Fantasy Football for Poets: Dispatch #2

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LITTLE BIG MAN

Among the mass-produced and valueless football cards that my brother and I collected or otherwise ended up with as kids, one stands out. Someone, perhaps a well-meaning neighbor or older relative, gave us the 1965 Topps card of Ed Budde, an offensive guard of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Upon receiving this card, we may have been mildly amused for a few seconds. We’d never heard of the guy, he played for a team that meant nothing to us, and he had the haircut of an outstate sheriff’s deputy. In short order, Ed Budde ended up in a Nike shoebox under my brother’s bed, shuffled among the cards that collectors refer to as the “commons.”

A 1965 Topps Ed Budde card is now valued, in mint condition, at $350.00, dwarfing the collected value of the contemporary cards we saw fit to enshrine in protective cases. There’s no point in my rifling through my dad’s basement looking for this card now; if it’s somehow survived, decades of carelessness have long since eroded its value. Ed Budde cardIn this case, what’s far more remarkable than the card’s resale price is the information on the back.

Offensive guard is one of the least glamorous positions in football. Your job is to be one of the biggest dudes on the team and use that girth to contain the opposing players in front of you. If you touch the ball at all, it means something terrible has happened. Even so, the Topps copywriters of the era were generous to Ed Budde, describing him as “tough and exceptionally fast,” and explained his low-profile role to their readership as “the man that opens up the holes for the fleet backs to pop through.” By all accounts, Ed was one of the best at his position at the time. He was a first-round pick. He’s a Super Bowl champion. He played his position for fourteen years and is in the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame. In 1965, he was 24 years old, six-and-a-half feet tall, and 260 pounds.

260 pounds. That seems big, and it is. It was definitely big enough for 1965. But looking at the front of the card, Ed certainly doesn’t cut the figure of an offensive lineman by today’s standards. In 2014, Ed wouldn’t be on an offensive or defensive line at all, let alone be a starting guard; at best, a player with his body type might get a shot as a 3-4 interior linebacker (because he’d be too short to cover the tall tight ends on the outside) or a situational fullback (because he’d be too slow to be a halfback). Chances are, he’d be playing a lot of special teams, when he played at all.

In 1970, there was one player in the NFL who weighed more than three hundred pounds. By the beginning of the 2014 season, there were three hundred and sixty. The Indianapolis Colts alone began the year with fifteen players at or above three hundred pounds. Some have the height and frame to easily support added girth (no offensive lineman in today’s league is as short at Ed Budde was) and others have to assiduously work at adding weight and maintaining the size required for their position. One of those guys in the latter category is Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Matt Kalil.

Matt, at six-foot-seven, has the desired height of a modern offensive tackle. He’s blessed with what some would call a “basketball frame,” meaning that his particular body’s natural weight at that height is about 250 pounds. With those dimensions, Matt would actually make for a prototypical tight end—an in-line receiver—in today’s NFL.

Matt even wanted to play tight end as a kid growing up. His father, Frank Kalil, who played offensive line in the USFL back in the 1980s, had a different plan for his tallest son. “My first time going to Servite (High School in Anaheim, Calif.), I tried to play tight end as a freshman,” Kalil told NFL.com. “My dad got on the field and was like, ‘No, he’s playing left tackle.’ Pretty much ended that dream.”

Matt’s older brother Ryan, who wanted to be a quarterback as a kid, was also switched to offensive line by their father. Ryan Kalil is also a starting lineman in the NFL, for the Carolina Panthers, so one assumes that their dad knows something about coaching offensive line. In Matt’s case, the switch to left tackle meant that he would have to gain about fifty pounds, but he’s quick to point out his own agency in the matter. “[My father] definitely didn’t force football on us. It was definitely a choice that we wanted to make. He made it clear that we could play any sport we wanted to. If we wanted to play football and we wanted his help, it was going to be his way. So it was definitely a choice that we made.”

Putting on that kind of weight, and keeping it on, has been a struggle over Matt’s first three years in the NFL. His rookie season, Matt had to ingest 7,000 calories a day to be at the desired weight for a left tackle. Among the regimen were five meals eaten daily, two hours apart, and a 1,200-calorie protein & peanut butter shake ingested before bedtime. “If I just ate a regular diet,” he told ESPN, “like 3,000 calories a day, I could probably drop 20 pounds in two weeks. Easily.”

To disabuse the idea that Matt is some kind of drive-thru diplodocus, grimly and indiscriminately consuming fat and carbs from dawn ‘til dusk, it’s necessary to point out that Matt eats healthy, high-quality food, and supplements his weight gain with a specific workout regimen. He drinks only water all week, except for Fridays, when he allows himself a grape soda. Still, for someone who has to work to maintain his playing weight, the lifestyle can be exhausting. “I know, I know, ‘Poor guy. Must be tough having to eat all the time,’” Matt tells the Star Tribune. “But, really, it is sometimes. I mean there are times when I feel completely stuffed and it’s time to eat again.”

“If I’m out with friends and we’re not eating,” he tells ESPN, “I have to tell them, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got to eat a meal. It’s wired that way in my head because I’ve been doing this since my freshman year in high school. If I get off my routine, there’s a little voice in my head saying, ‘Hey, you need to go eat right now.’”

