11.21.2008

How football saved my life

A year and some months ago, I made the decision that I was going to attempt to join a professional football squadron.

When I started training for this little project, I had a few consistent months of working out and conditioning under my belt - but it was rather pedestrian stuff; simple routines that I performed in an hour a day at the gym. Then, last August, I decided to crank things up a bit and really go for the gusto, and it apparently did some good. I was asked back to 2 teams' follow-up tryouts and was fortunate enough to get interest and advice from some of the pros I was seeking to join.

It's been about 11 months since I last stepped on a field for a team to judge me, and in that time, I've seen my performance in just about every measurable area increase by roughly 30 percent.

I've seen my body fat go from 31% last year to 20% now. I've dropped from a size 44 pant to a size 40ish (sometimes 38?) pant. My bench press is up 95 lbs from my max last year, my squat is up over 200lbs, my leg press is up nearly 350lbs, and my power clean is up a full 90 lbs. I've shaved about half a second off my 40 yard dash, and almost a full second off of my shuttle drill.

Oh, and I also got some new tattoos, which as we all know, really round out the professional athlete training.

So, I'm pretty confident about my tryout tomorrow - that's not to say I think I'll make the team, but I definitely think I'll bring more to the table this time around. And that's the important thing I want to talk about here. Yes, the past year and some months of my life have been spent training for this moment. I won't lie - I want a roster spot. I want to play in the AFL. But if I don't make the squad, I won't see myself as a failure.

I've known my doctor for about three years now, and she says that I have added at least 20 years on to my life just from getting in shape. She never saw me at my absolute heaviest (around 2002 - here's some comparison photos, if you're curious), when I was about 53% body fat and a size 54 waist, and she still thinks I've done myself a world of good just in the three years she's known me. I can't imagine what she would have thought if she knew me back then.

And what's shocking, when I think back on it, is just how fast things went to hell for me.

In high school, I was very active. I played football, wrestled, and threw the shot put. After high school, I wrestled and played Judo at Georgia State, sticking with the Judo after the wrestling team was disbanded (even after I dropped out of school, I was still allowed to compete with the intramural Judo team). Then around November of 2000, I just... Stopped.

I dunno what the hell happened, to be quite honest. I got into a miserable career path during the height of the dot-com insanity, working 70 hours a week on bad code no one ever used (which is funny enough to think about, a football player writing code. But hey, it happens, and I'm proof). I ate garbage 24/7, and blamed the work schedule for not being able to work out. I went from roughly 230lbs to an insane 375 lbs in 2 years - and it's not like I saw myself in the mirror and thought "Wow, I need to quit this."

Because you just don't see it. You'd think you do... But you don't.

I've spoken to SO MANY guys in their 30's and 40's at my gym and elsewhere who can attest to what I'm about to tell you, and it's important that I note that I have witnesses because it sounds so hard to believe - but seriously, ask any ex-high school / college athlete you know if this is how it was for them, and I guarantee you the answer is 'yes.'

Here's how it goes:

You go six weeks without working out. You step on a scale and see you're 15 pounds heavier.

What you don't think:
"Holy crap, fifteen pounds... That's over 105,000 calories I'm going to have to cut out of my diet to get rid of! HOW DID I DO THIS TO MYSELF?"

What you DO think: "Fifteen pounds... Probably water weight. Two weeks of training, max."

Another three months goes by. You're working your ass off, you're trying to keep the bills paid and the free time you do get, you spend relaxing with movies and video games. You don't really care about the scale, because by this time, fitting fitness and exercise into your schedule is so outside the realm of possibility you don't even want to consider what your body's going through. You look in the mirror and you don't see chunky bits, you simply see yourself.

A year goes by. You've been shopping for jeans twice now. The first time, you had to go up a size - well, going from a 36 to a 38 isn't a huge deal. But now, you're going into the 40's, and it's starting to hit you. You realize you need to do something. So, you say to yourself "This Saturday, I'm totally going to start." It's Tuesday. You spend Wednesday through Friday eating steaks and donuts, reminding yourself that this is the last time you'll be ingesting this garbage for a long, long time.

Then something comes up Saturday. You have to go take your dad to the airport or you convince yourself that the shower door needs to be fixed - whatever. The point is, you don't run. You are disappointed, but the type of shame you feel isn't anywhere near what you should, because at this point, this is life. You're a home owner, or maybe a renter. Perhaps you're a father now. You're a wage earner. You simply don't have the extra 12 hours a day to run and play and train like you did in school... Real life is taking over.

Another year goes by. You've bought stretchy pants, because it feels good to know you're still only a size 48 (even though they stretch to a 52). You have bought a gym membership which sits unused as you dump the 30 bucks monthly into it, because when you went, you were mesmerized by the equipment and you could totally see yourself biting the bullet and getting in there every morning before work. You convinced yourself that, while it'd be hard, you'd get up before the rest of the world because you knew you needed the exercise.

