clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“It’s Totally an Unhealthy Relationship With Food”

Being an offensive lineman doesn’t just require athletes to be muscular; it mandates that they are bigger than their bodies want to be. To maintain the size and weight required by the position, prospects and veterans alike are driven to adopt extreme eating habits. But once their careers are over, it’s not always easy to return to a healthy lifestyle.

Michael Weinstein

During the NFL combine in February, there was a lot of buzz surrounding an offensive lineman named Ben Bartch. Media outlets all over the world did stories about him. It was an unusual amount of attention for any offensive lineman—a position group that tends to get overlooked or outright ignored when the cameras are on and the microphones are out—and particularly for one who went to Division III St. John’s in tiny Collegeville, Minnesota.

Part of what made Bartch so compelling was the fact that during his college career he transitioned from a 230-pound freshman playing tight end to an offensive lineman trying to make it in the NFL at well north of 300 pounds. That kind of metamorphosis alone could have been worthy of some gawking coverage, but it was the method Bartch employed to gain some of that weight that really thrust him into the spotlight.

Bartch is a big guy, 6-foot-6 with a flowing mane of auburn-colored locks, but by his admission he was “never a tubby kid” growing up. Packing on that much weight to pursue his dream job was an arduous process; his days were full of rigorous workouts and endless eating sessions, so Bartch devised a hack. The summer after his sophomore year, he streamlined his breakfast. Instead of eating a giant meal with a host of individual items, Bartch combined them into a smoothie consisting of seven scrambled eggs, a tub of cottage cheese, grits, peanut butter, a banana, and Gatorade. He drank that four days a week, and it helped him grow from 250 pounds to 276 by the time school started again. The way he saw it, it was just a way to cut down on all that chewing. When this year’s combine rolled around, it had been years since he’d consumed the shake, and he hadn’t thought much about it.

But when the media found out about his old concoction, well, some things are too good to resist—even if the consistency and taste in his smoothie might suggest otherwise. When Bartch mixed up a batch of his miracle weight-gain elixir on camera for NFL Network at Lucas Oil Stadium, the video exploded. At last check, it has been viewed more than 1.8 million times. (Full disclosure, the much smaller person in the video is my wife.)

“People are really fascinated by the shake thing,” said Bartch, who was taken in the fourth round of this year’s draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bartch isn’t on social media, so he wasn’t immediately aware of the stir that his shake caused online. In his closed-loop football community, no one thought it was a big deal. “In reality, it was either eat all that food and take all the time and eat it all while sitting down or just kind of find a quirky way to drink it or do it faster. It was very purposeful and methodical.”

While the whole thing made for some easily digested content, Bartch’s reaction to the media coverage was instructive. Where some of us saw his shake as an entertaining (if stomach-turning) sideshow, Bartch thought of it as just another part of a long process designed to make him big enough to compete in a profession dominated by giants. To hear some guys tell it, playing offensive line in the league essentially means having two jobs: football and competitive eating.

Joe Thomas—who was with the Cleveland Browns for 11 seasons, making 10 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams—didn’t generally track his food intake during his playing days, when he weighed in at around 320 pounds. But he figured he regularly took in “7, 8, 9,000 calories” per day. These days, the 35-year-old is down to 255 pounds, and he often posts on Twitter about keto diet recipes and workout routines. It’s a stark departure from his lifestyle with the Browns. He described his everyday habits back then as regularly overloading on carbs, sometimes to the point of nearly vomiting, and constantly having “that after-Thanksgiving-meal full feeling.”

“It’s totally an unhealthy relationship with food as an offensive lineman,” said Thomas, whose Twitter banner photo is a screenshot of TMZ’s account referring to him as “Ex-NFL Fat Guy Joe Thomas.” “I don’t know many people who are normally just 300 pounds.”

The before-and-after photos of Thomas are so striking that they look like something out of a late-night weight loss infomercial. He’s not alone there. Former Rams center John Sullivan lost 70 pounds after retiring. Rich Ohrnberger, a guard who played for the Patriots, Cardinals, and Chargers, recently tweeted about losing 30 pounds in five months. And former Jets, Steelers, and Cardinals guard Alan Faneca dropped so much weight that he almost looks like an entirely different person in his post-marathon pictures.

The unhealthy relationship with food that Thomas described is something that resonated with many of the linemen I contacted. John Greco—who played 11 seasons as a tackle in the NFL, the bulk of them with the Cleveland Browns—explained weight gain and loss as a universal and omnipresent obsession for the position.

“It’s just something that everyone deals with on a personal level, whether you’re struggling to put it on or take it off,” Greco said. “It’s a thing that everyone goes through. I don’t want to say it’s a distraction. Everyone dealt with it in different ways.”

