Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins leaves the field drenched in sweat, eyes wide, searching for a bottle of water. Miami has just finished what felt like the hottest practice of training camp, and Wilkins is on a non-stop mission to "actively hydrate."
The temperature here in Miami Gardens, Florida, is 94 degrees, but due to 69 percent relative humidity, the "feels like" temperature is 104. It's the type of day where that cold bottle of water waiting for Wilkins on a table just past the end zone looks even better than an unblocked quarterback.
It's just after noon, and Wilkins estimates he's already consumed over 100 ounces of water. Bobby Boucher would be proud.
"I lose, on average, 10 pounds per practice," Wilkins, who stands 6-foot-4 and typically plays between 310 and 315 pounds, tells me. "The good and bad thing for us is, we're in Miami, Florida. It's hot as hell, so you're going to lose weight regardless. You have to hydrate to replenish that.
"Being a bigger guy, we also get to do one of the things we love most -- eat -- to maintain that weight."
With the preseason slate in the books and the 2022 NFL campaign around the corner, now is the perfect time to examine what the league's big boys -- the offensive and defensive linemen -- do to ensure their weight is where it needs to be. It's a process that begins in training camp, when the number on the scale can fluctuate wildly with the heat of summer, and continues through the grind of the regular season.
While reporting on this story, I spoke to current and former players, as well as a coach and a trainer, seeking behind-the-scenes details of what it takes to maintain the right mass for protecting -- or chasing -- the quarterback.
Loaded baked potatoes, Wendy's and sweets
Ted Karras' daily food-and-drink intake during training camp is a workout just to read. The Cincinnati Bengals center says he downs 15 items before hitting the field for practice at 2 p.m. every day.
In between one of his meal breaks before practice one mid-August day, Karras gave me a step-by-step sample breakdown of what he estimates is at least a 6,000-calorie daily menu, necessary for maintaining his 315-pound playing weight.
"The name of the game is calorie consumption. I don't pay much attention to what it is. I just consume it," Karras said. "I eat high-calorie dense food with volume and frequency."
Karras says he eats at least four true meals a day, plus snacks. The key for his routine: Most of his food consumption comes after practice, as he doesn't like to feel heavy going onto the field. As eye-catching as his pre-practice totals are, most of his eating actually happens after 4 p.m.
|Ted Karras' training camp schedule|
|Morning before 2 p.m. practice||Fruit smoothie|
|10 bottles of water|
|Gatorade with salt added|
|Gallon of water before weigh-in|
|Two extra-large Uncrustables|
|DripDrop electrolyte powder packet with water|
|After 2 p.m. practice||Steak and pasta in team cafeteria|
|A snack -- usually a protein shake|
|Gallon of water|
|Gatorade with salt added|
|DripDrop electrolyte powder packet with water|
|Final meal before leaving facility||Popular options are hibachi, Philly cheesesteak or pasta|
|At home||Uncrustables or frozen pizza before bed|
As reflected in the sample schedule above, Karras typically begins his morning drinking a fruit smoothie and later devours his favorite snack: Uncrustables. He eats two of the extra-large prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which he says are 600 calories each, before practice. He may eat one more snack before practice, but otherwise, it's mostly a lot of liquid. And he means a lot.
Karras says he drinks about 10 bottles of water, one to two Gatorades with salt added and a DripDrop electrolyte powder mixed with water that helps to prevent dehydration, all before practice. He feasts at the team cafeteria multiple times after practice and then again when he arrives home.
"It's usually Uncrustables or frozen pizza at my house right before bed," Karras said. "If it's a full-padded day tomorrow, I will probably go for Uncrustables."
Dolphins left tackle Terron Armstead said he's not as strict on his food diet, but he does have a few central rules: typically, no fried foods, not a lot of bread, and sweets once a week. He's learned that it has worked for him, but he's also constantly aware of his weight.
"I've seen guys who can eat whatever they want -- McDonald's and (Raising) Cane's daily. Other guys have to be very selective. I'm somewhere in the middle," Armstead said.
I spoke to several players who, like the Dolphins' Wilkins, say they lose 5-15 pounds in summer practices, needing a diligent food-and-drink plan to gain it back daily.
