Heavy NFL players twice as likely to die before 50

Updated: January 31, 2006, 12:44 PM ET
By Thomas Hargrove | Scripps Howard News Service

The amazing athletes of the National Football League -- bigger and stronger than ever before -- are dying young at a rate experts find alarming, and many of the players are succumbing to ailments typically related to weight.

The heaviest athletes are more than twice as likely to die before their 50th birthday than their teammates, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of 3,850 professional-football players who have died in the last century.

Do you see any oversized animals anywhere in the world living a long life? We're pretty much on our own here.
Tony Siragusa

Most of the 130 players born since 1955 who have died were among the heaviest athletes in sports history, according to the study. One-fifth died of heart diseases, and 77 were so overweight that doctors would have classified them as obese, the study found.

The bone-crushing competitiveness of professional football is spawning hundreds of these behemoths -- many of whom top the scales at 300 pounds or more -- and the pressure to super-size now extends to younger players in college and even high school.

As America anticipates Sunday's Super Bowl -- the annual orgy of admiration for the NFL and its athletes -- physicians are increasingly questioning whether, by bulking up for their shot at fame and fortune, players are sacrificing their health later in life.

"Clearly, these big, fat guys are having coronaries," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor of health policy and sport science.

The trend lines are even more disturbing.

Twenty years ago, it was rare for a player to weigh 300 pounds. But more than 500 players were listed at that weight or more on NFL training-camp rosters this summer -- including San Francisco 49ers guard Thomas Herrion, who collapsed and died after an exhibition game in August.

The relatively recent explosion in the number of 300-pound linemen "presents a frightening picture in terms of what we might expect 20 years from now," said Dr. Sherry Baron, who studied the issue in 1994 for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Herrion tribute
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesThe 49ers paid tribute to Thomas Herrion on during an exhibition game six days after he died.

Baron's study, conducted at the request of the NFL Players Association, found that while players generally weren't dying sooner than average, offensive and defensive linemen had a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.

The Scripps Howard study suggests that the risk for those heaviest players is increasing, although exact comparisons to the general population were impossible to make because so many factors -- heredity, sedentary lifestyles, eating habits, as well as size -- contribute to heart disease.

"We know that the body mass index levels have shifted since our 1994 study," Baron said. "More [football players] now would be considered obese."

Scripps Howard was able to compare mortality rates for professional-football players with the 2,403 Major League Baseball players who have died in the last century. The comparison found that football players are more than twice as likely to die before age 50. Asked to speculate on the cause for this difference, experts noted that football players generally are heavier than baseball players.

The threat isn't lost on retired players, who acknowledge that they are spooked by the potential problems they now face.

"Do you see any oversized animals anywhere in the world living a long life?" asked Tony "Goose" Siragusa, a 340-pound defensive tackle for 12 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens. "We're pretty much on our own here."

The Scripps Howard study tracked the deaths of 3,850 pro-football players born since 1905. Medical examiners and coroners were contacted to determine the causes of death for the 130 players who died before age 50. The study found:

The Complete Study
Scripps Howard News Service studied 3,850 professional-football players who have died in the last century. What they found, and some issues it raised, are chronicles here:

Study: NFL players dying young at alarming rate
Compared to baseball, football players die younger
Bigger isn't better as far as health is concerned
Evidence is clear: Preps are getting bigger, too

• Twenty-eight percent of all pro-football players born in the last century who qualified as obese died before their 50th birthday, compared with 13 percent who were less overweight.

• One of every 69 players born since 1955 is now dead.

• Twenty-two percent of those players died of heart diseases; 19 percent died from homicides or suicides.

• Seventy-seven percent of those who died of heart diseases qualified as obese, even during their playing days, and they were 2½ times more likely to die of coronaries than their trimmer teammates.

• Only 10 percent of deceased players born from 1905 through 1914 were obese while active. Today, 56 percent of all players on NFL rosters are categorized as obese.

• The average weight in the NFL has grown by 10 percent since 1985 to a current average of 248 pounds. The heaviest position, offensive tackle, went from 281 pounds two decades ago to 318 pounds.

The NFL has expressed concern over whether players are obese and risking health problems.

Forgotten in the frenzy surrounding Super Bowl XL is the tragic way the season started. The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Herrion collapsed in the 49ers' locker room after the team's Aug. 20 exhibition in Denver. An autopsy showed that his heart was scarred and oversized and that heart disease had blocked his right coronary artery. He was only 23.

At a memorial service for Herrion, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue pointed out that he already had asked medical experts to study the cardiovascular health of players. That study is incomplete.

"We need to understand in a serious way what the risks are, to the extent that there are risk factors," Tagliabue told reporters. "We've got to address them. We are working on it."

