Livin' large ain't easy for an NFL big man
Bills tackle Langston Walker, Browns defensive lineman Shaun Smith and Chiefs guard Brian Waters explain to ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill what life is like as a plus-sized man in the NFL.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The day ends at Taco Bell, which, in his world, sounds inevitable. Of course the big man retreats to food. He's gone to the car lot and tried to wedge himself into one of the tiny vehicles; he's strolled by the mall and the racks of clothes that won't fit him.
If Calvin Klein and Mini Cooper won't accept Langston Walker, surely Chalupa and MexiMelt will. Taco Bell, Walker explains, is a rare jewel in Buffalo, sort of like a coatless day in December. There are very few of them in town. The closest one to Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, is a stomach-rumbling 15-minute haul in light traffic.
But even here, the strapping Bills tackle can't enjoy himself. His eyes dart around as if he's waiting for strength and conditioning coach John Allaire to pop out of the bushes. He orders three soft tacos, a measly 630 calories, but still feels pangs of guilt.
"I shouldn't be eating this," Walker says. "That's sort of the catch-22. This is our job. I would say at our size, we're probably healthier than the average Joe Schmoe on the street who's the same size. But at the same time, it's not the healthiest thing for us."
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The life of an NFL big man is, surprisingly, complicated. They score the highest on the Wonderlic but are relegated to the roles of faceless grunts in the trenches. They are paid to be big; to eat, drink and be scary -- yet they find the scale one of their worst enemies. They cannot navigate through the world the same way as the high-profile teammates they protect.
Chairs, cars, planes, bathroom stalls and neck holes never seem to fit. Sure, the general population has gotten bigger over the past century with upgrades in nutrition. But it hasn't caught up to the NFL big man. The average offensive lineman in the NFL weighs 313 pounds.
Pack on another five inches and 50 pounds and you've got Walker, a 6-foot-8, 366-pound gentle hulk who's only comfortable, really, pounding in the grass or resting in his super-sized castle.
"The biggest pain," Walker says, "is that nothing is really made for you. Things the average people don't think about, I think about. I have to think about them."
So does the rest of the NFL's 300 club.
Brian Waters dreads the travel days. When Herm Edwards became coach of the Kansas City Chiefs three years ago, the old-school coach implemented a rule requiring players to dress up for plane rides. Waters was getting ready for a trip to San Diego recently when he realized he'd blanked on part of his pregame preparation. He didn't have a button-down dress shirt to wear.
If the gaffe had happened to Rocawear-ing running back Larry Johnson or GQ tight end Tony Gonzalez, it could have been solved in a matter of minutes with a quick dash to a trendy mall. For a 6-3, 320-pound guard, there are no dashes. Waters has trouble finding shirts that will accommodate his 23-inch neck, and has questions a skill player rarely has to ask. Can he fasten the top button so he can put on a tie? Can he find the top button?
"It's horrible," Waters says. "I'd rather be comfortable than look good."
Away from the team charters, flying commercial is a whole different headache. One middle seat can ruin three people's day. The average coach seat is between 17.2 and 18 inches wide; the average big man's "seat" comes in all sizes. Limbs spill over into foreign territory; personal space is violated.
"People kind of look at you and look away," Waters says. "They don't give you an inviting look. They don't want you to pick their row."
But do they know how conscientious he is, how he showers three or four times a day just to combat the sweat? How he politely smiles when people are shocked that he doesn't order the left side of the menu at restaurants?
That's the thing that bothers Waters the most: the assumptions. They don't know that Waters struggles with his weight, and that it's even worse in the offseason. Linemen don't do as much running as skill players, so they can't burn off calories as quickly. Waters naturally retains water, and is constantly sore from the wear and tear on his elbows, knees and hips.
But rest too much, and he gains more weight.
"Everybody thinks you eat a lot," Waters says. "You go somewhere and they say, 'That's all you're going to eat?'"
Waters has, on occasion, gone to Mitzi Dulan for help. She's the dietitian for the Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals, and plans the afternoon team meals on practice days. The big men eat sushi on Thursdays. It's so popular with the Chiefs that Dulan had to start double-ordering.
It's a myth that they inhale 7,000 calories a day to maintain their girth, Dulan says. The average 320-pound football player actually runs on somewhere between 3,800 and 4,200 calories a day in-season. They need more fluids, too, and therein lies another rub -- sports drinks add to that calorie count.
