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Retired NFL players focus of health push

/ Source: The Associated Press

Before the echocardiogram or the prostate exam, before blood was drawn or body fat measured, the patients had a simple task amid the nearby Super Bowl pomp: Sign the football.

The biceps drifting into this South Beach medical office recently were bigger, the attire perhaps a bit sportier and the fingers far more likely to be wearing a Super Bowl ring. The doctor was collecting autographs on more than just insurance forms; all of the patients played in the NFL.

NFL stars of the past are feeling the effects of tackle-filled, turbocharged careers — and players’ advocates and the medical community are trying to help.

“It’s a given that by the time you leave the game you have a very thick medical file,” said Dick Anderson, a 60-year-old NFL retiree who played in three Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. “You can’t play the game and not come away with problems.”

Anderson was among about 60 former players expected at medical screenings sponsored by the Living Heart Foundation, a Little Silver, N.J.-based organization that is studying health risks facing professional football players. The foundation has screened about 1,000 players — mostly retired — and is compiling the most in-depth study of NFL athletes’ health.

That study continues, but data from about 550 players was analyzed and presented at the International Symposium on Endovascular Therapy, which was held recently a little north in Hollywood.

Linemen at biggest risk

It found the game’s biggest players — linemen — are most at risk, with more than a third having enlarged hearts, as many as 75 percent suffering from obstructive sleep apnea and more than half with metabolic syndrome, which puts them at greater risk for heart disease. Those rates are far greater than the general population.

“There’s no question that the large body size of retired NFL players is the most significant single health problem that many of them face,” said Dr. Arthur Roberts, a former NFL quarterback who founded and heads the Living Heart Foundation. “If they’re former lineman and they’re weighing 300 pounds or more, from the doctor’s perspective I would say you’re clearly at the increased risk for a bad outcome.”

The trouble is, while weight-loss might alleviate current or future problems, players’ size is often key to their on-field success.

“In my career, losing weight is not really an option,” said New York Giants center Shaun O’Hara, who carries 300 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame and has sleep apnea.

This was the third year Roberts and his team have held screenings where the Super Bowl was being played and more than a dozen others have been held in cities with NFL teams.

The number of players participating, observers say, is a sign of a new level of health consciousness in the NFL partly fueled by the proliferation of life-curtailing injuries and the early deaths of big stars such as Reggie White.

“The old-timers sat in the locker room and smoked and drank beer at halftime,” said Dr. Allan Levy, a longtime team physician for the Giants. “The players are very different now from what they were.”

Jarring adjustment

Still, doctors say there is a jarring adjustment to post-athlete life. Players often see their movement limited by injuries and must learn to adjust their eating to a more sedentary lifestyle.

“I didn’t used to have this right here,” said Frank Marion, a 55-year-old retired New York Giant, as he pointed to his ample midsection. “I became one of the worst eaters because I’m not competing anymore. Once you’re not playing you don’t have to maintain that weight.”

The NFL Players Association has funded health efforts and is trying to educate members through its newsletter and in meetings.

“We want to get to these guys early,” said Andre Collins, who heads outreach to retired players for the NFLPA. “We want to educate them, we want them to lose weight, we don’t want their hearts to work so hard.”

Those desires were clear as players weaved through the hallways of “The South Beach Diet” author Dr. Arthur Agatston, who loaned his exam rooms for the screenings.

The patients endured blood tests and urine analysis, sleep apnea screening and lung evaluations, not to mention measures to predict heart disease and stroke risk.

The mood was congenial. Athletes were armed with lists of the maladies for which their football careers could be blamed, but there were no regrets.

“I think if you polled everyone here today,” said Keith Sims, who played on the offensive line for the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins, “we’d all go back.”