"I have seen a lot of offensive linemen who have trouble keeping weight on during training camp. It's something we talk about a bunch," Jaguars interior offensive lineman Tyler Shatley said. "Somehow, I see a few guys who have trouble keeping weight off in camp, which I don't understand at all. But different strokes for different folks."
For Shatley, it's carb city every day to keep his weight up in the Jacksonville heat. He said, "I put a lot of salt on everything to try to hold that water in."
Joe Thomas, who was a six-time All-Pro and 10-time Pro Bowler over 11 seasons as the Browns' left tackle, said he constantly battled to keep weight on. He estimates he ate 7,500-8,000 calories a day. Now, five years into retirement, he eats 2,000-3,000 calories on most days.
"People think we ate steaks all day, but it's quite the opposite. We needed more sugar while playing," Thomas said. "Every three hours, I knew I had to eat until I felt like I had finished Thanksgiving dinner. It got to the point that I didn't enjoy eating."
Mindy Black, the Jaguars' director of performance nutrition, has told Shatley and her other players about the importance of carbs quite often. The message has stuck. Black explains for every gram of carbohydrate players eat, they can hold 3-4 grams of water, and players burn roughly 1 carb per minute at practice.
"There's a lot of science that people don't realize. It's not just loading them with steak or telling them to drink a gallon of water," Black said. "There's a plan for every player."
If players struggle to keep weight on, Black recommends a lot of fluids, fruit smoothies infused with calorie-laced substances and less-bulky foods (like peanut butter, nuts and seeds) to increase calorie intake. (Remember Karras' love of Uncrustables?)
"Say if you're having a baked potato, we load it with butter, cheese and things that add calories to it instead of feeling like you need to eat three baked potatoes. We understand that it is hard to come from the heat and eat a big steak," Black said. "The way I promote it to them is just like you're in the weight room: You don't feel like doing squats today, but you still have to do it.
"They'll look at me sometimes, like, 'Mindy, I don't want to eat this,' so we'll compromise. 'Let's eat some of this, then a smoothie, and I'll bring you something else in two hours so you don't feel miserable.' But sometimes, you just have to do it."
Every lineman is different, but nearly everyone I spoke with for this story was clear that, despite being the biggest players on the field, most linemen are cognizant of nutrition, specifically adding fruit and vegetables to their diets.
"It all has to be calculated. Yes, we eat more, but it has to be the proper thing to maintain your ideal weight," Wilkins said. "I believe the bigger guys have the best eating habits on the team because we are conscious. We are not like a little defensive back who can pound Wendy's, come out to practice 20 minutes later and hop around."
'Weigh-ins are psychological'
NFL teams typically weigh players daily in training camp, often in the morning and again after practice. Mandatory weigh-ins continue during the season. Some teams are stricter than others, but most linemen have a specific weight or weight range they are instructed to be at when approaching the football season.
"I've seen situations where guys were more worried about weighing in on Thursday than practice on Wednesday or [a] game on Sunday," Armstead said.
Karras added: "It's our professional requirement to weigh in at a certain weight. It's definitely a stressor for some folks. We are always aware of it. You can be fined and punished, so it's a big deal for us big guys."
Armstead, whom teammates laud for his athleticism and great playing shape, spent his first nine NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints, where, he says, his former head coach, Sean Payton, was "real particular" and "wasn't willing to bend" about players coming in at their expected playing weight. It forced them all to be conscious of their weight from Day 1.
He remembers players having their wives make special meals and prevent their kids from keeping certain snacks in the house so they could make weight. In a few extreme cases, Armstead remembers players coming in as much as 20-30 pounds over their playing weight; they received heavy fines and even suspensions.
"It's a real struggle and challenge for a number of NFL players," Armstead said.
Some players with issues keeping weight on, typically on teams more lenient than Payton's Saints, have reported to training camp heavy, expecting to sweat down to their ideal playing weight after a week or two of high-intensity football work. But with the way the preseason is structured by the current collective bargaining agreement, the first week of training camp is more of a ramp-up period, which means getting to one's ideal weight before reporting is more important than it once might have been.
Clemson defensive tackles coach/run game coordinator Nick Eason said the lighter workload at training camps is quite a change from the two-a-days practices that were prevalent for most of his nine NFL playing seasons. From his perspective, dietary discipline now plays a bigger role in managing one's weight.
