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Sleeping giant

Sports | In Reggie White's death, NFL must quit ignoring the perils of bulking up

Issue: "Tsunami," Jan. 15, 2005

On the field, Reggie White was known as the "Minister of Defense"-a sort of doomsday prophet for opposing quarterbacks. He brought a love for Jesus onto the field, literally holding prayer meetings there after games. For a short time, he held the NFL record for career sacks with 198. He sued the NFL for free agency rights in the early 1990s, clearing the way for the league's current system. He promised to bring a Super Bowl trophy back to Green Bay. In 1997 he delivered.

But for all his accolades-and his legendary ministry to inner-city communities-Reggie White's legacy in death may prove to be as substantial as his life. Medical examiners in North Carolina said sleep apnea probably played a role in the 43-year-old defensive end's death. If true, it is the latest sign that large numbers of otherwise fit and active NFL players could be suffering from an often ignored, completely misunderstood, and possibly fatal disease.

A 2003 study revealed football players to be five times more susceptible to the sleeping disorder, which stops a person's breathing sometimes 100 times every night. To treat it, the NFL and the players union first must get athletes to take the disorder seriously. "If you're a regular citizen out there and you're 24 years old, you think you're invincible. Especially if you're a professional athlete," noted former NFL player and sleep researcher Vyto Kab, who managed the 2003 study for SleepTech.

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Mr. Kab's findings startled the league: The disorder didn't simply appear in the super-fit NFL population; it afflicted 14 percent of players tested and 34 percent of linemen. The study didn't focus on older, more traditional sleep apnea risks. "The mean age in the study was 24," Mr. Kab said. "We had [apnea sufferers] who weighed 310 pounds with 36-inch waists and looked like Hercules and we had guys with the guts hanging over their belts." In other words, according to Mr. Kab's study sleep apnea shows up in big players whether their girth came from muscle or fat.

Despite the findings, players have never been widely or routinely tested for the disorder, even though it can be fatal. NFL Players Association Communications Director Carl Francis remembered how the league and union scrambled to address the SleepTech study at the 2003 Super Bowl. They staged a press conference to inform players about the two common symptoms, consistently being tired during the day and snoring loudly and persistently at night. Players were also warned about the consequences, ranging from annoying spouses and feeling drowsy to complicating heart and lung disorders-something doctors fear happened to Reggie White. On the field, Mr. Francis said, players seek immediate treatment if something is wrong. "But sleep apnea is a home problem. It's a problem that's personal. It doesn't involve your play," he said. In other words, players who feel invincible may act as if they are.

NFL players who suffer from apnea and weight-related disorders face an institutional quandary. There's no place in the NFL for light linemen. In some positions, weighing 300 pounds or more is part of the job description. Baltimore tackle Jonathan Ogden and Philadelphia tackle Tra Thomas-two of the game's best offensive linemen-play at weights approaching 350 pounds. The NFL's 2004 Pro Bowl linemen average 317 pounds each. When Mr. Kab played 20 years ago, the NFL had around a dozen 300-pound players. Today, the Eagles carry 11 300-pounders on their active roster. "If you're 24 and weigh 300 pounds, a doctor will tell you to lose weight," said Mr. Kab. "That may be viable for the regular person, but for an NFL lineman, it's not."

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