That last part is true both during their careers and after they’re done playing. Barrett Brooks played nine seasons in the NFL in the ’90s and aughts with the Eagles, Lions, Packers, and Steelers. Like Bartch, Brooks had to gain a lot of weight in college to play the position. He entered his freshman year at Kansas State at 245 pounds, and he could manage only one rep of 225 pounds on the bench press. He had to bulk up so much in order to meet his target weight that he cheated at first when it was time for weigh-ins.

“I remember my head coach, Bill Snyder, said, ‘Brooksie, come here. How much do you weigh?’” Brooks recalled. “I ran downstairs, I had sweats on, I ran down to the weight room and I grabbed two 10-pound weights and I put them in the back of my pants. You couldn’t see them because I had big sweats on. I walked over to the thing and I weighed 275 pounds, but I had two 10-pound weights in the back of my pants.”

As he got older and his body adapted to the overeating regimen, putting weight on was no longer a problem, but taking it off was. His final season with the Steelers, he weighed 342 pounds. Like a lot of teams, Pittsburgh installed individualized maximum weight limits for its linemen. Brooks’s number for the season was 338, and there was a fine if he went over.

“At the time, it was $995 for every [extra] pound,” Brooks said. “When I came in, I was 342 the last time I weighed in for the Steelers. They gave me a pass because it was Super Bowl week.”

These days, Brooks weighs 358. He said he wants to lower that number, maybe even tuck in under the 300-pound mark, but “no matter how much I work out, my metabolism isn’t as fast as it used to be.” It worries him. He knows how much strain he’s putting on his body. He’s pretty sure he’ll need to have at least one knee replaced, if not both. He wants to play with his grandkids and see them grow. To do so, he needs to stay on what he called “a life-saving diet for the rest of my life.” The Faustian bill for his time in the league has come due.

Brooks echoed the sentiments expressed by Thomas and Greco; he said his old job made eating, then and now, a struggle. He called the way he thought about—and still thinks about—food “very unhealthy.” And yet, if Brooks had to do it all over again, he’d manage his career the same way. Playing offensive line in the NFL didn’t just change his body, it changed his life. In the run-up to last month’s NFL draft, I spoke with scores of former and prospective professional offensive linemen about that tradeoff—the lengths they’ll go to get that big, what happens when they try to take the weight off, and the often-twisted relationship they have with food.

San Francisco 49ers v Cleveland Browns
Joe Thomas

John Greco and Joe Thomas are good friends—which didn’t stop Greco from telling me that “guys like Joe would always piss me off” during their playing days. Thomas could eat whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. That wasn’t the case for Greco. Unlike Thomas, Greco never had trouble putting on weight—and, accordingly, had to be more careful than his buddy about what he consumed. He’s 6-foot-5 and usually played somewhere between 320 and 330 pounds, depending on who the coaches were at the time and what scheme they ran. When George Warhop was the Browns’ offensive line coach, he favored beefy bodies who could lean on the opposition in the power run game. The year Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, he wanted his linemen lighter and quicker. He asked Greco to drop about 30 pounds, which he did. Greco never missed his number, but there were nights before the weekly weigh-in when he had only a salad for dinner or spent longer than usual in the sauna sweating off water weight.

“During the week we’d be sitting down for lunch or dinner and [Thomas] would have trays that looked like he just got out of a prison camp. He’d be just smashing this food,” Greco said. “I knew a lot of guys that struggled to keep weight on. They’d have to eat ungodly amounts of food. You’d see them the night before the weigh-ins, we’d go out as a group, as an O-line, and some guys would flat out come just to go and they wouldn’t eat to avoid a fine. And then there were guys who are eating lasagna, steaks, salads, appetizers, drinks. And you’re like, ‘My God, how are these guys able to do this?’”

An average day of consumption for Thomas back then might have made even Joey Chestnut double over and reach for the Tums. Thomas’s quick metabolism forced him to eat so much, so often, that he used to get stressed out about missing a meal because that usually meant losing weight, which in turn impacted his job.

A typical breakfast for Thomas was four pieces of bacon, four sausages, six scrambled eggs, four over-easy eggs, three pancakes with peanut butter and syrup, and oatmeal with berries, flaxseed, peanut butter, and honey. That was followed by a post-morning workout snack: a protein shake and bananas. Lunch, he said, was “usually a little smaller”—a handful of hamburgers and some vegetables. After practice is when he “was really eating heavy.” Jet’s Pizza near Cleveland was a favorite for him and the offensive line. They’d order four or five pizzas after practice—pepperoni, meat lover’s, BBQ chicken, and buffalo chicken were the go-tos—and split them among the group. Joe tended to eat an entire pizza himself.