The membership card hasn't been scanned in three months. The last time you were there, you did some bench press, got depressed, ordered a smoothie and walked out.

You don't really pay attention in the mirror anymore, because you can definitely see that you've gotten heavier - but how much heavier, you have no concept. You look at old pictures of yourself, and that's the guy you still see in your mind's eye. The man in the mirror? The perspective just isn't there - you know it's you, but it's not the real you. It's not the you that you know you are, it's just temporary. Three months of training, and you'd be back to that old high school body.


That's how it goes. It's always "[x] weeks of training, and I could lose the weight. You'll see." But you never spend those months doing that training. You just think about it from time to time... And somehow, that passes for exercise in your head.

Then, one day, there's a reckoning. It might be your doctor telling you that you've got heart disease, and you need to lose the weight. Or it could be a diagnosis of diabetes. Or, an event takes place - one of my friends' wife was mugged in the streets of Chicago, and he couldn't defend her because he was completely out of breath. This same guy beat me in my one and only tournament defeat in wrestling in high school.

For me, there were two reckonings.

The first was on my honeymoon in 2002. Andrea and I went to Yosemite. She wanted to do a 14 mile hike around the entire park - up and down three mountains. I did it because hey, how bad could it be?

Well, I can tell you how bad it could be. I made it... But my 375lb body crashed for two days. I was absolutely destroyed. I felt like I'd ruined my wife's honeymoon.

When I got home, I started doing Atkins and South Beach and whatever other silly bullshit fad diets there were - anything to keep from actually working out. And they worked, in the short term. They do drop fat, and very quickly. But they're not sustainable, and within two years, I was gaining back all the weight I lost.

Then I started doing events with Team in Training in 2004, and that helped - at least I was exercising instead of relying on magic diets. But I would train for an event for three months, do it, then take the next six months off. It was absolutely the worst thing I could possibly do, because with each event, I'd prove this stupid point to myself that I could get in shape in time for an event. I didn't need to actually stay fit, all I needed was that coveted three months. And every event I did, I got slower and slower.

Then, in July of 2007, I had my second reckoning. I had to physically carry a morbidly obese family member whose feet were swollen with gout out of their home, along with two other guys. We drove this person to the hospital, where a team of six people put them on a stretcher.

It sent me into shock and woke me up. I was 30 - and this could easily be me in 10 years.

I knew then that if I wanted to avoid the fate of over half my blood family, where people have died of diabetes, heart disease and heart attacks, I had to take serious - and permanent - action. And I knew myself well enough to know that simply agreeing to work out every day wasn't going to cut it. I had to pick a goal and work toward it. So, I picked something lofty and pretty much unachievable - I wanted to play professional football. And since then, I've surprised pretty much everyone, but none moreso than myself. I can't believe I actually made it through cuts and worked at camp and have a real shot this year.

And that's where the win actually is. I won't say that it doesn't matter if I make the team - it matters. A lot. I want this pretty damn badly, and I didn't just spend the past eighteen months doing this for nothing. But the fact that I've managed to bring myself to this level and improve my overall health - the fact that I can actually see that little twinkle in my wife's eye when she sees me now - that's made all the difference.

Well, that and the fact that I can bench press a Volkswagen.

When younger guys ask me for advice in life, I usually tell them that I can only speak intelligently on one thing. It's not romance, because everyone's needs and wants when it comes to physical and emotional intimacy is different. And it's not money, because money is fleeting - it comes and it goes and every 5 years, there's a brand new way to make (and lose) a hell of a lot of it. The only place I can give advice is on physical fitness, and it's this:

Don't lose it.

If you're an active young person, stay that way. Even if it's only 3 days a week, an hour a day, those three hours out of your week are SO worth it when you compare it to what could happen when you don't do anything. And it goes fast - once the hormones quit pumping into your system and your body stops growing, you're going to experience a brand new thing, in that you can't eat a whole meat lover's pizza without some consequence - you're going to have to burn those 4,000 calories somewhere.

If you're a young person but aren't very active, NOW is the time to start. TRUST ME ON THIS. When you turn 22 or 23, your body stops metabolizing everything with lightning speed. When you turn 30, your bones start getting a little harder and stiffer, and your ability to recover starts to diminish. When you work out, you're literally tearing your body down so that it'll grow back tougher - and the longer you wait to start this process, the harder it is to gain benefit from it.

You don't have to eat only carrots and drink only tea - have fun, eat pizza, drink cokes. But do something with that energy, don't let it just sit on you and convert you to an inert fatass.

That's it. That's my only advice to the younger generations.