The rewards and risks of becoming a Rose Bowl lineman

2010-12-22T11:10:00Z 2011-01-27T11:30:55Z The rewards and risks of becoming a Rose Bowl linemanSHAWN DOHERTY | The Capital Times | sdoherty@madison.com madison.com

When Mike Stassi, the longtime football coach at Monona Grove High School, decided to relocate the hot tub at his house one day last summer, he put in a call to Gabe Carimi, a former player of his who is now a standout left tackle at the University of Wisconsin. Carimi showed up with two of his fellow Badgers linemen, John Moffitt and Peter Konz, and the three proceeded to move the tub the same way they shove around their gridiron opponents. No sweat. They then wolfed down three extra-large pizzas in minutes. “These guys are like a different breed of humans,” Stassi marvels. “They’re just giant beings.”

Carimi is 6 feet 7 and weighs 327 pounds. Konz and Moffitt are both 6-5; Moffitt weighs 323 pounds, Konz 313. By all accounts they and the rest of the Badgers’ burly linemen are an affable bunch of mostly local boys who have been transformed by their own hard work and UW’s elite training program into some of the toughest, strongest and most intimidating college football players in the country. They are the driving force behind the Badgers’ run to the Rose Bowl, where on Jan. 1 they’ll face Texas Christian University. Several are expected to extend Wisconsin’s legacy of producing quality NFL linemen and join the likes of All-Pro Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns and Mark Tauscher of the Green Bay Packers.

These guys are the embodiment of a longtime national trend toward bigger and bigger football players, an athletic arms race that Wisconsin is winning up front.

UW athletic department team doctor David Bernhardt, 48, has been a Badgers fan since he was 8. The difference in player size from then to now, he says, “is night and day.” The biggest player on the Badgers’ roster in the 1962 season, when they lost to Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, was 6-5 left tackle Albert Piraino, who weighed 247 pounds — 66 pounds less than this year’s smallest starting offensive lineman. On the 1994 Rose Bowl squad, only one starter — left tackle Mike Verstegen, a 6-6 then-junior who went on to play professionally with the Saints and the Falcons — hit 300 pounds. “Now there’s a whole line of them,” says UW tight ends coach Joe Rudolph, who played in that 1994 game in Pasadena as a 6-2, 285-pound guard. That was plenty big back then but peanuts compared to Carimi, who is 42 pounds heavier.

The 2000 UW roster listed 10 players over 300 pounds. Today, there are 19. The average size of a UW lineman has increased 25 percent over the past three decades and a whopping 34 percent over the past two generations of football players. That’s a lot of beef.

Not long ago, such supersized players were anything but super-mobile. But today’s giants can move — and quickly, too. Wisconsin’s starting offensive linemen can run the 40-yard dash in close to five seconds, thanks to natural athletic talent and intense drills. They’re also surprisingly nimble. Josh Oglesby, a 6-7, 335-pound junior tackle out for part of the season with a knee injury, can even do the splits. That combination of size, speed and agility enables this unit to be equally adept at handling intricate blocking schemes in the interior, pulling out to lead runs on the perimeter and dropping back to protect the quarterback on passing plays. So when Moffitt, who plays at left guard alongside Carimi, refers to himself and his fellow wide-bodies on the O-line as “just a bunch of fat guys,” don’t believe him. UW has made them into much more than that.

Just how this transformation happens is something few fans get a chance to see. Most of the action happens in the shadows of the stadium in the McClain Indoor Facility, an enormous domed structure housing a football field, weight rooms, locker rooms, movie rooms for studying clips of old games, a medical clinic for athletes, and halls lined with inspiring photos of famous alumni and their impressive athletic records. This drafty building is nothing fancy. But it is the heart and soul of UW’s $8 million football program. Badgers spend many more hours here lifting weights, running drills, and practicing than they do playing games out in the open on Saturdays.

Across the way in the basement of the revamped stadium is the training table, an athlete-only cafeteria, where four chefs and four servers work to keep these players fed. The making of a lineman involves not just blood and sweat, but food. A lot of food. Some of these guys pack on nearly twice the weight carried around by past generations of players on pretty much the same size frames. About 20 coaches oversee grueling workouts and practices aimed at helping these giants stay fit and fast at weights that would render the rest of us obese and sluggish, but is this healthy? What will happen to these players when the cheering stops? A lot of attention in the football world has been paid recently to concussions, but some research suggests the long-term health effects of bulking up could be even worse. It’s a problem that may hit some of these players when they are least expecting it, warns Vern Gambetta, a Florida athletic development coach who is an expert on athlete health. “From a health perspective, this is a ticking time bomb,” Gambetta says. “This should be a concern for anybody who works in the sport.”

