Eagles guard Max Jean-Gilles grew so tired of being hammered about his weight that he went to extreme measures -- in the eyes of some -- to get his playing career on track. He had lap-band surgery on April 28 to help him lose between 60 and 70 pounds -- he last weighed in at nearly 390 pounds -- by the start of training camp.
The outpatient procedure, in which a band is tightened around the top of the stomach to reduce food intake and hunger, has become relatively commonplace in society, but Jean-Gilles is believed to be the first active NFL player to undergo the process. Jets coach Rex Ryan had the procedure six week ago and already has lost more than 40 pounds, down to 310.
"He's got to make sure he's taking the vitamins and other kinds of stuff," Ryan said of Jean-Gilles. "There are times you feel sluggish after you have the surgery. I was at work three days after (the surgery), but I wasn't having to run around and block somebody. There is a foreign object in your body, so he better be careful he's doing everything exactly right.
"I wish him the best. I know I feel great, and really, it's been nothing. Not a problem at all. I just never thought that it would be considered for anybody while they're playing."
Jean-Gilles' decision could lead to more active players going the same route in order to continue to earn a paycheck -- and maintain a healthy life once their careers are finished.
"My first thought was that it would be great for big linemen, when they're done playing, to look to having the surgery because it can help them lose a bunch of weight and help them be healthier," Ryan said. "It can help them get away from a lot of the ailments that tend to plague big guys once they're done, like sleep apnea, high blood pressure and diabetes that a lot of big guys have. I never thought about a current player having the surgery."
"The odds of him having a problem while playing the sport are very low," said Erik Wilson, the medical director for bariatric surgery for the Memorial-Herman Hospital system in Houston. "I suspect he's going to do well. It will require a lot of follow-up. I'm sure there are going to be a lot of people interested to see how he does."
Jean-Gilles said he already has lost close to 15 pounds in the first week. His diet has consisted mostly of soup and water. He will visit doctors again Thursday in his first follow-up, but he's thrilled that he's already feeling the weight come off and that eating isn't an hourly urge.
"I was so used to eating and eating and eating to feel full," Jean-Gilles said.
Even more exciting to him is the prospect of not hearing about his excess weight.
"Every year, the Eagles say they want me to compete for the starting job, but my weight would be an issue, and I'm tired of them talking about it" said Jean-Gilles, who has started 16 games in four seasons. "I would work out three times a day and I was starving myself and doing extra cardio to lose weight, and it just didn't happen. My wife and I talked about it, and when I realized I wouldn't lose any time (playing) football and that it was safe now and in the long term, I moved forward. I have a family to think about."
Jean-Gilles said he purposely didn't consider any negative side effects before he had the procedure because he probably would have backed off. He still consulted with team doctors and his personal doctors before going through with things. Wilson said Jean-Gilles shouldn't have much to worry about despite the physical nature of the game. Bariatric surgeons have done studies and research on women who've become pregnant after having lap-band surgery, and rarely has the trauma of childbirth dislodged the band or led to other complications, he said.
"Child birth is probably more traumatic than anything any football player would go through in a game," Wilson said.
Despite the rapid weight loss that typically results from the procedure, Jean-Gilles shouldn't have problems with his nutrition because his body will crave less and the diet that is prescribed after the outpatient surgery is typically healthier, Wilson said. Jean-Gilles will have to be monitored and checked frequently by doctors.
Jean-Gilles said he can do light running, pushups and biceps curls, but he can't do any heavy weight lifting for a month.
"I want to get down to what I weighed my junior year in college," Jean-Gilles said. "I haven't seen that body in years -- and nobody will have anything to say to me about my weight anymore."
Willis' deal shows teams value inside 'backers
Rolando McClain was selected No. 8 overall by the Oakland Raiders in last month's draft. The pick was widely praised but there was still some talk that taking an inside linebacker within the first 10 selections is a bad value. Inside linebackers don't get to the quarterback like outside linebackers do, and many of them -- maybe even McClain -- aren't used as three-down players because of pass-coverage vulnerabilities.