“A large Jet’s pizza is like 2,000 calories,” Thomas said. “Jet’s is a Detroit-style pizza. It’s a little bit thicker crust, but the crust is just oozing with olive oil and Parmesan cheese and garlic. They cook it in a seasoned cast iron pan so the crust is a doughy, crispy, buttery, cheesy, garlicky, delicious crust. And they load up the cheese and the toppings, and the toppings get a little bit burnt. It’s really good stuff.”

After that, he’d go home and have dinner with his wife, Annie. Maybe a big plate of spaghetti, a mound of meatballs, three or four breadsticks, and salad—because, as Thomas said, you “gotta get your ruffage.” But all that was part of Thomas’s diet when he was merely trying to maintain his weight. If he needed to gain weight, like when he was in training camp pulling two-a-days and burning more calories, he had a standard dessert fail-safe. Before bed, he’d polish off a quart of ice cream and a sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, then wash it down with a glass of whole milk.

“That was like 2,000 calories you’re putting in right before bed,” Thomas said. “It was a lot. You did it every day. … You didn’t appreciate it. To do that every single day for every meal, you feel full all the time. It kind of stresses you because if you’re out and about and you don’t have a meal you’re like, ‘Crap. This is my job, to keep weight on. I’m not doing my job. I need to get food now.’”

Nick Hardwick can empathize. He was in the league for 11 seasons, from 2004 until 2014, all with the Chargers. The biggest he got was 308 pounds, but for the past four years he’s kept his weight in the 225-230 range. Playing center in the league required the same prodigious eating efforts for him as it did for Thomas. Hardwick used to set his alarm for 2 a.m., wake up, pound a ready-made 700-calorie protein shake that sat by his bed in a blender, then go back to sleep. After that came protein bars in the car on the way to the training facility, endless eggs and sausages for breakfast, as much food as he could cram into his face from the rotating team buffet for lunch, and then a “well balanced” dinner of carbs, fat, and protein. In between there were giant containers of almonds and tubs of Greek yogurt. At night, he’d sit in bed and watch TV and eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s. His favorites were Karamel Sutra Core and Chunky Monkey.

As Hardwick put it, it was “a gratuitous amount of food.” In retrospect, he understands why guys like Thomas and Brooks hinted that professional bingeing was something approaching an eating disorder, though Hardwick didn’t see it that way at the time. To him, it was “a necessary means to an end” to play in the NFL “in any capacity.”

“It was a ridiculous chore,” Hardwick said. “Just like any other diet, it was uncomfortable and it was something you had to do.”

Dallas Cowboys v San Diego Chargers
Nick Hardwick
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

If Thomas or Hardwick had asked him, Jon Runyan might have offered them the same weight-gain advice that he once gave his old teammate, Jevon Kearse. Runyan, who now serves as the NFL’s vice president of policy and rules administration, played 14 seasons with the Oilers, Titans, Eagles, and Chargers. The former tackle always has been a big guy. He’s 6-foot-7 and usually played somewhere in the range of 330-340 pounds, though Runyan said it wasn’t unusual for him to hit the 350 mark in the offseason when he was doing nothing but eating and training.

Runyan remembered when Kearse—an undersized defensive end coming out of college—came to the offensive line looking for help in gaining weight. Kearse told them he kept eating and eating to no avail, and that the coaches were pressuring him to bulk up.

“And we go, ‘Dude, go home and every night for a month, drink a six pack of beer. You’ll put 15 pounds on, no problem. Empty calories,’” Runyan said. “He wouldn’t do it. That’s the reality of it. The linemen, they’ll sit around and drink a six pack, a 12 pack and not think anything of it. But it’s all going to your ass and your stomach.”

Of course, Runyan concedes that his back-in-my-day tales of walking uphill both ways to the beer fridge to pack on pounds are a bit dated. Similarly, Thomas and Hardwick admit that while mainlining carbs and sugar might have been an effective method to maintain their weight, it was also a way to risk adult-onset diabetes. Since their playing days have ended, Thomas and Hardwick have thrown themselves into learning about nutrition and how their bodies react to different foods. That’s something both men wish they had done more of during their careers—and an approach that’s becoming increasingly common among the current crop of young offensive linemen.

