Originally published in Tulsa World
High school linemen have grown massively over the last 40 years,a trend health experts worry will have serious consequences
At 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, Aaron Kannard dwarfs most high school juniors. And as Broken Arrow’s starting right guard, he’s a big guy on the field.
But not big enough.
“I have to hit the weight room really hard next summer,” Kannard said. “It’s just a big part of the game now because everyone is so strong. Everyone is faster. Everyone is bigger.”
A lot bigger.
Despite potential health risks caused by children’s larger bodies, players’ weights have grown from 177 pounds in 1930 to 214 pounds in 2006, a Tulsa World analysis of All-State rosters shows.
And linemen have grown even more. In 1930, they averaged 183 pounds. In 2006, they weighed almost 273 pounds.
Offensive linemen have gained almost 50 pounds since 1982. If the trend continues, they will average 300 pounds by 2021.
Although American children as a whole have gotten larger, linemen have grown significantly more than the general population.
The weight of an average 17-year-old boy increased 11 percent from 150 pounds in 1966 to 166 pounds in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Linemen’s weight grew three times that much.
Players and coaches defend the explosion in player size as the natural progression of the game and the result of better conditioning and nutrition.
But health officials warn that bigger bodies have increased injuries and is only worsening America’s obesity epidemic.
Filtering from the pros
The trend of larger linemen started at the NFL and trickled all the way down to junior leagues, said Coweta High School head coach Trandy Birch.
Professional players grew to gain an advantage over smaller opponents. Colleges and high schools scrambled to catch up to supply NFL teams with the large linemen they needed.
“What colleges want to do is get their kids to the next level, regardless of sport,” Birch said. “High school coaches are no different. We want to get our kids to the next level.”
To get their athletes there, high school coaches have adopted colleges’ training programs.
For Broken Arrow head coach Ron Lancaster, that meant borrowing concepts from the University of Nebraska.
When Lancaster first saw the nutrition and weightlifting cycles led by pioneering strength coach Boyd Epley, he wasn’t sure they would work.
And then he saw the results.
“You’d see a picture of a boy looking (small)), and you’d think, “Boy, that’s a skinny little kid,”” Lancaster said. “Five years later, he looks like King Kong and weighs 290 pounds.”
After seeing how the program worked, Lancaster took the ideas back to high school because of the advantages size has on the line.
“A big, fast, strong kid is going to beat a little, fast, strong kid on the line,” Lancaster said. “There’s more power, more velocity, a bigger space . . . If that wasn’t the case, why are the pros 6-foot-6, 320 pounds?”
Heavy health risks
Larger NFL stars landing larger contracts and endorsement deals has attracted the attention of high school athletes, said Corey Wright, the physical activity coordinator for the Oklahoma Physical Activity & Nutrition Program.
“The demand on sports is so much greater now at that level that children are expected to be performing at much higher levels than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” Wright said.
“There’s so much emphasis on competition and the need to win and get scholarships that they’re expected to perform at levels they shouldn’t be at yet.”
Expectations are higher, but players’ chances of making it to the pros are still low. Of the 1 million high school football players in the country, only 65,000 will play college ball, according to the NFL Players Association. Only 1 out of 3,400 high school players will sign an NFL contract.
Because of the long odds, many athletes eat unhealthy foods to gain weight and increase their slim chance at the NCAA, said Dr. Ryan Pitts, a primary care sports physician at the Eastern Oklahoma Orthopedic Center.
“Part of the problem is that coaches and some of the parents convince a lot of kids that if they’re going to go on to play big-time football . . . they have to weigh 280, 290 pounds or more to get looked at by colleges,” Pitts said.
Some players build 290-pound frames from weight training, Pitts said, but most excess weight comes from fat.
Although active athletes burn ex tra calories, most do not continue to exercise after their playing days are over, said Nancy Bacon, a nutritionist with the Maternal Child Health Services at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
“As the activity level goes down, typically eating habits don’t change,” Bacon said. “Then they’re set up to gain weight . . . which in turn leads to all of the ramifications with obesity when they don’t cut back their eating.”
When Coweta coach Birch was a lineman at Union in the early ’80s, he was 6-foot-4 and weighed 300 pounds — thanks to his mother’s home cooking, he said. Twenty five years later, his size has changed little.
“We had three meals a day, regardless of what day it was . . . so it was no secret for me to maintain that weight,” Birch said. “The secret for me is how to get it off.
“And I’ve still not discovered that secret.”
Youth weight training
Although changed eating habits have made linemen larger, Birch said better weight training is the biggest reason players have grown.
When Birch played, football players lifted only in the offseason. Today, they lift year-round.
Besides taking more reps, today’s athletes also take better reps.
Every player used to do the same weight-training drills, regardless of position. Today each set of drills is designed to cater to the specific skill sets each position needs.
“Different kids respond to different ways,” Birch said. “Nowadays we have kids on individualized programs, whereas 20 or 25 years ago, every kid did the same thing . . . Now it’s a lot more specialized.”
That specialization starts at young ages.
Broken Arrow, Jenks, Union and other schools train players in junior leagues to get them to higher sizes and skill sets when they enter high school.
“Look at the ninth grade kids we’ve got coming in,” Lancaster said. “They’re monsters. They’re huge. What’s it going to be like four years from now?”
Coweta offensive lineman Nick Qualls started playing football in fifth grade. He was one of the largest children on the team, so his coach made him at lineman.
To boost his chances of success in high school, Qualls started lifting weights with his father in sixth grade.
“I watched the NFL — that kind of inspired me,” Qualls said. “I want to be big like that. Besides just eating all day, I have to do something to counter the eating. I have to lift weights.”
Medical experts are divided on the safety of 12-year-olds lifting weights, EOOC’s Pitts said.
Some doctors promote youth lifting weights to build muscle or increase flexibility. Others fear it could stunt growth or put children at risk for injuries.
“Most people agree, though, that it’s probably not safe for them to be working out unless they’re with somebody very experienced,” Pitts said. “They need somebody spotting them who knows what they’re doing, not another 12- or 13-year-old.”
The National Strength and Conditioning Association endorses weight training in children if the program is designed and supervised by experts. Pitts said the focus should be on learning proper techniques rather than maxing out.
“They shouldn’t be in there trying to bench-press 300 pounds,” Pitts said. “They should be learning to do things correctly.”
After six years of lifting, Qualls’ hard work has paid off for Coweta.
The 6-foot-1, 290-pound right tackle is one of the strongest players in the locker room. He bench-presses 355 pounds and squats 570. He’s 16 years old.
Because of the early training by Qualls and others, Broken Arrow’s Kannard feels behind for waiting until ninth grade to start lifting. He squats 420 pounds and bench-presses a “kind of low” 265.
“When I was younger, I guess I was kind of lazy and just didn’t really feel like (lifting),” Kannard said. “Now I’m paying the consequences, I guess, and I’m trying to play catch-up.”
Although Kannard doesn’t feel pressured to become bigger, he said he needs to become stronger. And that means building muscle.
Kannard plans on increasing his workouts so he can squat 460 pounds and bench-press 320 by next year.
He said he knows the health risks involved with gaining weight, but he said he wants to push his playing weight to 290 pounds for his senior season.
“I mean, you are worried about stuff like that, but you just have to concentrate on the game and block all that stuff out,” Kannard said.
“If you’re thinking about that, you’re not going to be doing your job.”