensive line goes about 270 pounds.

Ask any coach the difference between GenY athletes and those of past decades, and the answer is the same.

"You'd be an idiot not to know they're bigger, faster and stronger," said Jordan High coach Alex Jacobson.

Consider: In 1992, the average weight in the largest school classification for the Deseret Morning News all-state football team was 199.8 pounds. Last year the average weight was 213.8.

Is there something in the Gatorade? Genetic engineering? Evolution?

Coaches interviewed for this story generally attribute the super-sizing to year-round weight training. Calorie-laden, protein-rich diets also play a large part.

Steroid use and proliferation of dietary supplements can't be discounted as contributing to the phenomenon, either. How widely Utah high-schoolers use them isn't known. But coaches and players say they're out there.

Becoming a big man on campus is the literal quest of many Utah prep athletes, particularly among those aspiring to play beyond high school, although very few do.

"They play their senior year, then what?" said Russ Toronto, a Salt Lake doctor of sports medicine. "They're all buffed out and nowhere to go . . . The muscle turns to fat."

The combination of heavy lifting and eating, health experts say, poses the potential for obesity and its long-term health consequences.

"You can go down the list. Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis, would probably be at the top of that," said Richard Bullough, Utah Bureau of Health Promotion program director. "If you don't get your weight down after competing in sports, you're at much higher risk of arthritis."

Diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers also make the list, he said.

Chad Lewis, an Orem High grad and, most recently a Philadelphia Eagles tight end, shakes his head at the size of prep players today. "Kids are huge. Linemen in high school, I just think, 'Holy heart muscle.' That thing is working overtime."

Lehi fullback Tyler Berry was big but not strong in ninth grade. "He was a fat kid," says teammate Mike Dumke.

Berry spent the past four years building his body for high school football. "I love football. I don't play any other sport, dude. I love football."

Berry pumped iron almost daily since his freshman year. He supplemented the weight lifting with protein drinks and glutamine. He now carries a muscular 200 pounds on his 5-foot 9-inch frame. His high school career ended this month. He likely will not play in college.

"I want to keep lifting. I've seen what happens to people when they stop lifting," he said.

What happens is they join the rest of increasingly fat Utah and America.

In 1999, 7.5 percent of male public high school students in Utah were overweight. In 2003, the rate increased to 8.3 percent, according to the Utah Department of Health. Weight picked up in adolescence often carries into adulthood. Overweight teenagers have a 70 percent greater chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.

Mitch Arquette entered Davis High School at 6-foot-2 230 pounds. He graduated at 6-foot-5 280. Now a junior offensive tackle at the University of Utah, he tips the scales at 312.

"I just kept growing. Part of it was working out. I just kind of multiplied, I guess," he said.

A hearty appetite and plenty of powerlifting help him maintain size and strength. He has thought about how that will effect his health when his playing days end.

"I definitely have concerns. I'd have to lose 30 or 40 pounds as fast as I can. It's just not that healthy on your frame. I want to be able to bend my knees in 30 years," Arquette said.

The University of Utah's 24-member recruiting class in 2005 averaged 221.8 pounds (225.4 pounds at Utah State, 216.7 pounds at BYU). Seven U. recruits were 250 pounds or more.

This season, according to rosters of 42 Wasatch Front high schools, 16.3 percent or 418 players weigh at least 220 pounds. Thirty-two check in at 300-plus pounds.

Hunter High leads the way with 20 players — one-third of its varsity roster 220 pounds or bigger. Bonneville has the fewest with six. Cottonwood High has 12, including twin brothers Teancom and Budda Tuinei packing 360 pounds each as well as two other 300-pounders.

"I can almost guarantee that when you look at those body weights and heights they would be classified as overweight or at least at risk of being overweight," Bullough said.

Shepherd, who founded the Bigger Faster Stronger training program, says the "Big Gulp society" has consumed teenagers, including athletes, with sugary snacks, fast-food combo meals and bottomless soda cups.

"We're just inundated by huge servings," he said.

In the 1970s, most high school football players approached Shepherd looking to gain weight. Now, he says, half need to get lean and lose weight. "They're too fat," he said.

That's not to say all husky football players are fat. They might be overweight, but the weight might be muscle, Bullough said.

The challenge comes in maintaining a healthy weight when pumping iron is no longer a priority and large eating habits are hard to break.

"It takes years to change that. The issue is we expect change to occur in a fast manner, and it doesn't," said Bullough, who has doctorate in nutrition. "It's not an easy thing to do. If you want to maintain it, it has to be sustained for the rest of your life."

At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, junior Tim "Scooter" Bickmore is undersize for a starting defensive and offensive lineman. His coaches at Highland High School want him to put on 25 pounds for next year.

