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Packers', Steelers' 300-pounders bulk up now, worry about later

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Casey Hampton is listed at 325 pounds. The way his jersey stretches tautly across his biceps (and belly) suggests the real number is north of that. Asked for his actual weight, the Steelers nose tackle says: "It's 300 and change. Lots of change."

Hampton is among 26 players on Green Bay's and Pittsburgh's Super Bowl rosters -- 13 apiece -- who tip the scale at more than 300 pounds -- an eye-popping number made more startling when placed in historical context.

Green Bay's first Super Bowl team, 45 years ago, didn't have a guy heavier than 265 pounds. Mean Joe Greene, at 275 pounds, was the biggest player on the Steelers when they won their second of six championships in 1976.

All this largesse was roundly joked about and brushed off during Super Bowl media day Tuesday -- as good a day as any to celebrate all the excesses that America's favorite sport has to offer. But it also brings up some uncomfortable questions. Namely: How'd these guys all get so big, and could any of this really be good for them?

"In terms of food, yeah, they eat tons of food during their careers, and they get very big," said dietitian Michele Macedonio, who has worked for the Cincinnati Bengals. "And if they don't do something to get back to their healthful weight, their rate of disease is very high."

As for those using more than food, well, that's a statistic that almost certainly won't ever be properly measured.

The supplement Creatine helps stimulate muscle growth and has long been considered an integral part of any NFL player's bodybuilding regimen. But even that has its limits, and the growth rate of the players -- even more noticeable while walking among them on media day when they're not covered in shoulder pads and helmets -- has been more or less exponential.

According to stats provided to The Associated Press by Stats LLC, there was one 300-pound player in the league in 1970, three in 1980, 94 in 1990, 301 in 2000 and 394 at the start of last season.

Meanwhile, the NFL does not test for human-growth hormone and has a banned-substances list that's considered laughably short by the people who run Olympic-style testing programs.

"That's a difficult one for me to respond to other than to say that the sport played in my country, rugby union, the same thing has happened since the game went more professional, since there started being more money in it," said David Howman, a New Zealand native who is the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "I look back to when I was a kid and remember the size of the players when I was a kid. Nowadays, they'd be lucky to make it to" a preseason game.

Speaking of which, Packers nose tackle Howard Green spent the preseason with the Redskins, who wanted him to play at about 360 pounds. They cut him and the Jets picked him up, but after a few more weeks they decided he was too heavy. So they released him, then the Packers signed him and, in their media guide, they boasted that he "brings size and bulk to the interior of the defensive front at 6-foot-2, 340 pounds."

He's more like 355 pounds. A 15-pound discrepancy. A drop in the bucket.

"That's cool for right now," Green said. "I could do better, but I've got to do what I do for right now. You can't go into depletion mode in the middle of the season. You'll be weak. You'll get your butt kicked out here by these guys."

In very little danger of getting his butt kicked by anyone is the Packers' starting nose tackle, B.J. Raji, who's listed at 337. His nickname: "The Freezer" -- a name he appreciates although he was an infant when fellow appliance/big man William "Refrigerator" Perry was playing.

Raji returned an interception 18 yards for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game against the Bears.

"When B.J. scored, it got to rumbling in there," said Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who weighs 305. "I could feel the ground shaking a little bit."

Says Raji: "Big guys, we're always trying to keep our weight down. You have to stay on top of it. I have no problem with that."

Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett does.

He says his "magic number" is 338 pounds. Weigh-ins are every Thursday, and he pays $500 for every pound he's over.

"Right when I get on the scale, I start having flashbacks," he said. "It's everything. It's, 'Man, I shouldn't have done that this week.' Or 'Why did I do this?' Or 'If I hadn't done that, I'd have been fine.'"

"This" and "that," Pickett conceded, are indulgences such as the huge bucket of chicken wings he and the other linemen "gorge on" after the weigh-ins are over.

It's pretty much the same story on the Steelers side.

The heaviest Steeler, 344-pound offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu, said the O-line eats together a lot -- and sometimes that can be hard.

"Just looking at what the dude sitting next to you is eating makes you want to eat more," Kemoeatu said. "But you have to watch yourself. The team invests a lot of money in you. And they fine you if you get overweight."

Indeed, it is a dollars-and-cents business, and staying big is these guys' livelihood, even if it sets them up for a possible failed drug test (exceedingly rare given the NFL's testing policy) or bigger health problems down the road.

Macedonio referred to a study that showed a sampling of 70 collegiate offensive lineman averaged 27.4 percent body fat -- the healthy range is 8 to 19 percent -- and that 69 of those players already had at least one condition, such as high blood pressure or waist circumference of 40 inches or greater, that predicted they would be susceptible to heart disease later in life.

She said there was no accurate way of gauging whether the supplements players use are allowed or disallowed.

"Guys use supplements all the time," she said. "Now, are they legal supplements? The ones I see have to be legal, because they're inside the (team) weight rooms.

"If they're not doing legal things, are they going to tell me about that? No. They're not going to sit there and tell me."

The man who used to be the poster child for unhealthy NFL living here in the Super Bowl city of Dallas is Nate Newton. Once a proud 400-pounder nicknamed "The Kitchen," he's now on billboards for gastric-sleeve surgery. The ads scream "Lose Weight Like Nate," and, indeed, Newton is a shell of his former self, weighing in at a svelte 215 pounds. He said all the weight-related health problems he had -- diabetic condition, sleep apnea and more -- resolved themselves when he took off the pounds.

On the other end, there's the story of his fellow Cowboys lineman, Erik Williams, who limped into the Super Bowl media hotel Tuesday on a cane. He recently was diagnosed with severe degenerative arthritis in his hip -- a result, in part, of playing in the 300-plus range over 11 seasons.

"I'm disabled right now," he said. "I need two hip replacements. It's definitely something to look out for."

And yet, he concedes, he wouldn't change a thing.

"If they lose weight, then they jeopardize their position," Williams said. "Linemen have to be strong, have to be quick, have to be agile. It comes with the territory. They may need hip surgery, it might be toes, or it might be knees. I'd just tell guys to just keep doing things you love, and whatever consequences come with that, deal with it."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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