•    •    •    •

Until “The Blind Side” came out, a movie about Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher, there wasn’t a lot of glory to being a lineman. They are like a foundation on a house — solid, vital, but overlooked. You don’t tend to notice them unless they mess up. Probably the most gruesome example of this was in 1985 when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor got through the offensive line to sack Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who suffered a career-ending broken leg on national TV.

Wisconsin’s offensive line hasn’t had many shortcomings this year. With that unit paving the way for a trio of outstanding running backs – John Clay, Montee Ball and James White — the Badgers averaged 247.3 rushing yards per game (12th nationally) and have set a school record with 46 rushing touchdowns, while being on pace to set another program mark by averaging 43.3 points per game. In the second half of a 48-28 triumph at Michigan late in the season, Wisconsin ran the ball on 29 straight plays, a show of physical dominance rarely seen at the college level. They have allowed just 12 sacks.

Yet for all the praise that has been heaped on the Badgers’ offensive linemen this season, most fans would be hard-pressed to name all five starters: Carimi, Moffitt, Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Wagner. Another key contributor is Bill Nagy, who has made 12 starts this season as a fill-in for injured players. All six players received some form of recognition on the All-Big Ten Conference team, which is believed to be unprecedented.

“We’re not the guys who have the most abs or speed or the pretty ones who can catch the ball,” says Konz, whose high school football coach says even in middle school Konz was bigger than any of the boys at Neenah High. “Growing up we were never the skilled guys catching the ball. We were the chubby ones,” Konz says

These are the guys UW wants.

“They do set the tone,” said UW football coach Bret Bielema, describing his offensive line on ESPN’s “First Take” program in early December. “You guys have been to Wisconsin. You go to grocery stores and there’s big people ... they’re everywhere. It’s what we recruit to. Other places go for the small and the sexy. We go for the big.”

Recently a reporter from a national newspaper flew into Madison and asked to interview a Wisconsin lineman who grew up on a farm milking cows. There aren’t any. More typical are suburban kids like Carimi, whose mom is an expert in nutrition and whose dad is a doctor. Many of these kids did other sports before honing in on football. “When he came in as a freshman he was really a skinny, awkward kid,” Stassi recalls of Carimi. “It was like he had two left feet.”

Carimi worked hard at lifting weights. His mom, Alayne, fed him well, baking giant hams and roasts in the oven and packing enormous submarine sandwiches and homemade cookies with organic ingredients for lunch. She jokes about the good genes that turned her son into such a talent. “His dad is the Arabian horse, and I’m a Clydesdale,” she says. By his senior year in high school, Carimi caught UW’s eye. “They really liked him because he wasn’t one of these big fat kids who don’t move well,” Stassi says. “You could see that at 6 foot 8 he had the frame to put a lot more muscle and weight on. He was just at that growth point of when a boy starts to beef up and the Badgers were able to get him to where he is as a man.”

Recruiters have become adept at picking out which kids have the potential to be shaped into linemen, training staff say. Consider freshman Rob Havenstein, who also stands 6-8 but outweighed Carimi by almost 100 pounds as a high schooler in Maryland. Asked how he projects which prospects will make the cut, offensive line coach and run game coordinator Bob Bostad says, “No. 1 is size. There’s a commitment there to make sure that we start big. And obviously, they’ve got to do something where you feel like they’re fluid enough, they’re athletic enough, they’re sudden (quick). And you can look at a guy and be like, ‘You know, he might be 40 pounds overweight but underneath that he’s a pretty good athlete.’ You take these oversized guys and whittle them down — and whittling down means about 320, 330. You have some guys, to them, that feels light and airy. Gabe’s a guy that came in at 255 pounds — Robby Havenstein came in at 360. But when I went to watch him play basketball, here’s a guy running up and down the floor, moving sideways and stuff like that. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a gazelle. But he wasn’t a plodder, either.”

The team’s newest players are eager to be part of this process. “I know when Gabe came in he was a lot smaller,” says Dallas Lewallen, a 6-6, 325-pound freshman from Berlin now starting his own transformation as a redshirted freshman, which means he can practice but not play his first year. “To see where he is now, and how he progressed, is just amazing. It’s something I guess I can shoot for — how he evolved over time.”

