Retired athletes fight flab on a daily basis
It was - in the parlance of recovering alcoholics, born-again evangelicals and Oprah viewers - what is known as a moment of clarity.
Two years after walking away from professional football in 1994, former NFL defensive tackle Mike Golic glanced at a mirror and deduced that either:
A) The glass was shrinking.
B) His waistline was expanding.
"One day I kind of caught myself," said Golic, a football analyst and radio host for ESPN. "It might, God forbid, have been after a shower. I thought, 'Oh my God, I've got to start doing something. It's time to rein it in a little."
When it comes to reining it in a little - or in some cases, a lot - Golic is hardly alone. For many retired athletes, re-entry into everyday life is cushioned - literally - by a sudden and startling weight gain, a soft, mushy parachute of flabby thighs, sagging stomachs and jiggly love handles. Consider:
* Washington Wizards part owner and president of basketball operations Michael Jordan jumped from 212 pounds to roughly 240 pounds after retiring from basketball in 1998; his recent efforts to slim down have fueled rumors of a comeback.
* During his 44-month hiatus from hockey, Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux reportedly gained 25 pounds.
* Former basketball star Charles Barkley - never svelte to begin with - clocked in at an astonishing 337 1/2 pounds during a nationally televised January weigh-in, some 70 pounds more than his playing weight.
"You can work out all you want, but no matter what you do, it's just not the same as running up and down the court," said Jeff Ruland, men's basketball coach at Iona and a former Wizards center. "There's no question you're going to put on a few pounds in retirement ."
Indeed, it sometimes seems the sports world is swollen - again, literally - with one-time Adonises who have lost their way (and, at some point, apparently ended up at Krispy Kreme). Hoisting a can of suds in a recent beer commercial, a paunchy Willie Mays looks as if he's hiding the rest of the six-pack under his jacket. Tennis great Billie Jean King appears to have layered in preparation for nuclear winter.
And as for NFL star-cum-NBA studio host Ahmad Rashad? Put it this way: If the camera adds 15 pounds, then how many cameras is NBC using?
"The one thing that all professional athletes have in common is that at some point our bodies are going to give way," said former Wizards guard Phil Chenier, now a broadcaster with the team. "It seems to happen with most guys. Some still look like they're in good playing shape. But I'd be willing to bet that even they've picked up five, 10, 15 pounds."
Sure enough, post-retirement weight gain varies widely, as some former athletes are wider than others. At one end of the spectrum sit the still-trim superstars like Jordan and Magic Johnson, long, reedy types whose subtle, unobtrusive flab - assuming it exists - is hardly noticeable, particularly when cloaked in a well-tailored Italian suit.
At the other end are thicker ex-jocks such as Barkley - who packed on nearly 10 pounds a month before resolving to slim down in January - and former world heavyweight champion James "Buster" Douglas.
In fact, for Marlon Brando-shaming, Zeppelin-like expansion, there's no beating the man who beat Mike Tyson: After losing his only title defense to Evander Holyfield in 1990, Douglas took his $30 million in winnings and fled to the warmth of southwest Florida, ballooning from 230 pounds to a jolly 320 in the process.
The general rule of thumb (albeit a thick, pudgy, thumb)? The big tend to get bigger - or, to paraphrase a famous phrase, inside of every fat athlete is an even fatter one dying to get out.
Take former NFL defensive tackle William "Refrigerator" Perry. No cherub in his playing days (fighting weight: around 320 pounds), the one-time Super Bowl Shuffler reportedly now resembles a Fridge of the walk-in variety, having grown to more than 355 pounds.
"It comes back to what your body will do under normal circumstances," Chenier said. "When I was playing, I tried to gain weight and couldn't do it, so when I retired , it took me three or four years to put on five pounds.
"But Barkley kind of blew up. When he came into the league, he was the "Round Mound of Rebound." He probably weighed 310. So you knew his makeup was one that could very easily put on weight."
Why the sudden softening? The inevitable rounding of men and women who, in their prime, could often be mistaken for living anatomy sketches, or even the oiled-up, bug-eyed guy on those "Bowflex" commercials?
According to sports nutrition and weight loss experts, active athletes tend to need more calories than they get, while retired athletes generally consume more calories than they need.
In other words, ex-pros blimp up the same way the rest of us do: Too much food, not enough exercise. As anyone who's ever super-sized their No. 4 extra value meal can tell you, extra helpings don't exactly morph into muscle.
"At first, the body can handle that huge energy surplus, because it's still expecting to exercise," said Jeff Kotterman, a board member of the National Association of Sports Nutrition. "But after a while, even for the most gifted athletes, that extra dessert or fatty food is no longer dealt with the same way."
For example, a hardy, 1,000 calorie pregame dinner of steak and eggs is nothing to fret about for the average 6-foot-6 NBA shooting guard, who can burn up to 4,000 calories a game (and thousands more during practices, shootarounds and weight-lifting sessions).
However, put that same player in an office situation - say, sitting at a desk, phone in hand, trying to unload Juwan Howard - and his energy requirements drop dramatically. Steak-and-egg snacks become gut-busting, cholesterol-laden time bombs.