Eason, who coached the defensive line on three NFL teams over seven seasons, said there are some organizations where position coaches determine what weight their guys play at. He said he's seen some teams fine players $1,000 per pound over or under their weight.
More than anything, Eason now tells his players that maintaining health is the true value of the weigh-in.
"I tell them, from a former player's perspective, you have to fuel your body with the right food. It does matter. Injuries are directly related to it. Your health is directly related to it. It was personal for me. I got up to nearly 400 pounds from eating poorly," Eason said. "I feel like I can save players from what I went through."
Weigh-ins aren't just for punishment purposes. They are also used as barometers to help players excel in their specific roles.
An offensive lineman switching from tackle to guard will likely strive to gain weight in the offseason, to build up the girth and power to handle bigger defenders. Meanwhile, linemen on either side may need to drop a few pounds if the team is moving to a new scheme that requires more lateral movement.
"Weigh-ins are psychological," said Karras, who noted he drinks a gallon of water before every weigh-in. "I don't want to weigh in lighter than my expected playing weight. It's going to affect how I approach practice. It affects how I go against my defender."
Karras says he's "not naturally supposed to be 315 pounds," but it is his ideal playing weight, so he's mapped out an offseason schedule to get there.
He doesn't let his offseason weight dip below 300 pounds, but he figures whenever he retires, he will drop below that number quickly. Between late March and early April, Karras begins a 10-pound weight-gain journey -- but the key is, it has to be gained through good, quality weight, not just the kind of weight that is added via junk food. Once he's up to around 315 pounds, he works diligently to keep it on. If he relaxes, he knows he could "easily lose 6-7 pounds" in a day.
Black said she works with Jaguars players to get them out of a fearful mentality when it comes to weigh-ins by asking questions about their preferred weight and struggles. If needed, Black will tell their coaches if a specific weight is unrealistic.
"The way I present it to the coaches is that they can technically make weight, but they're either going to be sitting in a sauna or guzzling water all day. We don't want either one," Black said. "We want it to be healthy. We have to ramp up to dramatically increase or decrease weight."
There's a running joke in football media circles that the start of training camp also marks the beginning of "I'm in the best shape of my life" season, but the reality is, there is immense value to veteran players like Karras perfecting an offseason plan so they arrive to practice in late July literally in their best playing shape.
Life after being a lineman
Eason said he got chills when he read my text asking if I could talk with him for a story regarding weight. He retired as a player a decade ago. He's been a coach ever since. But this is the topic that still hits him hard today.
As Eason explained after Clemson's practice one August weekday evening, he's gained 70-75 pounds since his playing days. He played at 300 pounds and has gotten as high as 386 pounds. He's now on blood-pressure medication and has a CPAP machine to manage his sleep apnea.
"Weight is one of the most difficult things I've dealt with in my life. Sitting in front of a computer now talking to you, I have a Coca-Cola. It probably won't be my last one," Eason said. "I don't do drugs. I don't drink alcohol. But I love food. I'm an emotional eater."
Eason isn't alone among former NFL players and coaches who see their weight rise dramatically. But for him, this journey is very personal. Eason has lost his mom, grandma and former college roommate in recent years. The time demands of coaching have limited his exercise opportunities, and frankly, he admits he eats out of boredom often when watching film in his office.
"Food is an addiction, just as much as a street drug. I was raised in South Georgia, raised to love food -- sweet tea, fried chicken, collard greens," Eason said. "I wish I was more disciplined with my diet."
Eason said he thought he turned a corner in his weight journey a few years ago, when he decided to go vegan after watching a documentary called The Game Changers, about athletes who adopted a plant-based diet, featuring one of his former players, nine-year Tennessee Titans edge rusher Derrick Morgan. Eason said he got down to 285 pounds, lower than his playing weight, after going vegan. But in 2021, Eason went from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked with the Bengals' defensive line, to Auburn, Alabama, where he coached the Tigers' defensive line. His dietary discipline waned, and his weight rose again.
"Moving back down South, the food got me again. What I can do now as a coach is prevent my guys from going to the place that I went through weekly. Physically. Mentally. Post-career," Eason said. "I tell them to make sure you get plenty of rest, water and nutrition. Use me as an example, so you can be better."