•    •    •    •

Ben Herbert shows a visitor an image of a bare-chested freshman linebacker in trunks on his computer screen. “Just look and see how soft his body is,” the UW football team’s strength and conditioning coach says, putting the cursor on the kid’s stomach. He then shows another photo of the same athlete after five months of training, his torso chiseled with muscle.

Herbert, a former Badgers player himself, uses before and after photos to motivate his players. “Visual stimulation is very important,” he says with a zeal that has won him many fans around Camp Randall Stadium. “Digital body shots to show a guy how his body transforms is an extremely powerful tool.”

Herbert and other staff work to help linemen pack on more weight, but they say it is important that most of that added weight comes from what they call “lean mass,” or muscle, and not just fat. Coaches call this “good weight” as opposed to “bad weight,” which is the kind of flab most of us have too much of in this country. “Obviously if you have bad weight, you’re not going to move as well,” explains Bostad. “Lean muscle mass, those things are going to help you control your body better. I think that’s where our strength and conditioning people have done a great job, and our kids have done a great job of putting on the good stuff.”

Take Carimi. “Gabe came in at 250 pounds,” Herbert says. “We knew his sole purpose was to add lean mass. His genetic potential had to be tapped into so he could be a great 320-pound lineman.” Over the past four years, Carimi has spent up to nine hours a day working out and training for football. Like all of these mammoth guys on the UW offensive line he can lift more than his own weight: 540 pounds on the squat and 480 on the bench press. During the season he consumes around 5,200 calories a day, he says. (Other linemen can require up to 8,000 calories a day to maintain target weights, staff say.) It has paid off. This month he won the Outland Trophy, given to the top interior lineman in the nation.

UW has honed bulking up to a science, with teams of doctors, trainers, coaches and nutritionists using frequent weigh-ins and bone scans to monitor weight and body composition. And not just the overall composition of a body, either — an athlete’s body is separated into different areas, and fat and muscle mass are measured for each part, from the neck and upper arms on down to thighs and calves. This information is then used to establish training regimens and goals, which are adjusted to match the current needs of the team and the positions players fill.

Konz actually lost weight when he first arrived on campus as a tight end, hoping he might finally get to be one of those pretty boys who catches passes. Then coaches told him to play lineman instead. “I put it back on,” he says. “I had to gain weight to compete.” Today he weighs 315 pounds. About 26 percent of that, he says, is body fat. The average share of body fat for fit adult males in America is 15 to 18 percent. “I have abs,” he says cheerfully. “They’re just underneath some other stuff.”

Linemen might be encouraged to increase not just their weight, but their fat. Zeitler’s teammates call him the Terminator and the Machine. His old high school football coach at West Allis Hale says he had to push Zeitler out of the weight room, he pumped so hard. Zeitler says he bulked up from 230 to 270 pounds. “I was kind of a psycho,” he admits. “I lifted my brains out. I was pretty ripped.” Too ripped to be a lineman, it turns out. Staff told him to increase his body fat from 13 to 18 percent his first year to protect him from injury, he says. His weight has now increased to 313 pounds. “I had abs as a freshman. College life has taken them away,” he jokes. But he admits, “It will be kinda cool to be athletic some day when I lose the weight.”

Good nutrition is the key to building up these players the right way, Herbert says. “A lot of people don’t want to believe in the power of food and proper hydration,” he says. “But if you want to change your body it starts with those two things.” Guys can lift weights until “they’re blue in the face,” he says, but it won’t do them any good if they’re not eating right.

To illustrate that point, Herbert stuck two potted plants in the weight room. He called one The Governor and the other The Deacon. He fed the governor Miracle -Gro and water. The Deacon got crumbled Oreos, pizza, Doritos, whiskey and beer. After a few weeks the Deacon was wilted and reeked so bad it had to be thrown out. The lesson: “The human body thrives when you feed it properly,” he says.

Lined up in his office next to the weight room is a stack of food Herbert uses to show recruits and their parents — some of whom are suspicious that the program might rely on unhealthy supplements — the building blocks of UW’s nutrition boosting. There are four big blenders in the weight room, Herbert says, and staff are always making players protein malts with frozen berries, milk from Babcock Hall, honey, peanut butter, and good old-fashioned Quaker oats.