But in a statement, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello dismissed the Scripps Howard study, saying: "The issue of obesity in our society transcends sports and must be dealt with in a comprehensive, responsible way. This media survey contributes nothing."

Tagliabue wouldn't comment for this article.

The NFL also criticized a 2003 study by University of North Carolina endocrinologist Joyce Harp. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study found that 56 percent of NFL players were obese according to their body-mass indexes -- the government standard based on height and weight.

The Scripps Howard study also used the body-mass index to determine whether a player was obese. The NFL says it believes that standard is misleading because it doesn't account for the player's muscles. But many experts disagree and say that body-mass index is a valid indication that a player may face greater health risks.

"When you get that big -- regardless of whether your body is muscle or fat -- your heart is stressed," Penn State's Yesalis said.

"Is it good for guys to be that big? Of course not," he said. "I fully support a weight limit of 275 pounds. It would reduce injuries and have a positive effect on the short- and long-term health of these men."

The NFL Players Association declined to comment for this article. But Kevin Guskiewicz, director of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at the University of North Carolina, is conducting research for the association on the issue. He said he is alarmed at the information he sees.

"We are finding a number of health issues among these players," Guskiewicz said. "They clearly have higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease and hypertension, especially in the offensive and defensive linemen. And it clearly is higher than in the general population."

Defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry almost single-handedly brought 300-pounders into vogue when he became a pop sensation for the Chicago Bears. As a goal-line running back, he bulled his way to a touchdown in Super Bowl XX in 1986. Perry, who topped out at 370 pounds during his career, said he has actually gained some weight in retirement but tries not to dwell on the risks.

"I've been big all my life," Perry said. "Mental attitude is as important as your physical condition after the NFL. I try to keep a happy balance."

Weighty Issue
In November 2004, ESPN.com's Page 2 looked at the size of NFL players. Take a look back at what we found:

Caple: The NFL is living large
'04 NFL weight rankings
Large and small of it
'79 Steelers vs. '04 Steelers

Several retired players said they believe that losing weight is an issue of life or death.

"We've all got to remember to shed that armor when our NFL career is over," said Jim Lachey, who is 25 pounds lighter since the days he weighed 294 while an offensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins from 1985-95. "A lot of guys are doing it. But, I know, there are others with injuries that prevent them from running and doing the things they must do to shed the weight."

Tony Mandarich -- nicknamed "The Incredible Bulk" while playing guard at 325 pounds for the Green Bay Packers -- said he gained even more weight after retiring and soon was put on high-blood-pressure medicine.

"My doctor asked me, 'How many 320-pound men who are 80 years old do you see walking around?' That's when the lightbulb came on over my head," Mandarich said.

He changed his diet, began hiking and mountain-biking regularly, and shed 60 pounds. "That doesn't mean I won't die of a heart attack at 39, but I've given myself the best chance,'' said Mandarich, who is 39 now.

The wakeup for many retired players came with the 2004 death of two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Reggie White, known for his passionate religious faith and pass-rushing skills. He died at age 43 of cardiac arrhythmia compounded by breathing disorders.

"When I heard that Reggie had died, the first thing that came into my head was that I hoped he'd let himself go and was out of shape," Mandarich said. "Because if he was in shape, it's not a good thing for any of us."

Actually, White had dropped about 25 pounds from his playing weight of 325, members of his family said. But he also suffered from sarcoidosis, or inflammation in his lungs, which led to thunderous snoring and a profound sleep apnea.

"These guys live such an extreme lifestyle with their weight that they are going to be prone to hypertension, diabetes and coronary artery disease. There is no question about it," said Dr. Barry Maron, director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.

Several medical examiners contacted by Scripps Howard remarked on the size of retired players who died of heart-related causes.

"He was a rather big boy at 6-foot-2 and 498 pounds," said Steve Gelman of the San Francisco Medical Examiner's office when asked why Joe Drake, a retired guard for the San Francisco 49ers and the Philadelphia Eagles, died in 1994 at 31.

"Essentially, he had clogged arteries and a heart attack. Mr. Drake was going out to lunch with some friends when he complained of sweating and nausea just before he collapsed on the street next to his car," Gelman said.

Willis Leggett of Muskogee, Okla., said he does not blame football for the death of former Eagles offensive guard and tackle Scott Leggett. Doctors told Leggett that his son died of congestive heart failure at age 35.

"God put Scott on this earth and God took him off," Leggett said. "If he hadn't played football, he probably would have died sooner. Football was his goal and that's what he wanted to do. No one could change his mind."

(The Scripps Howard study created a computer database of the deaths of 3,850 former professional-football players using records assembled by professional-football statistician David Neft, who was assisted by Bob Carroll and Rich Bozzone.)