Matt Kalil

It goes without saying that this lifestyle can be deadly in the long term. The Star Tribune article on Matt quoted a 2005 Scripps-Howard News Service study that concluded that linemen were twice as likely to die before age 50 than football players at other positions. Nate “The Kitchen” Newton, a former NFL lineman who has dropped 200 pounds since he retired, credits the weight loss for saving his life. “People think concussions kill,” Newton told ESPN. “Well, when you’re fat, you got heart problems. When you’re fat, you got diabetes. When you’re fat, you got high blood pressure. Fat is a fact, Jack.”

Consequently, upon retirement, NFL offensive linemen have come to view their own bodies as part of the uniform. Indianapolis Colts All-Pro center Jeff Saturday made it a point to lose over fifty pounds as quickly as possible after retiring. Former 316-lb. Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca lost a ton of weight and recently ran a marathon in 3:56. Ex-Vikings center Matt Birk lost 75 pounds and made a convincing case in his attempt to become a model.

Matt Kalil has regressed as a player since his standout rookie season. He played through a knee injury in 2013, but hasn’t seemed to return to pre-injury form, and the heat from testy fans has been getting to him. After a recent loss to the Packers, in which Matt had three penalties called against him, he lost his composure with a heckler in a stupid hat, and later regretted acting on the impulse to respond to the guy.

I can’t guess how the commingling of fatigue, injury, diet, lifestyle, coaching, strategy, and external factors can erode a great young player. He’s 25, and has time to turn it around, but however long his career lasts, Matt retains one certainty—he’s losing the regimen and the extra pounds when he retires. “I’d like to be around 240,” he tells ESPN. I looked it up, and Matt hasn’t been that weight since his sophomore year of high school.

I have to think, even if Matt let himself go a bit post-retirement, and permitted himself a few more grape sodas, and ended up at 260, it still wouldn’t be so bad. He’d still be the weight of an all-star NFL offensive lineman, once upon a time.

 

THE CHAMP

When St. Louis Rams player Jason Brown, once the highest-paid center in football, quit the NFL, it confused a lot of people in his life. “My agent told me, ‘You’re making the biggest mistake of your life,’” Jason told CBS News. “And I looked right back at him and I said, ‘No I’m not. No I’m not.’”

Last year, I profiled three other players who quit lucrative NFL careers for their own reasons, and Jason’s story is by far the most unusual. Jason left the NFL to become a farmer, and now operates 1,030 acres outside of Louisburg, North Carolina where he primarily grows sweet potatoes, squash, and cucumbers.

One of the motivations behind this career shift was the poverty and homelessness in Franklin County, particularly Louisburg, where over 20% of the population is below the poverty line, many of them children. Naming his farm “First Fruits Farm,” he donates his first harvest to local food banks. Last month, that meant five acres of sweet potatoes, totaling about fifty tons. He also gave away his entire cucumber crop. He plans to give away twice as much next year.

“It was time to start giving back,” he told the Raleigh News & Observer. “God has blessed us with this place and I am to be a steward, to use all these good things to help other people.”

He’s started researching which crops are easiest for food banks and shelters to accept and handle as donations. In the process, he’s also diversifying, planting muscadine grapes and orchards of apple, pear, and plum trees.

Although farming’s in his blood—his grandfather Jasper Brown, an important local civil rights activist, ran a farm in nearby Caswell County—Jason didn’t grow up on one. Jason BrownWhile he could afford the land and the equipment from his NFL earnings, he learned much of the actual work of farming from watching YouTube videos.

“It was his dream,” Tay Brown, Jason’s wife, who’s a dentist, told the News & Observer. “You get accustomed to a certain lifestyle and suddenly you leave that for something entirely different. But this is what he wanted.”

Although Jason was released by the Rams with two years left in a five-year, $37 million deal, he received some buyout money as part of the release settlement, and had interest from at least three NFL teams to continue playing—and make more money. Jason decided instead he’d do something more useful than pro football.

“When I think about a life of greatness,” he told CBS News, “I think about a life of service.”

Adversity and commitment to greater causes runs in the Brown family. His grandfather Jasper, steadfast in his commitment to desegregate local schools, survived many threats on his life, including a night when some white agitators attacked the family’s farmhouse with dynamite. Only by shooting one of the assailants in the groin (Jasper Brown was fortunately never charged) did he manage to save his family, and the lit dynamite fell and blew a crater on their property, which Jason says is still there to this day.

Jason’s older brother, Lunsford, brought his family’s sense of commitment and duty into his career in Army Intelligence, and was a fan of his more famous little brother, sending him encouraging emails until the day a mortar shell killed him in Iraq. By absorbing the blast, Lunsford’s body shielded eleven other soldiers. “My brother is a hero,” Jason told ESPN. “Nothing I’ll ever do will compare to his honor and sacrifice and impact. He saved lives.”

Still with the Rams at the time of that ESPN interview, Jason was quick to consider his brother’s life in contrast to his own NFL career, and seemed critical of the excess money and attention he would walk away from only six months later. “I question how much attention is given to football,” he said at the time. “But it’s tough. It’s a huge machine that I’m benefiting from.”

“You want your cup to overflow,” he said. “My cup is causing a flood.”

Now, years later, there are thousands of people who are benefitting, with the help of people like Rebecca Page, the gleaning coordinator for the Society of St. Andrews, an organization that links farmers and other donors with food banks.

“What he is doing is unbelievable,” Rebecca told the News & Observer. “The time, the effort, the work, the cost. And he gives it away.”

“Love is the most wonderful currency that you can give anyone,” says Jason.


J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest and the forthcoming The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His shorter writing has appeared in Hobart, the Wall Street Journal, Granta, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. More from this author →