Staff say most students arrive not knowing how to eat healthy, shop or cook for themselves. NCAA rules prevent the program from feeding athletes more than once per day at what is called the training table. John Dettman, director of strength and conditioning, has been working on an online nutrition manual for the athletes that includes recipes, though staff say he is reluctant to hand it out for fear competitors might get their hands on it. Some athletes are also getting cooking classes.

The training table, which operates only during the season, has four cooks and four servers. The kitchen opened after the renovation of the stadium. Before that, food had been catered, giving staff less control over what their players ate.

On a recent afternoon, two gleaming rows of food were waiting for the team after practice. There was a salad bar, fruit, chicken fajitas, beef tacos, shrimp kabobs, Spanish rice, an enchilada lasagna, Mexicali corn, refried beans, tortilla chips, and pudding.

After swiping their student IDs, players are greeted with a long list of rules: cleats, spikes, roller blades and bare feet are not allowed; diners must “be polite and courteous” and “always use proper manners and etiquette.”

Next to each dish is a card with a breakdown of its nutritional content. There are even pictures: A small green turtle, for example, means that a menu item is low glycemic, or digested slowly. Red signs mark food to be eaten with caution, like the pudding. Beverage machines in the cafeteria dispense Powerade (a sports energy drink), milk and juice, but no soda. “We put a lot of thought into everything we serve them,” says Jeremy Isensee, the training table manager. Even the order in which food is presented is calculated: The salad bar and fresh fruit are first; dessert, usually offered only early in the week before game days, last. On the day after victories, they get crab for Sunday dinner. When they lose, it’s cod.

The linemen pack it in. “We have big frames that can hold a lot of weight,” Moffitt says. “They really encourage us to eat. The coaches here want us to be in the 3’s to play. I eat all the time.” Konz says he does too. “Two plates and two bowls,” he says. “We don’t want shortcuts,” he says, alluding to the temptation to try to sneak steroids or rely on supplements or Big Macs to put on mass. (The players are regularly tested for steroid use.)

Between all the playing and the eating and the training — not to mention trying to keep up in classes — the making of a lineman is a full-time job. But nobody’s complaining. “We lift, go to practice, grab dinner, and watch film,” Zeitler says, describing what can add up to nine hours of work per day. But he loves it. “We’re all going nuts in there,” he says with a big smile, trying to convey the passion he feels for work in the weight room. “We just turn the music on real loud and (the trainer) is yelling. It’s a real brotherhood.”

•    •    •    •

It’s the end of a grueling Saturday practice at the McClain Indoor Facility, but some players aren’t ready to call it quits. Sweating, they head to the sled, which has two rows of iron arms holding pillows shaped like torsos that help players develop strength and what trainers call “explosiveness.” The guys kneel and start ramming the cushions with arms as thick as tree trunks, grunting with each shove. The bigger the guy, the bigger the grunt.

Taking it all in — the bright red of the uniforms, the green Astroturf, the whistles and the shouts and the dripping sweat — is a batch of recruits, accompanied by their parents. They’re big kids back home, but compared to these guys they look scrawny. And their parents look worried. “This can be a violent sport,” one dad says. “I want to know what will happen to their bodies,” says another.

Over the past decades, studies have been done to answer just that question, and results are mixed and inconclusive.

So is the data from UW.

If you take this offensive line’s height and weight stats and plug them into the standard screening measure for obesity — the BMI, or body mass index — every single one would be considered severely obese. Training staff scoff at this measure, claiming that it is useless when it comes to athletes since it fails to distinguish between mass created by muscle and fat. A far better indicator, team doctors agree, is the bone scan they use to measure fat-to-muscle ratios. Team doc John Wilson says that most of the offensive linemen probably clock in at around 20 to 26 percent body fat. That is higher than what is considered healthy for the average American male, 15 to 18 percent. (In other sports, male athletes can have as little as 5 to 12 percent fat.) But research suggests that the benefits of being as active as these guys are could mitigate the effects of their bulk. One study even found that fat people who exercise are better off than skinny people who don’t. Team doctors and trainers also say they take health histories, blood work and blood pressure readings on each player to check for risks linked to obesity like diabetes and hypertension. (For confidentiality reasons they would not release this data.) Players are very fit and in good health, they say. “The added weight does not pose any immediate risk to them as long as they stay active,” says Wilson, himself a former football player who lost 55 pounds after he quit playing. “It seems to be safe.”

