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Evidence shows prep players getting bigger

1/31/2006

Sam Simpson has seen a lot of big men hit the field during his
years as a high-school football coach, including a bruising 420-pound
offensive lineman, and he doesn't think the trend toward bigger,
bulkier athletes is going to exit the gridiron anytime soon.

"When you compare the size of the kids today with the size of the
kids looking at a football team 30 to 40 years ago, there's no
comparison,'' said Simpson, who is in his 13th year as head coach at
Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky. "The average size is a whole
lot bigger.''

This year's Henry Clay team, which competes in the state's largest
high-school division, featured three players in the 300-pound range --
a weight once reserved for only the most intimidating National
Football League players. Over the past 20 years, more and more of
these behemoths have been butting heads on the prep-football field.

The evidence is everywhere.

Superprep.com, an online service that rates the nation's top
high-school football prospects, listed 14 athletes weighing 300 pounds
or more among the top 40 players in 2005. A view of 61 high-school
football rosters around the Indianapolis area for 2005 showed 54 of
the 300-pounders. Hulking competitors are found on teams across the
country.

The news should come as no surprise. According to the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children and
adolescents who are defined as overweight has tripled since the early
1970s. Results from the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition
Examination Survey indicate that more than 15 percent of 6- to
19-year-olds are overweight.

Simpson and others maintain that football players -- even the
300-pounders -- have an advantage over the rest of the teenage
population because they are remaining active. Many programs have
year-round weight training and running to keep players in shape for
the next season.

"I think nutrition has a lot to do with it,'' said Simpson,
attempting to explain why football players are growing. "I think,
perhaps, earlier exposure to weight training, conditioning and things
like that add to it.''

Weight on a football field often is seen as advantageous. A
300-pound offensive tackle usually has little trouble mowing down a
195-pound linebacker, thus opening up a hole for the running back.
Many prep linemen who dream of taking their game to the next level,
even the NFL, view the additional poundage as providing them with a
competitive edge.

But not always. Chris Hawkins, an offensive tackle who played for
Simpson at Henry Clay for the past four years and was named
second-team all-state his senior season, chose to drop weight.

"Actually, I talked with some college coaches who suggested I
might want to get lighter to improve my 40 time and get quicker,''
Hawkins said, referring to his time in the 40-yard dash. "I was about
305 last year, but this year my playing weight was about 280-285. I
was able to move a little better.''

Some players hoping to land a football scholarship have turned to
nutritional supplements to bulk up. Some have actually tried steroids,
although their use is prohibited on both the professional and college
levels.

Hawkins, who earned a football scholarship at Middle Tennessee
State University in Murfreesboro, said he never resorted to substances
to help him bulk up.

"I'm just naturally big,'' he said.

Simpson doesn't recommend substances to any of his players.

"Weight is a relative term,'' Simpson said. "What can be big to
some people isn't to others. You have to look at genetics, family
history and all those sort of things. I've never told a player he
needed to lose or gain so many pounds. Doctors make those decisions.
If you can carry your weight, if you can move, you should be all
right.''

But studies show that there are risks involved in packing on the
pounds and that obesity can lead to health problems later in life,
like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Few studies have been conducted to determine both the short- and
long-term impacts the extra weight might have on a teenager. One piece
of research, conducted by the Children's Sports and Exercise Medical
Center in Miami, acknowledged that "little is known about the
relative injury risk of obese adolescent football players.'' But
researchers studied two high-school varsity teams for injuries after
measuring 98 players for height, weight and triceps during the
preseason.

The result: High-school football players with a high body mass --
weighing in excess of 198.4 pounds -- faced a 2.5 times higher relative
risk of injury than those under the weight.

"While this study did not find evidence for an overall higher
injury rate in overly fat high school football players, an alarmingly
high incidence of obesity was found in this athletic population,'' the
report said.

Simpson said he and other coaches have learned to "modify
activities for the larger kids'' to protect them from possible harm.
One of the most glaring problems is heatstroke, particularly during
preseason training in many states where the July or August sun is
still bearing down. One prep player died as a result of heatstroke
last season.

"I had a 420-pound football player once and you couldn't ask him
to go out and run a mile,'' Simpson said. "His conditioning was to go
out and walk stadium steps. I've talked to different trainers, guys
who train the (Cincinnati) Bengals and the Reds. They said you can't
train a quarterback or a receiver like you would a big lineman like
that.''

Contact Bill Straub at StraubB@shns.com