High school football uniforms: Size XXXL fits all

Pressure to bulk up reaches new levels and younger athletes.

When 6-ft., 5-in. Charlie Porterfield weighs in at football practice, he tips the scales at 302 pounds. But at home, he seems to come in a bit lighter. That's because Charlie's size 16 quadruple E shoes slop over the bathroom scale.

"I was watching him weigh himself," says his mother, Lila. "The back of his feet weren't even on it."

Charlie is a junior in high school in Jonesville, Va. In many respects, he is becoming the prototypical high school lineman: big, strong, fast, and with feet not built for toe shoes.

While the presence of 300-pound linemen is the norm in professional and even collegiate ranks, it is now increasingly filtering down to the high-school gridiron.

Under pressure to excel and get on a college team - preferably with a scholarship - many 15- and 16-year-olds are doing what they can to bulk up and become immovable objects. In some cases, like Charlie's, the size comes naturally. In others, teens are spending long hours in the weight room and taking controversial dietary supplements. Though some experts and parents say the drive to improve physique and performance has always existed - and is, in fact, healthy - others worry about the premium being put on girth at such a young age.

"It's a subtle form of child abuse," says Thomas Tutko, a sports psychologist and professor emeritus at San Jose State University. "What's a kid going to do at 320 pounds if he doesn't get a scholarship? We dangle reward ahead of them without saying, 'Hey, your probability of ultimately making it to the pros is about the same as being struck by lightning.' "

That large high-school players are increasingly the norm is indisputable. As late as 1975, one of the top lineman in Michigan, offensive tackle Pat Doyle, weighed 188 pounds. This year, four of the top preseason all-state picks weigh an average of 301 pounds.

Origins of girth

All of which raises the question of how pre-college players are getting so big. Although better nutrition and an earlier start in the weight room are part of it, experts say the spread of nutritional supplements like Creatine, which have exploded in use, are also a factor.

Available at health-food stores and by mail order, Creatine is usually ingested as a tablet or a powder mixed with liquid.

Although Pittsburgh-based General Nutrition Centers doesn't release sales figures on Creatine, some analysts put annual revenue from the product at $400 million - up from $50 million in 1996. The dietary supplement industry as a whole topped $12.3 billion in 2000.

Widely available in pro and college locker rooms, Creatine is also showing up - by the barrel, in some cases - in high-school gyms. In a National Collegiate Athletic Association survey of 21,000 college athletes released last week, almost 60 percent reported using diet supplements.

Studies appear to show that Creatine often lives up to its claims of increasing muscle mass, and without side effects. But some point to anecdotal evidence it may cause cramping, muscle tears, and, perhaps most significantly, dehydration.

The tragic death of Minnesota Vikings football star Korey Stringer has focused attention on the problematic collision of weight, heat, and dehydration on the practice field. Three high-school football players have died in the last week, and eight have passed on in the last month, including several collegians and one pro.

Although heatstroke and weight were contributing factors in some of the deaths, one of the schoolboys who died last week weighed only 150 pounds, and another collapsed after initial stretching drills. In other cases, autopsies found preexisting medical conditions. Autopsies also found evidence of nutritional supplements, but they have not been listed as the cause of death.

Concern exists that even if supplements are OK for adults, there's no way of knowing what the impact might be on fast-developing adolescent bodies. Plus, some teens take larger doses than directed, figuring more is better. Others take additional substances, creating a cocktail with unknown consequences.

"We don't advise anybody under 18 to take any of our supplements unless they have been advised by a physician or their parents," says GNC spokeswoman Stephanie Mangini. "We don't say this should be marketed to high-school students looking to bulk up."

But critics of supplements for high schoolers wonder who's minding the store. Since Creatine is considered neither a food nor a drug, it isn't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and can be sold virtually anywhere.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, which administers interscholastic activities, including sports, issued a statement that recommends a coach never supply or permit the use of any food supplement solely for performance-enhancing purposes.

"In most school districts, employees are not permitted to give students so much as an aspirin without written permission," says Jerry Diehl, assistant director of the federation. "But after school, that same physics teacher, who's also a coach, can give out nutritional supplements, which are unregulated products."

Changes are occurring, however. The NCAA has directed that colleges not provide any type of supplement to athletes other than water or Gatorade-like products during the summer. And the National Football League announced last week that it is forbidding players from endorsing diet supplements.

Matt Varner, a 6-ft., 3-in. junior from Kings Mountain, N.C., tried Creatine in ninth grade because a "lot of people were using it." He put on 10 to 15 pounds and gained some strength. But the novelty soon wore off.

"I felt like I could progress just fine without it," says the 280-pound youth.

Despite the focus on pills and powders, many decry all the stress on size and performance to begin with. Some blame a culture of hypercompetitiveness. Others point to the "SportsCenter Effect" - the glorification of sports stars that leads some parents to start talking about Johnny's scholarship potential after his first touchdown pass in Pop Warner.

Still, many caution against making too much of the problem. "All of the surveys we've seen about how kids are feeling show that winning and losing is down about No. 7 or 8 as a priority," says Mr. Diehl. "They participate in order to have fun and because they love being part of a team."

Think quickness, not size

Others point out the whole emphasis on brawn is misguided anyway. "Size is vastly overrated in high-school football," says Robert Brigati, assistant football coach at Centerville (Ohio) High School.

"Someone who is overweight at a young age isn't going to be an effective athlete. Let's face it, there are a lot of big kids out there today. Colleges are looking for size and strength but also quickness and speed."

Andy Thilges doesn't feel under pressure to excel. But then again he may not have to. At 6-ft., 3-inches tall and 301 pounds, he is a standout guard at West Bend-Mallard High School in northwestern Iowa. His muscles didn't come from a powder. It came from baling hay after school.

"If I don't get a scholarship, it won't be the end of the world," he says.

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