Zach Bevilacqua had a dream of playing college football. But, as a 6-foot-1, 235-pound freshman at Butler High in 1998, he figured he was not nearly big enough.
So Bevilacqua changed his diet. To gain weight, he ate about 5,000 calories a day, more than twice the recommended amount. A typical lunch was three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two or three snack cakes, two bags of chips and two or three apples. He washed it down with a couple of 32-ounce Gatorades.
Before we would go grocery shopping, we would go to the Chinese buffet, because if I was hungry when we went to the store, it would increase the bill by 30 to 40 bucks, said Bevilacqua, now 29.
Bevilacqua was only interested in playing college football. He based his self-image on becoming Big Zach the football star, who would go on to play at Elon.
And he never stopped gaining weight until he realized that what he had become could kill him.
Bevilacquas story is a cautionary tale for athletes today. High school football players, particularly linemen, believe that they have to pack on pounds if they want to play in college. Some lift weights to build muscle. Others bulk up any way they can, even if they have to eat their way to 300 pounds.
Players bulk up at the risk of developing eating habits and extra weight that can cause long-term health concerns. Adding excessive weight can create lifelong problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, elevated cholesterol levels, breathing difficulties and increased susceptibility to stress fractures and muscle and joint pain.
Many of these athletes will not play in college and are left to deal with the extra weight after their high school careers end. Only about 2 percent of high school players get scholarships.
The push to get bigger is happening at a time when nearly 20 percent of American males between ages 12 and 19 are considered to be medically obese, based on federal health guidelines. Just 4 percent of males in the same age range were considered obese during the mid-to-late 1960s.
Bevilacqua said he never considered his future health when he started his quest to gain size.
When youre young like that, you feel invincible, kind of, he said. You think as long as I lift and run Ill be OK. But then you quit playing and its not as fun to lift and run. I didnt think about that.
The growth of the lineman
Its not unusual for North Carolina high school football teams to field several 300-pounders.
At least 127 high school offensive linemen in North Carolina weighed 300 pounds or more during the 2012 season. More than a dozen players who weigh at least 300 pounds are listed on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rosters this fall.
Between 1988 and 1993, the N.C. High School Athletic Association had only six 300-pound players in its 24-state championship games, according to an analysis of more than 12,000 players on high school rosters. In 2010, there were 17 players who weighed more than 300 pounds in eight title games.
It is not the weight gain among athletes that is the problem, said Abbie Smith-Ryan, an assistant professor of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina. Lean muscle mass can be good. But the eating habits and fat are a concern.
Smith-Ryan said a key to adding strength and weight is the right guidance.
It is one thing if an athlete is involved in an organized weight resistance training program with an emphasis on nutrition. It is something else if the athlete is trying to gain weight by just eating more, Smith said. There is nothing that can be done in the weight room to overcome what is done in the dining room.
A 2007 study of 3,600 high school linemen published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found 45 percent of the players were overweight.
The growth of football linemen is at least partly because of changes in blocking rules that have put an increased emphasis on size and power. Interior blockers, for example, can no longer double-team defenders by having one player attack high and another low. With more one-on-one blocking, size has become an important element as massive linemen rely on strength and leverage to push each other up and down the field.
Former Independence coach Tom Knotts said coaches often encourage kids to lift weights and get stronger to compete. In 1991, Knotts West Charlotte team had one player who weighed more than 250 pounds. In 2007, his Independence team had nine.
If you want to be competitive and be able to play on the level were attempting to play on, youve got to be bigger, said Knotts, now head coach at Dutch Fork (S.C.) High.
I think the kids realize it when they sit through a game on Friday night as the backups. You ask them if they could play against those guys at this weight and they look at you like a deer in the headlights. They say, No, Im not big enough or strong enough. You point out that reality to them and they do the rest.
Putting on the pounds
No coach ever pressured Bevilacqua to get bigger, he said. But at Butler High School, he wanted to get as big as he could, as fast as he could, to get the attention of college scouts.
By lifting weights and increasing his daily caloric intake with heavy lunches, trips to the buffet and plenty of fast food, Bevilacqua gained 30 pounds before his sophomore year.
You knew to compete and be able to be a (college) scholarship-type lineman, which was my real goal, that you had to be bigger, to be in that 300-pound range, Bevilacqua said. But adding the weight pulled me away from other sports. I was a baseball player in middle school, but I went from 235 to 265 freshman to sophomore year. I was too big to play anything else.
Bevilacqua started at defensive end as a freshman on varsity and at offensive tackle as a sophomore. By his senior year, he was 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, 60 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman. He played offensive guard.
He was twice named all-conference in the Southwestern 4A, arguably the states toughest conference. His senior year, Bevilacqua was named to an all-state team. He played in the Shrine Bowl all-star game.
He was recruited by some larger schools such as N.C. State and East Carolina. He said he didnt play as hard as he should have as a senior after the colleges began showing serious interest. Later, he found out that he wasnt quite as tall as some schools wanted. He turned down an early college offer from East Carolina, he said, thinking he might get something from N.C. State or Clemson, the schools he favored. The offers never came.
But on Martin Luther King Day of his senior year in February 2002, Bevilacquas dream came true. He accepted a scholarship to attend Elon University and play football.
College ups and a big down
Bevilacqua didnt do much conditioning work after his senior high school football season ended. He arrived at Elon at 325 pounds. His coaches wanted him to lose 25 pounds.