Runyan’s son, Jon, is also a lineman. The younger Runyan, who was taken in the sixth round of this year’s draft by the Packers, made the leap from Michigan to the pros by eating cleaner and smarter. Where previous generations might have reached for quarts of ice cream or bottomless beers, Runyan and other modern prospects have taken an almost clinical approach to beefing up—trying to add mass while attempting to limit long-term health risks. Bartch, for instance, spent almost every Sunday in college prepping his meals for the week. He’d cook up trays of sweet potatoes, mounds of steamed rice, and “a truckload of chicken breast or tenderloin.”

Bartch might have gone to St. John’s, but he considers himself a student of what he calls YouTube University. He’d scour the internet for as much information as he could find about how eating different kinds of protein in the evening might nourish his body while he slept, or how consuming a certain amount of carbs at the wrong hour might make him feel sluggish.

“The shake was just a small part of it,” Bartch said. “There were a ton of other regimented foods that were measured in Tupperware and eaten throughout the day. People would probably be far more shocked by the blandness of proper dieting and trying to put on muscle.

“You’re eating like a dog, so to speak. What I mean by that is, you’re eating the same food every day. You’re eating the same amount every day. You’re eating at the same times every day.”

Matt Hennessy has taken a similarly scientific approach in his effort to get big but, he hopes, not sloppy. The former Temple Owl, who was selected by Atlanta in the third round, was the second center off the board in April’s draft. Hennessy was 260 pounds as a freshman, but played his final season in the Owls’ no-huddle offense in the 290s. Since then, he’s added more weight. He was 306 at the combine and said he’s about 310 now—all of which was an effort to show potential NFL employers what he can carry.

Gaining those extra 50 pounds over these past few years required a methodical and unyielding approach to his eating and sleeping schedules. While Hennessy’s friends and teammates often partied on the weekends, Hennessy said he rarely went out and usually didn’t drink. Instead he got up at 5 a.m. and went to the food hall early, just so he could hit his calorie targets for the day.

But Hennessy’s biggest breakthrough came courtesy of an elective nutrition class that he took the summer before his final season. He learned about macronutrients and micronutrients, how carbs are faster burning and protein is slower burning, and when to eat which foods at different times of the day to optimize his training performance. Once he started planning his diet with those lessons in mind, that’s when his weight “just totally took off.” All of a sudden he was putting up personal records in the weight room. Now he follows a bevy of sports science and nutrition accounts on social media, and he combs through various research studies looking for the next potential advancement.

“Say a research article comes out on the effect of consuming 20 grams of protein before bed, and how that affects lean muscle mass over a 12-week period, and the results are positive, then I’m adding that to my regimen as well,” Hennessy said.

Jack Driscoll, an Auburn tackle drafted in the fourth round by the Eagles, adopted some of the same approaches as Bartch and Hennessy. Like them, he wasn’t naturally heavy. Like them, he was undersized to start his college career. And like them, he evolved from binge-eating pizza and ice cream to working toward a healthier and more sustainable way of staying swole. Still, Driscoll points out that while it’s important to have a better understanding of nutritional science, it’s not logistically easy to eat right, particularly in college.

“I have class all day, then practice. I don’t really have time to get a huge lunch. So I have to pack snacks. So what can I pack? What food will stay good? And I’m really trying to plan that out ahead of time so I’m not missing meals,” Driscoll said. “It’s definitely a challenge.”

It’s also expensive. As Driscoll noted, “healthier food costs more” than buying 20 chicken nuggets from McDonald’s. There’s also a time expenditure. Bartch said the “general rule of thumb” is eating every two hours. Which requires having something to eat in the first place. Which requires cooking it. Which also requires buying the food and something to store it in. The amount of effort prospects spend on thinking and learning about food, not to mention actually eating it, is functionally a full-time job hidden, like a Russian nesting doll, inside the actual full-time job they hope to secure in the NFL. Prospects hope that all the money and effort will pay off, but Driscoll admitted that, in the back of his mind, he knows the odds of making it to the NFL, and then managing to live a healthy life after retirement, are not great. He said that even if he has a 10-year career, he’ll still be in his early 30s when the game decides it’s done with him.

“What do you do with the rest of your life?” Driscoll asked. “How do you make sure you’re not facing serious health risks?”

NFL Combine - Day 4
Jack Driscoll
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Nick Hardwick was standing on the sideline when he realized it was over. This was back in 2014. He had gotten hurt in Week 1, and the Chargers placed him on IR. It was also the last year of his contract, and the last year he figured he wanted to play, anyway. But if he had any second thoughts about maybe playing one more season after the injury, he was soon divested of that notion.

“[The weight fell] off in a hurry. It fell off so fast. I’m not kidding,” Hardwick said. “I lost so much weight so quickly [while hurt] that, at the end of the season, I had an official come up and ask me if I was sick. He was like, ‘Hey, Nick, are you doing OK? Do you have cancer?’ That’s how quickly I lost the weight.”

