Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Philadelphia Eagle Rob Taylor was one of countless former NFL players to come to grips with the same realization after retirement: they’re out of shape.
He had tried dieting several times to lose weight, but always put the weight back on shortly after. Taylor said he had almost given up when he received an email from Dr. John Gonzalvo of Tampa General Hospital (TGH) and the Bariatric Center, a joint program of TGH and USF Health.
“These athletes stop playing in the NFL and no one tells them how to adjust their eating habits,” Gonzalvo said. “When they were playing the game they were muscular, but when they stopped, the muscle turned to fat, making weight loss even harder to achieve.”
Gonzalvo’s medical research team was about to take part in a new six-month program through the NFL Players Association called the NFL Heart, Obesity, Prevention, Education (HOPE) program.
Founded by former NFL quarterback Dr. Archie Roberts, the program focuses on improving the physical health of retired players, starting with linemen. Roberts’ research found that this group had the highest risk for heart disease, obesity and sleep apnea due to the massive amounts of calories they would consume each day.
“Their whole lives they were told ‘you’ve got to get bigger to play in the NFL,’” Gonzalvo said. “They had to maintain a certain weight for NFL weigh-ins or they’d be fined.”
After recruiting through the Tampa Bay chapter of the NFL Players Association, seven former players agreed to take part in the program. Taylor, an offensive lineman who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1986 to 1993, was one of those participants and soon grew anxious to begin making personal improvements.
“I really had a desire to change my lifestyle,” Taylor said. “I told my wife that if I didn’t get it done this time then I’m going to be fat the rest of my life. It was now or never for me.”
Another former player who joined the program was James Harrell, who played for both the Detroit Lions and the Kansas City Chiefs. Although Harrell saw his weight as manageable he still felt the desire to do better. The players started work and soon realized there was much more to the HOPE Program than they first expected.
“It wasn’t a diet to me,” Harrell said. “It was more of a lesson plan, a game plan, not only for the 24 weeks but for life.”
Unique to the Tampa General version of the HOPE program was that it was done in a group setting, where players met for weekly educational sessions. The hospital supplied meal-replacement protein shakes to better control their choline intake.
For the first three months the players took part in weekly visits, as well as an initial screening and concluding weigh-in. Gonzalvo’s team taught the players techniques in stress management, proper nutrition and exercise, with one special discussion focused on maintaining a healthy social lifestyle with eating habits.
The strenuous routine began to take a toll on some of the participants, resulting in three players dropping out. Those that followed through, like Harrell, attribute their success to the team dynamic established between the players.
“It gave me a sense of belonging,” Harrell said. “As a former player you start to miss that locker room feeling with the team and camaraderie. We’ve always liked to compete, so that’s really the type of challenge it turned into.”
Taylor said players like Harrell served as inspiration during his time in the program. Although Harrell may not have experienced the largest amount of weight loss, Taylor said his drive and confidence was easy to see. The four players that remained after the first 15 weeks grew closer as time went on.
“I saw guys in there I knew and in my mind I saw this as a competition with them,” Taylor said. “When times got tough I thought ‘stick with it.’ I didn’t want the others to lose more than me.”
The final four men lost a considerable 15 percent of their total body weight. To put that in perspective, Taylor said a weight management program is deemed successful if the patient loses five percent when finished.
The most significant weight loss that took place was 76 pounds, close to that of gastric surgeries. The players have maintained the weight loss and some have even lost more since the program’s end, keeping up with one another along the way to chronicle each person’s success.
Harrell dropped his weight from 260 to 225 and is back to his old playing size. More importantly, he has newfound energy and is no longer at high risk for diabetes.
“You have to be committed,” Harrell said. “You’ve got to hold yourself accountable and stay the course, just like any other thing you want to achieve in life.”
Taylor started the HOPE Program at 340 pounds, weighing in at almost 40 pounds more than his playing size. Now he weighs 244 pounds, nearly 100 pounds less than before he first visited Gonzalvo and his team.
“I would not only recommend this program to other NFL players but I would plead with them to take part,” Taylor said. “I’ve got family … and this is just adding years to my life. This isn’t about just losing weight but more about changing your future and the future with the ones you love. It’ll make a huge difference.”