Bevilacqua redshirted his freshman year, in fall 2002, and was put on a weight-loss plan. That meant five mornings each week of 45 minutes on the treadmill, 45 minutes on the stair climber and 30 minutes on an exercise bike to cool down.
Two seasons later, Bevilacqua was down to 305. He started on the offensive line. But just before Thanksgiving, he was doing a series of exercises and felt his shoulder pop. He had surgery and said he came back too quickly.
At spring practice, his career changed dramatically. We were doing a cut block drill, he said. We had to punch the ground to keep ourselves off the ground ... and the fingers went numb on my left hand.
A few days later, he couldnt lift his arm. That led to another surgery and an awful discovery: A Charlotte doctor said he had nerve damage in the shoulder and that playing more football could put him at risk of permanent damage to his left arm.
I had just had my first child, my daughter ... we had her young, Bevilacqua said. The doctor said there was a huge risk of loss of function in one of two nerves, or both. He said it could affect my movement where I couldnt pick up my kids. I thought about my daughter and about life. Was it more important to play a few more games or to pick her up and be able to carry her?
Bevilacquas playing career was over, but he remained on scholarship and became an offensive assistant coach at Elon. He also kept eating the way he had since he was a high school freshman.
I ate so much, he said. It was the lifestyle I was used to.
After college, Bevilacqua and his wife had a second child. He started coaching high school, first at West Lincoln, then at North Lincoln. He was up to more than 400 pounds and he knew he was too big. But he was known by everyone as Big Zach, and he liked the way that felt.
When I would walk into the room, he said, people would say, Did you play college ball? That was who I thought I was. It was my identity.
A warning and a change
By January 2012, nearly a decade after he last played football, Bevilacqua was 408 pounds. His blood pressure and his cholesterol were dangerously high.
His doctor told him his life was at risk, that things had to change.
From the time I was in college on, I had been battling high blood pressure, and I was big and I knew I was big, Bevilacqua said. I laid in bed at night and started thinking, Man, 10 years ago, I was playing college football. Ten years from now, I could be dead from a heart attack.
I started thinking about that and the fact I had two kids and my wife was pregnant with a third. Im going, Ten years from now, my kids could have no dad because of the decisions I made.
Bevilacqua changed his diet. He started running. He felt better so he kept going. A devout Catholic, Bevilacqua gave up in-between meals for Lent in February 2012.
He found that the same discipline he had used to eat heavy and lift heavy and gain weight could help him lose some of that size. One meal every day became a salad. Bevilacqua gave up red meat for chicken and fish. He did not take weight-loss medication or have surgery.
By April 2012, four months after his lifestyle change, Bevilacqua had dropped 30 pounds. By November, it was 100. By this spring, he had lost 140.
Today, hes lost nearly 160 pounds. Hes 6-foot-3 and 242, a little taller but about the same weight he was when he came to Butler High as a freshman.
My dad had some heart issues, and I knew I had that potential in my family, Bevilacqua said. I had to quit thinking I was going to live forever if I kept on doing what I was doing to myself.
Now, at 29, Bevilacqua runs at least four days a week. Dinner at Chick-fil-A Wednesday night was soup, a salad and a Diet Coke.
Bevilacquas wife, Cristen, is a nurse. She said her husband kept some of his fears about his weight gain away from her. He didnt tell her how he could feel his heart pounding against his chest late at night, or how he wondered whether he would be around long term for her and the kids. Cristen said she was proud he lost the weight without pills or surgery.
Everybody is searching for a quick fix, she said. There was absolutely none of that. And every pound he lost motivated him more. People see him nowadays and ask me, how did he do it? Its incredible. Even in my patients in the hospital, I dont think Ive ever seen as dramatic a weight loss as he did with no help. Hes a different person. ... Not to say that our marriage struggled, but Ive never felt happier. Hes in such a better place now.
Now knowing her husbands fears of dying young, Cristen said it gives her pause.
I know he was right when he said he needed to lose weight. He couldve been dead by 40. You dont think about bad things happening or dying at an early age, but we have kids and we owe it to our kids to be as healthy as we possibly can be. Hes definitely an inspiration.
Sharing his story
Today, Bevilacqua coaches offensive linemen at West Rowan High and he hears familiar stories about players wanting to bulk up. Hes realistic with them, he said.
I dont think well get to the point where we can play with 200-pound offensive linemen, Bevilacqua said. You have to have some size up front, but I dont think it requires these 350-pound linemen to be really successful. I tell my kids we need to lift and get strong, and if I have a kid who is 6-2, 235 or 240, 250 tops, that is a kid who can get it done on the high school level.
Dan Schuster, the head of the coaches education program for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said high school athletics has begun to think about obesity issues and coaches responsibility to consider players long-term health as American society has become more aware of weight problems.
High school coaches have the responsibility of helping children, Schuster said. We have become more aware of the obesity problem as we see it exploding among our children, and we are talking more about what can be done by our coaches. We cant solve a problem until we realize there is a problem.
Bevilacqua often shares his story with his linemen, warning them to take care of themselves. Most of you wont play in college, he tells them, and poor eating habits are hard to break.
I tell them you cant be a lineman the rest of your life, he said. You cant eat 5,000 calories per day and go to Cook-Out and McDonalds twice a day. Find a way to get the weight off.
Players ask me how I did it. I tell them discipline and not eating and lifting the way I had done before. Its more cardio and eating better. Football is so short, man, and life, hopefully, can be so much longer than that.