Black, who has been with the Jaguars since 2016, said she tells her players she is available as a nutrition resource even in retirement. She estimates most of Jacksonville's offensive linemen are trying to keep weight on. In her experience, retired O-linemen can quickly drop to 285 pounds, but getting to 265 pounds is a little harder.
"But there are some guys -- usually I know them before they retire -- who unfortunately blow up," Black said. "They're often the ones that love Southern food. You try to help them realize, once you stop burning calories daily, they stick to you."
When Thomas retired in March of 2018, he couldn't walk down the steps forward. He went backward, due to knee pain. Doctors were clear he needed to change his diet and reduce inflammation in his body. Having been told for years that retired linemen either lose weight immediately or go the other way, he was motivated to drop to his pre-college playing weight of 250 pounds.
Thomas was successful. He said it took "six months to lose 60 pounds."
The first 25 pounds "flew off," Thomas said, but the last 35 pounds required a more disciplined diet, intermittent fasting, cutting out all carbs and sometimes traditional fasts. Eventually, he got to his goal weight of 250.
Thomas said the most difficult challenge was to break the habit of eating like a player.
"I still want to eat like an offensive lineman sometimes," Thomas said. "I did it for so long, and I love to eat, especially now that I don't have to, so I want to pound meals like my playing days, but have to try to stay disciplined."
Sweat it out, drink it back
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has made clear to his centers over the years his disdain for sweaty butts. You see, as Brady explained in a 2019 story from The Athletic, he doesn't want to "throw a wet ball on a perfectly sunny day." The traditional quarterback-center exchange requires Brady's hands to be under his center's butt to get the snap. It became such a thing that David Andrews, one of the players who worked as Brady's center in New England, unsuccessfully tried to train his body not to sweat by spending time in the sauna.
Brady isn't the only one. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins complained a few years ago about having a sweaty rookie center. As Andrews found out, it's hard to stop the sweat, so many linemen have simply learned to manage it.
"I am a big sweater," Shatley said. "I lose 10-to-15 pounds a day at practice. I imagine at least half of it is gone in sweat. Not really much I can do about that. I just pound water and Pedialyte for what feels like all day."
Black said the Jaguars sweat-test players by putting patches on their skin as they go through a practice. That patch helps measure what a player loses in fluids, sodium, potassium and magnesium per hour, so the team can write an individualized refuel plan for that player.
"For each pound they lose, they have to drink 20 ounces of fluids," Black said. "Most of our linemen average around 10 pounds per practice. But some can lose up to 20 pounds, so they're under our shadow after that, because then they have to get [up to 400 ounces] worth in by the next practice."
Black said players are notified within 30 minutes of practice of what they've lost and need to replace by the next morning. Black and the Jaguars mandate any player who is more than 2 percent dehydrated can't practice until consuming enough fluids to get under that mark.
"At 2 percent dehydration is where they have a much higher risk of injury," she said.
Hydration is even more important than food, the players I spoke to say. The consumption of water, Pedialyte, Gatorade and DripDrop is a constant. But everybody has their own technique.
Shatley says he pounds his drinks in seconds. His process sounds similar to shot-gunning a beer. Wilkins says he prefers the "cumulative effect" of hydrating, preferring not to load up right before practice.
"Sip, not chug. That's my mantra," said Wilkins, someone who multiple key Dolphins defenders have predicted will be their defense's 2022 breakout player. "When you have to chug, I'm behind the eight ball. I already messed up my hydration."
On the current season of Hard Knocks, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell can be heard screaming "Hydrate!" constantly in between practice periods. That's a regular routine with coaches across NFL training camps.
Armstead estimates he drinks 2 1/2 gallons of water per day. Karras says he goes through 10 Aquafina water bottles and a gallon of water before the Bengals begin their afternoon practice.
"The biggest day-to-day change is hydration level. Especially in a hot city. You can lose 10-12 pounds in a southern city," Armstead said. "You can't gain all that back through eating."
Maintaining the weight needed to man the trenches in the NFL is a science -- but it's also primarily about salt and, yes, water.
Or, as Bobby Boucher would say, "high-quality H2O."