There are those "lucky" ones blessed with a high metabolism who are asked to gain weight for their position. Unfortunately, they're rarely given a grazing pass to Golden Corral. Dulan advises them to eat more fruit, trail mix, smoothies and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Though Waters is one of the many linemen who struggle to keep weight off, it wasn't always that way. He was a tight end and defensive end in college, a lithe 265 pounds. The Chiefs initially planned to play him at center, but after adding roughly 20 pounds, he was still too small. So Waters kept growing.
He stares at a 4x T-shirt that hangs in his locker. Thankfully, it has no buttons.
"I'm no different than anybody else," he says. "We're not these big blobs that people think we are. We're just big people."
Shaun Smith has a nickname for all the under-300s who can shop at malls and wear the Ed Hardy shirts he longs for and the True Religion jeans he can't shove a leg into.
He calls them pocket-sized Power Rangers.
Around Christmas time and birthdays, the 325-pound defensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns can expect one of two presents from his wife -- cologne or luggage. She tries. It's just hard to find hip clothes that complement Smith's unique physique.
He'll trudge through their world for his kids, but grows tired of the stares. Some people look at him with fear and wonder if he's mean and dangerous. Little kids point and say, out loud, "Oh, he's a big guy!" But in the Browns' locker room, just past the stall of the even larger Shaun Rogers, Smith is known as one of the funnier and more approachable men on the team.
"I may look like a chiller, but I'm not no killer," Smith says. "I'm a big man with a big heart.
"My feelings don't get hurt. If you're going to stare, I'd rather you speak to me than keep staring at me. We're already at a disadvantage being so big."
He can't drive a Pontiac or fit comfortably into a Ford Escape. One of his first cars was a Nissan 1600, a two-door hatchback that he spilled out of in the streets around Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan.
As his body gets older, Smith finds that he can't be in any tight spaces for too long.
"Sometimes it's so cramped," he says, "that I feel like I just played in a game."
By all accounts, Langston Walker was once average. He came into the world a shade under 7 pounds, with perfect-sized arms and tiny feet. As baby grew to toddler, his mom, Marie, read a book to test how big her only child would be. She multiplied, added and subtracted and wound up with 6 feet, 11 inches. She wadded up the test and threw it away.
But young Langston couldn't escape genetics or the shocking growth spurts. He was 5-7 as a freshman in high school, and proceeded to grow three inches every year until college. Every summer, he'd need new clothes. Every time he got used to his body, he'd grow again.
"My grandfather always told me, 'Stand tall. People wish they had your height.' As a young kid growing up and being different from everybody else, that's tough to grasp. But now I see what he was trying to say to me because it's about pride, and I am very thankful for my gifts."
He is introspective and funny, a trait he no doubt acquired from being the butt of so many jokes. He cracks about how women dig the big men, mostly because they make them feel safe and protected. Not that they need to be protected, he says. He ducks into a Taco Bell, eats modestly, then jokingly begs everyone in his dining party not to tell the strength coach that he was there, and, if they have to, to say he was forced into the restaurant and that he ate only chicken with vegetables and no sour cream.
He is sort of a Renaissance man in stretchy pants, a thinker who reads Bret Easton Ellis and ponders how satire blends with reality.
"The last time I went to an amusement park, they would not let me on because I was too tall," he says. "They couldn't pull the bar, the protective bar, over me, and I totally got embarrassed. Ever since then, no Disneyland, no Six Flags; none of that."
It's the same small world at the Men's Wearhouse. Walker tries on a size 52 extra-long suit jacket, the biggest one in stock. His forearms bust out of the sleeves. An assistant store manager named Nick tells him he can order the jacket in his size.
But Walker will have to wait.
"I'm sorry, buddy," Nick says.
He says they sell a few pairs of size 60 pants and some 4x leather coats. They do accommodate a bigger guy, he says. Not too big, but
"Basically," Walker says, "what he's trying to say is that I'm too big."
They hear that all the time. But Walker says he wouldn't trade his big-man life for a walk in a pair of smaller, more well-traveled shoes. He climbs into his Cadillac Escalade and stretches his legs. He is higher than the Honda Civics and the Volkswagens. He fits perfectly.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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