After retiring, Hardwick put himself on a diet of his creation, one he hopes to eventually self-publish. It included carb cycling, protein sparing, and intermittent fasting. Everything and anything. He dreamed up something called “four, three, two, one,” where he’d eat four meals one day, then three the next, then two, then one. His weight plummeted. After a hot yoga class, he got on the scale and was 202 pounds. He figured he’d lose three more pounds just to say he got under 200—until he caught a glimpse of his side profile in the mirror and realized his diet had worked a little too well. That’s when he understood the weight-loss game he was playing was “unhealthy and needed to end.”

“I said, ‘Holy shit, if Armageddon hits, I’m screwed. I can’t defend myself,’” Hardwick said. “I don’t want to say it was a panic attack, but it was a realization that, ‘Hey, I think the game is over, bud. I think it’s time to go eat some food.’”

Looking back on it, Hardwick believes he had a distorted body image. Initially, as he was losing weight, he saw himself as “getting ripped.” But that post-yoga side profile was when “I finally saw myself the way others were seeing me: gaunt and sickly.” Now, Hardwick is back up to 225 pounds. He’s been around that number for the past four years. He believes his posture has gotten better—and claims he’s grown taller as a result.

“When I lost that weight, I was able to stand up straighter,” Hardwick said. “I created more space in my spine and my neck. I’m not kidding. I’m almost 6-foot-5 now. At 33 years old I grew an inch.”

Independent of his height, Hardwick’s back doesn’t bother him anymore—something Runyan, Greco, and Thomas have noticed about their own bodies when they’ve lost weight. Runyan is about 295 right now, but he always knows when he’s put on a few pounds because his back locks up. He doesn’t even have to weigh himself to know he’s gone up to 305 or 310.

“If I go on vacation or I have a big weekend and I put on a couple pounds, I can definitely tell in the way I feel and the way I move,” Greco said. “I would say back is the most common that you’ll hear from offensive linemen. That’s true for me. Then knees. And then feet. I had foot surgery. It doesn’t linger. But it’s something that, if I’m heavier and I’m walking or I’m on it all day, I’m a little bit sore at the end of the day. It’s amazing what losing even 10, 15 pounds will do to that.”

Thomas complained about those same things when he was over 300 pounds. His lower back was the biggest issue, and his knees would ache after he stood for just a few minutes. He likes to joke that the old saying about offensive linemen having their head on a swivel was really just them looking for a chair to sit in. His joints bothered him, too. His elbows creaked. And he was often so swollen and bloated that he described his hands as having “fat banana fingers.” After he retired, Thomas’s doctors told him the best way to alleviate the pain and swelling was to lose weight. He figured he had maybe a year to drop the pounds, otherwise he might never do it and he’d get stuck in the professional sumo suit he’d created for himself.

Like Hennessy, Bartch, and Driscoll, Thomas has since dedicated himself to learning as much as he can about nutrition, and he frequently takes time on Twitter to encourage people who are trying to get in shape. Toward the end of his career, one of the things he liked best was teaching younger players techniques and then seeing them execute on the field. Now he’s doing something similar by engaging with Twitter followers about his body transformation, posting pictures of healthy meals, and offering workout tips.

“Going through that process myself with the weight loss and getting healthy and feeling good,” Thomas says, “it’s fun for me to try to help people and encourage people and motivate people that maybe didn’t know where to start but can see what I went through from being tubby left tackle for the Browns to being someone who tries to live a healthy, active lifestyle for the long term.”

Thomas feels the best he ever has, but he has to monitor what he eats at every meal—and, more importantly, how much. The unhealthy relationship with food still lingers. He’s pretty sure it won’t ever go away. He still gets the immediate dopamine release from eating, but he told his wife that he’s lost the ability to feel full. That inner competitive eater that was so integral to being a professional tackle keeps telling him to devour everything at every meal. He has to tell himself to stop. He compared it to people who are OCD and can’t walk past dirty dishes in the kitchen sink without cleaning it all up. Left to his own impulses, he’d simply clean plates in a much different way.

“That sounds crazy, right?” Thomas said. “That’s our world.”

Against All Odds with Cousin Sal

NFL Season Replay: Interviews With Drew Bledsoe, Phil Simms, and Boomer Esiason

Off the Pike

Matt Hamachek on His Pats Docuseries ‘The Dynasty’

NFL Draft Show

Draft Mailbag: Back-End First-Round QBs, Aiyuk’s Future, and Is J.J. McCarthy a Top-10 QB?

View all stories in NFL