Varsity Xtra: Players' size continues to increase with passage of time
Mt. Lebanon football players Ian Averberg-Johnson (6 feet, 290 pounds), Alex Bookser (6-6, 290) and Matt Hoffman (6-2, 230) represent the typical size of today's high school linemen at the Class AAAA level.
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More than any other sport, football is a game predicated on size.
Even in a modern era of high-powered passing attacks, the game, at its core, is about a team being able to trudge a ball up a field through sheer force and manpower.
Perhaps it's not surprising then that the size of football players has grown considerably over the past several decades. It's a change that's been obvious at the professional and college level, and also on high school teams, including locally in the WPIAL.
It's a steady climb in size that has been seen in particular positions. The growth of quarterbacks, for example, has been small, almost entirely non-existent. As a senior at Central Catholic in 1978, a 6-foot 4-inch, 198-pound Dan Marino would stand above many modern signal-callers such as, say, North Allegheny's Mack Leftwich, who stands 5-11 and weighs 190 pounds.
Indeed, the greatest jumps in size have come on the offensive and defensive lines, where the sport's biggest bodies clash against one another, hoping to open up gaps, get to the ball and impose their will. As is often the case, the greater the size, the greater the success.
Many people -- fans, players and coaches alike -- refer to football as a game of inches, but, as current data indicates, it's more accurate to call it a game of pounds.
In recent seasons, player weights among offensive and defensive linemen, as well as linebackers, have been as high as ever, representing the apex of an upward trend more than 50 years in the making.
When looking at the Associated Press All-State teams, the average weight of an offensive lineman has gone up nearly 100 pounds, 178 to 273.2, from 1940 to 2008, an average of 1.4 pounds gained per year.
From 1970 to 2008, the average weight of a defensive lineman went up from 210 to 265 pounds -- again, a gain of 1.4 pounds per year. In that same period, the average weight of a linebacker, while not quite as drastic, has gone up about 11 pounds, from 215 to 226.3.
In WPIAL Class AAAA alone, there are 44 players who weigh at least 280 pounds, 19 of which are 300 pounds or more. The trend extends to the smaller schools of Class AAA, which has 38 players who weigh at least 280 pounds, 13 of which are more than 300 pounds.
As might be expected, certain teams have more size than others. Gateway has five players who weigh more than 280 pounds and four who top 300. Woodland Hills, too, has five players who weigh more than 280 pounds, while Connellsville has four and Mt. Lebanon three.
So why have players gotten so big in football? Just how important is player size in football?
"It's huge," said Gateway coach Terry Smith. "When you get in the third and fourth quarter, trying to move a 300-pound kid versus a 220-pound kid? Weight matters, strength matters, speed matters, and if you can get bigger, stronger and faster, it's going to make a difference in the outcome of the game."
Although football players have gotten considerably bigger, this trend is not limited to those that put on shoulder pads and lace up cleats -- it's just that people, in general, have grown.
A 2002 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that from 1960 to 2002, the average adult male height went up an inch and a half, while the rise in weight was a more rapid one, going from 166.3 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002.
It's a nationwide uptick that has also impacted high school athletes.
"Unfortunately for high school sports and football players in particular, the overweight rate and obesity rate in football is even surpassing the national obesity and overweight rate we see in the population at large," said Dr. Kim Beals of Pitt's School of Health and Rehabilitiation Sciences.
"It's actually something that's looked upon favorably in terms of sports performance. Why I don't know. There's no data to support that that's the truth. Other than having a big presence and maybe the fear factor, there are a lot of problems wrought in that mentality of thinking."
Beals noted that the growing obesity rate is "a multi-factor problem," part of which can be attributed to diet. Local coaches said they don't dictate to players what they should eat; rather, they steer them away from the foods commonly associated with unhealthy weight gain.
"It's more providing the information and hoping that, if they're invested in it, they're making the right choices on their own," said Mt. Lebanon offensive line coach Tom Stilley.
Of course, while some players can be labeled as overweight, there are many others who cannot -- in short, they are just really big, strong kids.
Local rosters are littered with tall players with physical frames that make them imposing forces, be it on the offensive or defensive line.
Needless to say, Paul Beals, a 170-pound guard on the 1960 All-State team from Franklin High School in Venango County, would be dwarfed by his modern counterparts and would have had a hard time blocking for his All-State teammate, quarterback Joe Namath, when going up against the size of today's linemen.
"Forty years ago, 200 pounds was a nice-sized player," said Woodland Hills coach George Novak. "Every year, it's gotten bigger and now, there's a lot of players who are in the 6-5 to 6-8 range and the 270- to 320-pound range."
Undoubtedly, weightlifting has played a large role in this change. Lifting weights is nothing new to the game of football; instead, it's become a more regimented and supervised routine.
For many top-level WPIAL teams, there really is no such thing as an offseason. Many coaches said that once the season ends, they give their players a two-week break, but once that's over, it's back to the weight room, usually for two hours a day, three days a week from January to July.
Once the season starts, teams shift focus to the actual field, but still dedicate time to lifting, usually for one-hour sessions two days a week.
"It's a full-time thing," Stilley said.
Naturally, there's another side to this equation, one that can be found in store aisles lined with fluorescent bottles branded with impudent product names such as "SizeOn" and "Pump" -- that is, the role of nutritional supplements.
Many of these products are used in conjunction with normal workouts, practices and lifting routines, be it as a way to recover or help build size and muscle, usually by way of protein powder or creatine, among other products.
These supplements are consumed by many people, but for players going through the rapid and sometimes awkward growth of puberty, it's not always wise to use them.
"With high school athletes, I certainly don't advocate any of the creatine, certainly none of the proprietary blend supplements, the pre-workout ones they're all excited about," Beals said. "They're dangerous.
"You don't know how much of certain ingredients are in there, you don't know the combination of ingredients that are in there -- are they safe? You don't know in a smaller body that's still developing and growing."
Local players use supplements and coaches interviewed said they are aware of it, but none of them said that they recommend them to their players.
"They help most kids," Smith said. "We don't advocate them, we don't push them, but I do have players who utilize them. It's not something that we push at Gateway."
Although player sizes have increased, there are signs that the growth may be slowing down, possibly even flat-lining. The average weight of the five heaviest linemen on each Class AAAA team (130 players total) has only risen about two pounds from 2003 to 2012, from 274.3 to a little more than 276.
Although size has its advantages on the football field, it doesn't always translate to team success. The 16 teams that made the Class AAAA playoffs this season had an average of 7.4 players who weigh more than 240 pounds. As for the teams that missed out on the postseason? They had an average of 7.8 players listed at that 240-pound threshold.
Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane, whose team went 7-3 this season despite having only one player heavier than 255 pounds, said that size is important, but there are other things that go into making a great football player.
"Those teams that have big guys are successful, so I guess it's all in what you do, but we're happy to have strong, athletic guys," Ruane said.
Others, including coaches and health experts such as Beals, believe there is a tipping point in this growth -- that players can, in fact, get too big.
"There's definitely a point where the body weight, regardless of whether it is lean mass or fat mass, will negatively impact performance and I imagine that would be true on the football field as well," Beals said.
But in a game such as football, one where the biggest and strongest are often the victors, many believe that size will always play some sort of role.
"I don't know [if a player can be too big], because if you look at the guys in Division I colleges and the NFL, these guys are monsters," Ruane said. "They seem to be doing pretty well.
"Things have just changed where those guys are becoming more athletic and becoming really good football players. I don't know if you can be too, too big."
First Published November 9, 2012 12:00 am