Eggs, waffles, bacon and sausages fill Bickmore's morning plate. And, for the most part, he cooks it himself.

"I've just been trying to eat a lot. I eat a lot of breakfast," he said.

After this season ends, he intends to keep eating, lifting and downing protein shakes. He is also contemplating adding another ingredient to his beef-up stew: dietary supplements.

"I'm thinking about it during the offseason, just so I can bulk up," he said. "My mom is kind of against it."

An athletic family, the Bickmores have discussed supplement use among themselves and with coaches and trainers.

Anne Marie Bickmore, a registered nurse, worries products like creatine will interrupt her son's natural growth spurt by making him too big, too fast.

"With some protein shakes I'm willing to do it. Other than that, I'm not willing to do it. He's 16," she said.

Mom's arguments have proven persuasive so far. "What it boils down to is he decided a quick fix was not it," she said.

Creatine is the most popular supplement on the market today. It delivers short energy boosts to muscles and allows users to add bulk. It is found naturally in the body, and the muscles need it during quick, high-intensity exercise. When muscles run out of creatine, they rely on carbohydrates for energy, causing them to tire.

Common side effects are muscle tears, kidney disorders, dehydration, diarrhea and cramping. Long-term effects are not known.

The Utah High School Activities Association discourages dietary supplement use. "We are not creatine fans," said Dave Wilkey, assistant executive director.

But that doesn't prevent individual schools from dispensing information about it. Shepherd left pamphlets about the dangers of creatine use on a table after a team meeting at Hunter. All of them were taken.

Olympus High School has a section on its football Web site titled "Guidelines for creatine supplementation."

"That disturbs me," Wilkey said.

More disturbing is steroid use.

East High coach Aaron Whitehead in a game this year saw what he thinks was 'roid rage.

An opposing linebacker chased one of his players out of bounds without making much contact. Rather than jog back onto the field, he looked for someone to hit. He leveled a scrub on the sideline, his own sideline.

"It's out there," Whitehead said, vice president of the Utah High School Football Coaches Association where the steroid issue is discussed.

Nationally, about 2.5 percent of 12th-graders used steroids in the past year, according to the University of Michigan "Monitoring the Future" survey. The rate for 10th-graders is 1.5 percent.

Toronto has done hundreds of physicals for high school athletes over the years. He can immediately recognize a body built on juice. Stretch marks are a dead giveaway.

"I just know it's being done," he said, estimating usage among his patients at about 5 percent.

Chances of steroid use increase when players train in gyms outside school, away from teammates and coaches, Shepherd said.

There is no evidence of Utah coaches advocating steroid use, but they often tell underclassmen that bulking up during the offseason will give them a better chance to crack the starting lineup.

"Coach is king," said Toronto, a former U. baseball player. "Whatever they say, those kids will do."

The expectations can be unrealistic and unhealthy.

"Can an athlete put on 30 pounds over the course of a summer? The answer is probably no" said Katherine Beals, U. nutrition center director. "If he does, what is the composition of the weight and how was that done? With some sort of drugs?"

Toronto sees many injuries such as stress fractures and herniated disks as a result of overtraining. "They shouldn't have back injuries at that age," he said.

Weight rooms, he said, aren't always supervised, so young athletes end up using improper techniques. There also is the notion that if a little is good, more must be better. And always looming is that chance to be a starter.

Coaches are overconditioning their players, Toronto said.

"Someone has got to put the brakes on somewhere," he said. "They're basically beating the kids up. That's across the board. That's not just football."

Northridge High graduate and current New Orleans Saints linebacker Colby Bockwoldt said it took him years to get to his current 245-pound playing weight. His advice?

"At that level, it's important for young men and young women to learn how to lift properly so they don't get hurt . . . Take it slow and easy and do it right."

"If you're doing it wrong, you're not going to work right" later in life, he said.

In the end, Toronto says, how much does size really matter. "Natural ability is what counts, not going from 180 to 220. If you got it, you got it."

For most athletes at this age, Beals said, it comes down to genetics. "If they're gifted genetically, they could eat garbage and still outperform their peers."

Prep football is coming on strong in Utah, long considered a basketball state, like a running back loose in the secondary. Attendance and enthusiasm for the state football playoffs currently under way is running high.

Deseret Morning News reporters interviewed dozens of high school football players, parents, coaches, school officials, doctors, boosters and community leaders across the state to explain Utah's increasing fascination and sometimes obsession with high school football.

"Chasing Glory" is a four-day series that will examine controversial claims of "recruiting," the ever-increasing size of today's players, football dynasties, and a special visit to a distant Utah town where life is simpler and football the center of their universe.