But when it comes to what happens when players’ careers are over — whether that means after college, which is the case for the majority of them, or the NFL — the evidence is more worrisome. A 2008 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that the injury rate for NFL players is nearly eight times higher than that of any other commercial sports league, including hockey and auto racing. Some medical experts say that not only are heavier players more prone to such injuries, but that it is harder for them to recover once they are off the field, which can lead to other problems. A bad knee, for example, makes it tough to exercise enough to get rid of excess weight. And that excess weight, according to various studies, may increase the risk of heart problems, strokes, hypertension, arthritis, diabetes, sleep apnea and depression among retired players. A study on early mortality done by Scripps Howard News Service found that the heaviest professional football players — including linemen — are more than twice as likely to die before their 50th birthday than their teammates.

“If they stay 250, 300, 350 pounds as they age, that’s going to shorten their life span and cause them more health problems,” said Dr. Arthur Roberts in a recent interview with CNN Health. Roberts, a former NFL quarterback and retired cardiac surgeon, oversees a nonprofit called Living Heart Foundation that provides health screenings for current and retired players. A recent study the foundation led with Mayo Clinic in Arizona found an increased cardiovascular risk in some of these athletes. But another study, published in the September 2009 issue of the American Journal of Cardiology, found retired NFL players had lower rates of diabetes, hypertension and metabolic syndrome.

The uncertainty about what the future holds for some of their young players concerns UW’s team doctors. “Take a college lineman who doesn’t make the pros, and the majority don’t,” UW sports medicine doctor Bernhardt says. (Staff say every year only about five or six out of the 20 to 25 graduating senior players have a shot.) “They stop working out, but they still have that body. Where will they be?” Wilson wonders, too. “To be honest with you, we’re really not sure what will happen 15 or 20 years on down the road,” he says. “Some data coming out of the NFL suggests that these players do have more health risks, like cardiovascular problems, diabetes, hypertension, and even higher mortality.”

On the other hand, Wilson notes, “in the last 10 years what we know about training and body composition has come a long way.” Perhaps all the sophisticated training and the nutritional innovations recently introduced at Camp Randall will help stave off these health problems, he says. Wilson says he’d like to see the program do even more and maybe start counseling players about how to take care of their bodies once they stop playing.

“We’ve done a great job of learning how to transform their bodies,” Wilson says. “Now we have to do a better job of helping them get the weight off.”

As for the players themselves, they say they have grown so used to their huge bodies that they are puzzled when regular students stare at them in class. But sometimes they are in awe themselves. “Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can’t imagine looking like that a couple of years ago,” says Ricky Wagner, a 6-6 sophomore from West Allis who put on 51 pounds in his first season, nine the next, and now starts at right tackle in place of Oglesby. “But it’s paying off.”

Sometimes, though, it is tiring to climb stairs, and sometimes their knees hurt or crack; it’s standard practice for players to wear knee braces on the field and off for reinforcement against wear-and-tear and awkward collisions. But no big deal, they all say. A far more immediate concern, Nagy confides, is getting a date. “Moffitt and I compete to see who can come home with the most phone numbers,” he says, grinning.

These guys seem to realize that when it comes to their health, they may be taking another hit for the good of the team. They all vow to lose weight when they quit playing. “We get away with it now, because we’re young and active and we work out,” Moffitt says. “But when we stop, I can see mass-wise we’ve got to lose the weight for sure.”

Carimi says he talks about these issues with his dad, a doctor. “I’ll probably lose this weight once I’m done,” he says. “Sure, there’s going to be some damage to all my joints.” What makes it worth it? “Opportunities,” he says. Carimi is expected to be a first-round pick in the April NFL draft. That predicts a multimillion-dollar career.

Konz jokes about the risks: “Live fast, die young.” If the goal was to play a safe sport, he says, he would have taken up bowling. “I understand a lot of weight on our body hurts. But just playing football is an unhealthy thing,” he says. “Look at these huge guys hitting each other and trying to run into each other. It’s a brutish sport. But there’s something about just being out there, about the competition, man on man, that I love.”

And the game loves them back. “We need these guys,” tight ends coach Rudolph says. “The team looks at them, and if they’re set, we’re ready to go. They’re unselfish. They have no stats, no rushing yards, and no glory. They’re just doing their job.”

Adam Mertz of The Capital Times contributed to this story.

Copyright 2014 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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