Less than two weeks after McClain was drafted, San Francisco's All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis signed a five-year, $50 million extension. Not long into free agency, former Arizona free-agent inside linebacker Karlos Dansby signed a five-year, $43 million deal with Miami. Houston tackling machine DeMeco Ryans signed a six-year, $48 million extension. Bart Scott and Jonathan Vilma got paid last year.
Maybe the position isn't valued highly, but some players clearly are.
"A lot of people don't understand that the Mike (inside/middle linebacker) is like the quarterback on offense," Willis said. "Everything runs through us. I don't know why some people don't think otherwise, but I feel like we're just as important as other guys -- as a quarterback or cornerback. I feel like you take care of who you think is valuable to you. I feel like the 49ers have done that."
Willis is one of the most dynamic defenders at any position, a sideline-to-sideline, north-south throwback whose nose for the ball makes him virtually irreplaceable. There aren't many like him in the league, especially when you throw in the fact that he's just 25 years old. Jets inside linebacker David Harris, the Patriots' Jerod Mayo and the Panthers' Jon Beason (the next in line for a big pay day), along with Ryans and Vilma, are pretty much the only rising stars at the position who've also proven themselves.
In terms of youth, it's hard to peg a lot of players who could develop into feared patrollers of the middle -- once the most highly appreciated position on defense. Atlanta's Curtis Lofton is on the verge of making a name for himself. Should he bounce back from a major knee injury that kept him off the field last season, Philadelphia's Stewart Bradley could be in the next wave of upstarts, if there is even enough to be considered a group. Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud could get back to his highly productive ways now that he has high draft picks Gerald McCoy and Brian Price playing in front of him.
Most of the inside/middle linebackers, even the best ones, are either in the twilight of their careers (Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, James Farrior, London Fletcher) or are overshadowed by other more high-profile players (Scott, the Packers' Nick Barnett). Dansby is somewhere in between. He's very good, but he is rarely mentioned as a dominant force such as Willis, Ryans, Vilma, Beason -- or Seattle's Lofa Tatupu.
The NFL's shift to more spread-type offenses and an increased emphasis on the passing game have caused defenses to play more nickel packages, where middle -- or at least one inside linebacker -- is pulled off the field in favor of a third defensive back. That's played a role in steering the limelight off inside linebackers and on outside linebackers who rush or cover receivers.
More teams are getting away from the single middle linebacker in a 4-3 front (four down linemen, three linebackers), where guys like 49ers coach Mike Singletary and Urlacher used to ring up stats, in favor of the 3-4. Typically, just one of the inside guys get to shine while the other catches the block of a guard or tight end. Baltimore's Lewis, Dansby and Willis have benefited from this scheme, but again, the focus of the 3-4 front usually is on the outside linebackers (James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley) and safeties (Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu). Willis said that his success is a direct benefit of the 3-4 and having so many players around him and in front of him to do the heavy lifting for him to make plays.
"I would have never thought that in a 3-4 scheme that I'd be able to play and go to the Pro Bowl three years out of three," Willis said. "But it allows me to be a valuable player."
In a side note, Willis offered this advice for McClain, the first inside/middle linebacker drafted in the top nine picks since Urlacher was taken ninth by Chicago in 2000 (Green Bay inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, No. 5 in 2006, came into the league as an outside linebacker):
"Don't let the pressure of anybody else get to you," Willis said. "He needs to go out and play the way he's always played, which is the way that helped him get here. They're going to expect a lot out of him. Pressure will be there, but pressure only comes from not being prepared. Each week for me, when it's game time, I'm ready and I'm prepared. So there is no pressure."
Jackson's back(up) plan?
Eagles free-agent running back Brian Westbrook still is uncertain if he will join the team -- indications are the Rams may be uncertain that they really want him -- and Kenneth Darby and Chris Ogbonnaya are the backups. If Jackson responds slowly to this procedure or gets hurt at some point, the Rams could be in a major jam because a lot of pressure will fall on the arm of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, which is what they don't want.
St. Louis certainly will be exploring running backs in free agency and possibly in trades once things get closer to or into the preseason. Former Raiders starter Justin Fargas remains available, but he's garnered little interest.