Evidence shows prep players getting bigger

Updated: January 31, 2006, 12:49 PM ET
By Bill Straub | Scripps Howard News Service

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.''

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

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