For high school offensive linemen, fat-shaming and health risks come with the territory
By ROMAN STUBBS | The Washington Post | Published: October 15, 2019
He usually let his teammates make jokes about his weight, but when a fellow offensive lineman from another state mocked the position on Twitter last year — commenting on a video of a walrus doing situps with "Lineman getting ready for spring break" — Landon Tengwall felt the need to say something.
"Unpopular opinion: not all linemen are fat," Tengwall replied. "Everyone loves that narrative. Shouldn't really be something you really embrace."
"Sorry I didn't mean to make u insecure," the teen wrote back, and all Tengwall could do was laugh it off. The exchange was a classic example of the stereotypes many high school offensive linemen face on practice fields, in school hallways and on social media. Fat-shaming has long been associated with the position, and it can be especially cruel in the formative years of teenagers who are aggressively adding body mass in pursuit of college scholarships.
Some researchers have warned that adding too much weight at such a young age could lead to health problems later in life, yet most high school offensive linemen aim to become as big and strong as possible — and also athletic and nimble enough to accommodate the growing demands of an evolving game.
Tengwall added more than 100 pounds between his eighth-grade year and sophomore year at Good Counsel in Olney, Maryland, where he grew into one of the country's best tackle prospects. But being 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds has also invited ribbing from teammates about his weight, and as harmless and sophomoric as it might appear, it has fueled a stigma that Tengwall is passionate about breaking.
"I feel like the misconception is that [offensive linemen] are fat, and that's something I didn't want to be at all," said Tengwall, a junior who is considering Penn State, Michigan and Notre Dame. "It's definitely hard for offensive linemen. You know, all the skill guys will show up and make fun of them, and they just think it's joking, but a lot of guys do get hurt from that, especially if they've gotten teased before by someone else."
He's not alone. For some of the top offensive linemen in the area, there is a long list of challenges that come with playing a thankless position, but learning how to live with their growing bodies might be the most daunting.
According to Trent Petrie, director of the Center for Sport Psychology at the University of North Texas, nearly three quarters of college athletes face pressure to change their weight, and those same pressures can start as early as high school — especially for offensive linemen hoping to earn college scholarships.
"For a lot of these young men, there's more desire to become big and lean, as opposed to just become big," Petrie said. "So there's a double pressure."
It took R.J. Adams, an offensive lineman at Woodbridge High in northern Virginia, a while to adjust to his weight gain. He entered his freshman season at 220 pounds and gained nearly 80 pounds over the following year; he currently measures 6-3 and 309 pounds. The Penn State commit said it took him a while before he felt comfortable at that size, but he usually pushes back against anyone who jokes about his weight.
"I'm a playful person, so I'm going to retaliate," he said. "I don't get sad or anything. . . . I like the way my body is."
Another top prospect, Oklahoma-bound Anton Harrison, started playing football in eighth grade as a tight end. He came to Archbishop Carroll in Washington for his freshman year at 6-3 and 270 pounds, and he was moved to left tackle. He was hesitant to grow even bigger, but his father and coaches taught him the "difference between good weight and bad weight," he said. He was put on a nutrition plan — at one point he was guzzling four protein shakes per day — and a weightlifting regimen that eventually shot him up to 315 pounds. He has not experienced fat-shaming, he said, but he has seen it with other players. He said that learning to love his own body was a process.
"Tenth-grade year, when I was gaining the weight and I really wasn't turning it into muscle, I was like pulling my shirt a lot walking around," Harrison said. "You know, things big men do walking around, hiding their stomach and chest and stuff. But now I walk around in tank tops, muscle shirts. It's a different confidence now, that you have to build."
There are other risks to assess. The average weight of offensive and defensive linemen increased by more than 60 pounds between 1942 and 2011, according to Jeffrey Potteiger, a professor of exercise science at Grand Valley State. In 2016, Potteiger released a report that suggested college offensive linemen were becoming too large and were at risk for health issues, including high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome.
For high school offensive linemen, Potteiger said, "there's a little bit of a trade-off. They're physically active. They train a lot. They work out a lot. But they carry this excess weight. If it's too much body fat, it could be very problematic later on."
Tengwall weighed 185 pounds and was a wide receiver as an eighth grader, but he knew he would play offensive line in high school. He began to constantly drink protein shakes and scarf peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches a few times a day. He ate meat as much as he could and lifted weights twice a day. The work led to added pounds, and he weighed around 275 by the start of his freshman season.
He accepted the fact that weighing that much meant he would have to carry some fat, but he wasn't worried about the potential dangers of gaining that much weight so quickly, because he didn't use any supplements.
"It was put on pretty crazy and pretty fast, but it was still natural," he said. "The quicker I got to that weight, the longer my body had to adjust to being that weight."
Many young offensive linemen are racing to add as much weight as possible, which has led some teams to emphasize nutrition and education. At St. John's in Washington, where the offensive line averages between 280 and 310 pounds, the players' diets are monitored, and they are encouraged to compose food journals. No target weights are set, according to St. John's director of performance training Matt Smith, who also said that the team has installed preventive measures to avoid fat shaming.
"We like to say, 'laugh with, not laugh at,' " Smith said.
At Gonzaga, the offensive line has established itself as perhaps the most athletically gifted group on the team. It has four players going to major college programs — Penn State, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia — and one of the group's proudest accomplishments was taking second in an intramural basketball tournament, which showed the entire school how athletic the linemen are.
"People don't understand how hard it is to do what we do, being as big as we are," said Patrick Matan, a 6-4, 296-pound tackle for Gonzaga. "People just see big guys and we eat a lot of food, and they think that maybe that's all it takes to be an offensive lineman. But it's more than being big. You have to be athletic, you have to be able to move, you have to be smart."
The position has changed in recent years, given the proliferation of pass-heavy spread offenses, and there has been an increase in specialized training options, including Functional Athletic Training in Maryland's Montgomery County. Owner and trainer Mike Dillon aims to help aspiring linemen by improving their skills while also developing confidence in their size.
"We say confidence comes through repetition and an understanding of what you're doing," said Dillon, whose company's Twitter handle is @FATboysOLine.
Tengwall said he used to be the kid in his middle school locker room who was afraid to take off his shirt around other boys. Now he's proud of the 300 pounds he carries, which he maintains by eating as many as six meals per day while trying to become as lean as possible before college. That's the best example he can set right now, he said, but he dreams of having a bigger platform and possibly a slogan to help other linemen with how they view their bodies.
"Just to drive home the fact," Tengwall said, "that offensive linemen are not supposed to be fat."