Former NFL Players Shed Pounds, Improve Health After Six-Month Weight Loss Program

Published in March/April 2015 Issue             

On the football field, bigger may be better, but for some former NFL players, bigger may mean obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, joint problems and diabetes. But a program called H.O.P.E. (Heart, Obesity, Prevention and Education), is helping these players reduce their weight and regain their health, while at the same time providing new insights into how to successfully structure weight loss programs for men.

“It was an eye opening experience,” said Michel Murr, MD co-director and co-founder of the Tampa General Hospital + USF (TGH/USF) Health Bariatric Center, one of the sites participated in the HOPE program. “These were successful, disciplined athletes whose physiology was basically stuck and whose lifestyle was basically set. This comprehensive program gave them the tools and education needed to change course as individuals and capitalized on their natural competitive nature and team spirit to help
them succeed.”

Prior to the start of the program, the four former NFL players who live in the Tampa Bay area, each received a custom metabolic analysis and exercise plans tailored to their health status and sports injuries. Their dietary program started with meal replacement shakes twice a day and a high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal for dinner. The shakes were eventually replaced by regular meals. The men also engaged in exercise programs and came to the health center each week for nutrition and behavior modification counseling. Doctors visited with the players about 20 times throughout the study.

Jason Maniecki, 43, weighed about 300 pounds when he entered the program. This is about the same weight he carried on his 6-foot, 4-inch frame when he was a defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers between 1996 and 1998. The difference this time -- his body fat had gone from 9 percent to 30 percent and he had developed type 2 diabetes.

Jason Maniecki

“I tried other things to lose weight and was successful, but only temporarily,” said Maniecki, who since his playing days has been involved in Florida real estate. “But weight loss wasn’t actually my primary goal. My goal was to get healthier and weight loss was part
of that.”

Maniecki did indeed get healthier. He lost about 30 pounds and was able to reduce his diabetes medications by more than half. He says he has about 15 more pounds to go, but is confident he’s going to get there because the education he received during the program will last a lifetime.

Maniecki, a husband and father of two children ages 12 and 14, said he certainly doesn’t lack motivation. “My children were one of the biggest reasons I did it (enrolled in the program). I wanted to be around for them and their children, my grandchildren,” he said.

The three other players in the program also saw significant weight reduction and health improvements. On average, the players lost about 15 percent of their weight, a percentage that is significantly higher than the 5 percent reduction aimed for by typical weight-
loss programs.

From left, former Buccaneer and Eagles offensive lineman Rob Taylor, former Patriot and Raiders offensive lineman Brian Holloway, Lions and Chiefs linebacker James Harrell, Dr. John Paul Gonzalvo, former Buccaneers defensive lineman Jason Maniecki and Dr. Michel Murr pose for a photo following a news conference at the Tampa General Hospital and USF Health Bariatric Center, following a six-month study of weight management in former professional football players.


Rob Taylor, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1986 to 1993, dropped nearly 100 pounds (340 to 247 pounds) and Brian Holloway, a player for both the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Raiders, who at the outset of the program weighed 400 pounds, lost about 75 pounds. James Horrell, a former Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs player lost 30 pounds and is now back to his old playing weight of 235 pounds. He says he’s no longer at high risk for diabetes.

The HOPE Program is sponsored by the Living Heart Foundation, a non-profit that has documented the high rates of heart disease and other medical problems suffered by former athletes. The Living Heart Foundation was founded by Archie Roberts, MD, a former NFL quarterback turned heart surgeon and researcher. The HOPE Program is supported by the National Football League Players Association and the manufacturer Covidien.

“These players learned a lot from us, but we also learned a lot from them,” said Dr. Murr. “I think it can help us design better programs for men in particular, who typically are slow to confront their weight issues and seek medical help. Many times, it’s only after an obesity-related condition or disease like diabetes has already set in. We need a new approach to these men, and based on our experience with our program, the team approach combined with a structured program seems like a good one.”

Tracy Martinez, RN

The numbers demonstrate that men are indeed reluctant to effectively address issues of excess weight. According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS), about 179,000 people had bariatric surgery in 2013. About 80 percent of these patients were women, despite the fact that prevalence of obesity between men and women is comparable.

“We've noticed that women come to the decision to have bariatric surgery sooner," said Tracy Martinez, RN, BSN, CBN Program Director, Wittgrove Bariatric Center, La Jolla, California. "I think part of the reason is that women are quicker to come to the realization that they might not be able to resolve their health issues with diet and exercise alone. As for men, it takes a big man to admit he needs help. A lot of men won't even ask for directions, let alone ask for help with their obesity.”

There are a growing number of men who have publicly addressed their obesity and may be or are becoming role models for other men. To name a few, television personality Al Roker had gastric bypass in 2002, former American Idol judge Randy Jackson had it in 2003 and Governor Chris Christie had gastric band surgery in 2013.

Former Jets coach Rex Ryan had gastric band in 2010. Before he had the surgery, he got advice from 10-year NFL veteran and author of the the book "Beware of Frenemals," Jamie Dukes, the NFL Network analyst who had a gastric band in 2006.

Jamie Dukes

Dukes says he loves when people come up to him and ask him about obesity and weight loss, particularly men or even their wives. He’s says still too few role models for weight loss exist.

"I think a lot of people see me and say if Dukes can do it, I can do it too," Dukes said. “I’m amazed at how many women thank me for telling my story so that they can use it to get their husbands to do something about their weight.”

It took the premature deaths of four former teammates -- all of whom died before the age of 44 from conditions linked to obesity -- for Dukes to come to the realization that his life after football could be a short one if he didn't do something about his weight. Since the surgery, Dukes has maintained a healthy weight nearly 10 years after surgery through a combination of diet and exercise.

"More men have to get into the game and we have to find more ways to engage them on obesity and their health,” said John M. Morton, MD, ASMBS president. “Many men wait too long and suffer medical consequences that could otherwise be avoided.”