Antone Davis is still haunted by the 300-pound ghosts of his fellow University of Tennessee football alumni. Sitting stoically at the school's athletics facility in Knoxville, he names them softly, sadly.
A few years ago, as he swelled to nearly 500 pounds, they visited Davis constantly, relentlessly. They were all from the same generation of Volunteers linemen -- and weighed less than he did at the time of their death, mostly due to heart-related issues. The retired seven-year NFL offensive lineman always carried aspirin in his pocket because, every day, he was convinced his heart was going to stop.
"Here I have all the incentive in the world with guys around me literally dying daily," said Davis, now 46, "and I'm still not able to figure out what I need to do. I literally gave up. This is going to be my life. I'm going to fall into that realm of the short life expectancy of offensive and defensive linemen in the NFL, and that's going to be it.
"I literally started making plans to die." The email that probably saved him came from NBC's "The Biggest Loser." They invited him to be a contestant for the 2011 season and, fearing for his life, he lost 45 percent of his 6-foot-4 body in six months of intense effort -- more than 200 pounds. Most of his former NFL colleagues aren't so lucky. There are no gift-wrapped trainers shrieking at them in a well-appointed gym, no 24-7 television cameras to keep them honest. Mims, a defensive end who helped the San Diego Chargers get to the Super Bowl, died five years ago in a seedy Los Angeles apartment, a recluse living on disability payments. He weighed 456 pounds at death, which was caused by an enlarged heart.
As we find ourselves about to digest the holiday period most associated with gluttony, consider the plight of the recently retired lineman whose bulk has become a weapon against his stressed heart.
For 15 seasons with the Vikings and Ravens, center Matt Birk ate virtually everything he could get his hands on to maintain 300-plus pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. He averaged 6,500 calories a day and sometimes had three dinners -- tacos, pizza and pasta.
"I looked at it as being as big and strong as I could for self-preservation," said Birk, who retired after last year's Super Bowl victory with Baltimore. "It was almost a thing of fear. When I'd leave the table, I'd say, 'All right, good job.' Like it was a gold star for me.
"After doing that for 15, 20 years, it takes some time to readjust, recalibrate my compass."
Jeff Saturday, a center who played 14 seasons in the league, retired with the Packers after the 2012 season.
"NFL players lead very structured lives," Saturday said. "Our coaches tell us when practice starts, when it ends, when meetings start, when they end, when we travel, where we're going to stay. All of those things handled for you so often and for so long in your life, there is an adjustment.
"There is a transition that guys have to catch a hold of and be diligent about staying on top of details."
In 1970, there was only one 300-pound player in the NFL, San Diego Chargers offensive tackle Gene Ferguson. When the league's rosters were finalized for kickoff in 2013, some 358 players weighed 300 pounds or more.
This year, with concussion concerns finally approaching the inherent danger and the ribald culture of the locker room under scrutiny, obesity in former 300-pound players is an overlooked issue. Dr. Archie Roberts is trying to change that.
He was a quarterback at Columbia, class of 1965, and signed with the Cleveland Browns when they offered to put him through medical school at Case Western Reserve. Before he graduated he managed to play one game in the NFL, with the Miami Dolphins. Roberts went on to become a heart surgeon for 30 years.
He was in the process of completing more than 4,000 open-heart surgeries when, in 1997, he lost control of his speech and experienced numbness in his right hand in a meeting with doctors.
"I suffered a stroke," Roberts said. "In one sense it was a good thing because after I recovered I began to think more about retired players in general. My weight and cholesterol had gone up to a high level -- and I was a doctor. I should have known better."
Twelve years ago, Roberts founded the Living Heart Foundation. Partnered with the NFL and NFL Players Association, the foundation has screened more than 2,000 former players for cardiovascular disease and helped raise awareness.
"The major risks with obesity are things like diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, damage to the coronary and carotid arteries," Roberts explained. "It's critical that the players get the message that carrying 300 pounds over time is going to hurt them."
Earlier this month, the NFLPA launched The Trust, a resource for former players to learn about healthy lifestyles, career counseling and medical issues. Saturday is a regional captain.
"Every guy who played at least two years in the NFL can apply," Saturday said. "We have program managers, and they'll take you through brain and body examinations. They'll teach you to lift [weights], not like an NFL player but as a healthy adult. Just having conversations about getting you in the place where you're at your best."
Healthy for life
The photos, frankly, are astonishing.
Birk, grinning, hands on hips, smiles at the camera. The man who played at 305, 310 pounds has ... abs. Yes, actual, visible abdominal muscles.
He was posing for a potential 2014 cover for The Challenge magazine in a competition sponsored by a company that sells weight-loss food products.
"As a culture, as a society in general, we have health and fitness so wrong," Birk said. "Those people on magazine covers aren't real. I don't think of myself as a model -- maybe a glove model. I wanted to see if I had abs. I never thought I would pose for a picture with my shirt off. But I wanted to show people that it can be done and we're all in this together."
Birk, by controlling his diet and working out daily, lost 75 pounds and is currently carrying 235 pounds. He has six children with wife Adrianna and hopes to be around when they have kids of their own.