"What happens to the athlete is not that different than what happens to a lot of people that come on Jenny Craig," said Lisa Talamini, director of nutrition and program development for Jenny Craig Inc., one of the world's largest weight management companies. "Maybe a few years ago they were more active, burning more calories on a daily basis. Now they're sitting in front of their computers at work . . . for an athlete , it just happens over a faster time period with a larger number of calories."
Making matters worse, many jocks retire with less-than-stellar eating habits. Thanks to an abundance of night contests, players in every sport generally have little choice but to scarf down large, after-hours meals - a nutritional no-no often compounded by a few post-game brews.
"Alcohol is a part of it," said Tom Fox, team nutritionist for the Washington Capitals. "You've got guys that when they're playing all the time, they can have a few beers and it's no big deal. Then all of a sudden, they're not exercising too much and those beers constitute 500 extra calories a day. You give anyone an extra 500 calories a day, and after awhile it's going to make them fat."
Then there are the twin blades of fitness hara-kari: Golf and broadcasting. With so many retired athletes dabbling in one - or both - of these belt-loosening pursuits, is it any wonder that some end up looking like Fox football analyst John Madden . . . or pro golfer Craig "the Walrus" Stadler?
"When golf becomes you're game, you're not getting much exercise," Fox said.
As a part of his job with ESPN, Golic travels to a pro or college game almost every weekend during football season. And even though he embarks on each trip resolved to exercise and eat right, he admits that it usually doesn't work out that way.
"Before you know it, your flight's late, you've got some problems, and it's time to go grab a triple cheeseburger at Wendy's," Golic said with a laugh. "Then you get to the hotel. There's the gym, there's the bed, and it's, 'I'm going to lay down and watch a movie.'
"And at the game, you're in the press box. Well, media food is not the most conducive to health. Just look at the media people all around - we're probably a bunch of walking heart attacks."
A TOUGH CHOICE
Except, perhaps, for Baltimore Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer. Now 55, the former Orioles pitcher - who, it should be noted, was once an underwear model - looks like baseball's answer to Dick Clark. His secret? A regular regime of tennis, racquetball, biking and weight lifting.
"It's watching what you eat, getting your exercise, taking care of your body," Palmer said. "If you like chocolate chip cookies - like I do - you try to eat them in moderation."
Ultimately, ex-athletes are faced with a choice: Rage against the dying of the light, or go gently into the good night - a good night punctuated by the 2 a.m. knock of the pizza delivery boy.
"It's probably easier not to go to the gym in the morning," Palmer said. "But it depends on what you want out of life. I want to enjoy it as long as I can. You can't become sedentary. At least I couldn't."
Of course, staying active is no lark. For one, retirement fat can be a boon: In addition to his Butterbean-esque returns to the ring, portly boxer George Foreman has made a second career out of corpulence, hawking cheeseburgers and - ahem - low-fat indoor grills with jolly, jiggly brio.
Barkley, meanwhile, has turned his added heft into a comical, ratings-boosting spectator sport, submitting himself for "Fat Trak" weigh-ins on Turner Sports' NBA studio show. (Barkley, commenting on the 10-pound weight used to test the accuracy of the in-studio scale: "That's nothing. That's like one little butt cheek.")
Then there's the question of motivation. After a productive football career in which he earned millions of dollars, Perry told a national magazine last year that he was "real happy" with his life, weight be darned.
"I loved not having to work out, go running, go to the gym," Golic said. "I wasn't working out for football anymore, so I didn't have the same drive. We've had to work out all of our lives for our sports. If somebody wants to take a bit of a break, who's to say otherwise?"
Sure enough, staying trim requires a lot of hard work - the sort of physical sacrifice that drives many athletes to retire in the first place. Like everyone else, ex-jocks must battle old injuries, the aches and pains of advancing age, a metabolism that can slow by as much as five percent a year, and a weight loss concept called "set point theory," which basically holds that an an ounce of prevention is worth a pound (or, in come cases, quite a few pounds) of cure.
"It's a school of thought that says your body can go up or down about 10 percent from a given weight, but no more," Fox said. "Unfortunately, once you go up, your set points resets.
"Say you were 180, and then gained 20 pounds. If you stay at 200 long enough, you're not going to get back to 180 very easily. But it's pretty easy to go to 220. That's what Barkley is going through."
For those who decide to fight the battle of the bulge, the benefits can be, well, weighty. Lemieux dropped all of his excess baggage and is back on the ice. Golic is below his playing weight of 305 pounds (and looking to get rid of "10 to 15 more pounds.") Jordan, who recently showed off his slimmed-down midsection to an Associated Press sports columnist, has decreased the likelihood of catching his stomach on the rim should he actually attempt a comeback.
And Ruland? After shedding 25 pounds, he's noticed a more personal reward.
"I've been married 25 years, and I try to keep my wife interested in me," he said with a laugh. "And I just don't want to look like Barkley."
Article originally published in The Washington Times