"I used to have a large pizza once a week; it was a mandate," Birk said. "Now it's more like once a month and it's not a whole pizza, it's a half. I don't want to be one of these people working out two, three hours a day. But I want to live for my wife and kids."
Alan Faneca has the same goal. He played guard for 13 seasons in the NFL and was voted to nine Pro Bowls. He weighed around 315 pounds, but when he quickly shed 30 pounds after retiring following the 2010 season, he knew he was headed in the right direction.
"I was down on the floor playing with my daughter [Annabelle], just kind of goofing off," Faneca said, "and I got up off the floor and it was the first time I didn't make the old-man groan, like 'ugghh.' I just kind of popped up. That was kind of an eye-opening moment, right there."
Faneca misses the whole milk and peanut butter protein shakes, but he was "anal" about losing weight. Over a three-month period, he lost 70 pounds by restricting his intake to about 2,000 calories a day and burning around 4,000 with rigorous cardio exercise. Now, he's hovering around 220 pounds and is training for a marathon.
Saturday, like Birk and Faneca, struggled to keep weight on as a player. He'd start training camp at 295, but by the end of the season he was more like 285. Playing in Indianapolis and Green Bay, he had a number of positive examples of linemates who retired and lost weight quickly.
"My wife, Karen, is a physical therapist," Saturday said, "and we had conversations about getting my health and body weight right when we retired from football. We came back from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii at the end of February and I started at the beginning of March. I got into the same workout rhythm every day."
Saturday, an analyst for ESPN, is down to 238 pounds. The Saturdays and their three children have made his weight control a family project. He has a weakness for cake and donuts, but they only find their way into the house on, of course, Saturday night.
"I want to do it for them and I know this is better for me as a man," he said. "I want to be an example of making a decision to be healthier."
Slow and steady
Damien Woody, his impressive girth crushing a rubber ball, is straining to raise his hand weights to a height that will satisfy his trainer, Brian Martin.
"Thanksgiving is just around the corner, got to get this to work, man." Martin says.
"Man, I need to get it in good," Woody answers. "Thanksgiving could be a little problem."
When it comes to eating, Thanksgiving -- and every other day, for that matter -- always has been a problem for the 6-foot-3 Woody. He played all three offensive line positions in the NFL for a dozen years, usually at around 330 pounds. In his five years with the Patriots (1999-2003) he was fined early and often when he exceeded 325.
He retired after the 2010 season with the Jets and made a point of avoiding the scale. Earlier this year, after settling into a second career in broadcasting, he finally stepped up and was not surprised to see he had crossed the 380-pound line. He called Martin, who previously had helped him rehabilitate a torn Achilles tendon. It was Martin who was responsible for knocking 50 pounds off JaMarcus Russell in 12 weeks as the former Raiders quarterback attempted a comeback.
Last week, Martin and Woody ripped through a workout at the ESPN gym in Bristol, Conn., a few hours before Woody was seen on a SportsCenter segment.
"It's not just about working out," Martin said. "It's about eating habits, too."
Woody smiles. He loves the Southern food his wife, Nicole, cooks up, and Italian pasta, too. But he knows his six children will benefit from his restraint. He's at 357 right now with a slow, steady plan to get to 265 by July 4, 2014.
"I entered the league when I was 20," said Woody, now 36. "I'm at the combine, doing all these amazing things at 335 pounds. Nobody can tell me anything because I feel great. But at some point your body's going to start breaking down.
"The young guys out there, don't wait until the end. Don't wait."
Getting down to size
At the age of 14, Davis had a growth spurt. In less than a year he gained 6 inches and 130 pounds. He played football at Peach County High School in Fort Valley, Ga., at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds. When he arrived at the University of Tennessee in 1987, he was up to 349.
Phillip Fulmer, then the Volunteers' offensive line coach, just looked at him and said the number 300.
"It was a battle my entire career," Davis said.
The Philadelphia Eagles traded two first-round draft choices (one which wound up being used by the Packers to procure Brett Favre from Atlanta) to make him the eighth overall choice of the 1991 NFL draft. After five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, though, he was considered a disappointment. After two more years with the Atlanta Falcons, Davis was out of football for good by 1999.
He briefly owned a restaurant, Gridiron Grill in Florida, and later worked as a manager at a Chili's franchise. In his mind, sampling the menu was part of the job. He tried the cabbage soup diet, Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, but nothing worked.
"When I retired from the NFL, I moved to Florida and did what a lot of guys do," Davis said. "I started to coast. It was kind of relief to be out of it. And so, if you continue to eat and not work out, then the pounds start to come on.
"That was the point in my life when I felt I was on borrowed time."
That's when he got the call from "The Biggest Loser." The funny thing? Davis, even when he looked in the mirror, didn't think he was fat enough to be on the show. But, with fierce discipline and determination, he may have saved his own life.
Today, Davis -- who has kept those 200 pounds off -- is the coordinator for "Vol for Life," a Tennessee program that prepares players for life after football.
"The sad truth is there are a lot of our players that are simply not talked about," Davis said. "All you have to do is Google 'NFL player dies' or 'NFL player pass away,' and you'll be shocked at what comes up.
"You have to understand that getting the bulk, getting the size down quickly is really paramount when guys first leave the league. Unless you're going to wrestle grizzly bears, you don't need the weight."