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Players must find balance between health, size

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jackson linebacker Blake Peiffer recently engaged in a conversation about the size of high school football players with his father, Dan Peiffer, a former National Football League center who played for the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins before retiring in 1980.

"My dad told me a story about when he played, and he played at 210 [pounds] in high school," said the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Peiffer. "I'm already bigger than that. Everyone is bigger than that."

Scott City coach Ronnie Jones, who began coaching high school football in 1974, said he has seen the average size of football players increase significantly. He said high school football is becoming a game for large athletes, while the chance for undersized players to succeed at the sport becomes more unlikely with time.

Statistics reveal a tremendous increase in the size of Missouri high school football players over the past 25 years. In 2007, 249 players weighed 200 or more pounds from the 12 teams that played in Missouri high school state championship games compared to just 50 players on the combined 10 teams that played in Missouri football title games in 1983, according to an examination of rosters from both years provided by the Missouri State High School Activities Association. There were two less teams in 1983 because Class 6 did not exist yet.

Forty-nine players from the 2007 state rosters weighed 250 or more pounds, 23 weighed 275 or more pounds and four weighed 300 or more pounds compared to only one player — a 255-pound tackle from Rockhurst — who weighed more than 250 pounds from 1983 rosters.

Nineteen players from the six local Southeast Missouri high school teams weigh 250 or more pounds this year.

Chaffee has three players who weigh 300 pounds. The Red Devils' heaviest player in 1983, a year when they won the Class 1A state title, weighed 220 pounds.

"You don't want to be small," said Peiffer, a senior who has been offered a scholarship to play at Southeast Missouri State and has garnered interest from other Division I schools, including Kansas State and Nebraska. "You have to be big and strong when you're playing football."

Gaining weight is important to high school players not only to earn starting positions, but also to draw interest from college programs. Perception of the ideal body varies among high school coaches, and health risks can become a concern when players weigh too much.

"Everybody is trying to get recruited when they are 13 or 14, and so there is a societal push to be bigger," said Dr. Scott Keller, a Cape Girardeau pediatrician. "Offensive linemen nowadays are all basically over 300 pounds at the college level, and so at the high school level, they are bigger. When my dad played football, he was probably 180 pounds and could play lineman in high school. But nowadays it's not that way. These guys are gearing more toward college, so there is more pressure to be bigger, stronger and faster."

High school size

Jackson senior fullback Andy Winkleblack lost 30 pounds while dieting this past offseason.

Winkleblack, who was 5-10, 250 pounds last fall and is 6-0, 220 this season, said that Indians coach Van Hitt spoke with him about losing some weight so he could stay on the field longer each game and compete at a higher level.

"I just tried to cut back mostly with just everything, like junk food," Winkleblack said. "I don't drink soda or anything like that. I tried just to eat what my mom cooks."

Winkleblack, who started at fullback and played some linebacker last fall, said he feels much better physically and is ready to start on both offense and defense.

"I've just got more energy," he said. "I can go harder longer, whether it's just on offense or it's on both offense and defense."

Many local coaches offer differing views on the ideal body they want for their skill players and linemen. While many players are eager to put on more weight, many local coaches do not want players to grow too big because it might prevent the players from being quick and having enough energy to play an entire game.

Jones said he would prefer his linemen to be in the 6-1 to 6-3, 200- to 210-pound range. He prefers for his linemen to avoid bulking up because he wants them to be quick off the line to their blocking assignments and able to make quick adjustments to opposing defenses.

Jones said he prefers his skill-position players to be 6-2 to 6-3 and to weigh 175 to 205 pounds.

First-year Central coach Rich Payne emphasized that players need to have weight from muscle and not obesity. He said players who are obese might be able to overpower opponents for the first 20 downs in a game, but as a contest progresses and players are reaching 30 to 50 repetitions, they will become too tired and unproductive.

"I'll define it like this: good weight is what you want," Payne said. "Weight just to have weight is nonproductive."

Jackson's 27 offensive linemen, excluding tight ends, average 5-11 and 217 pounds. Perryville's 21 offensive linemen average 5-10 1/2, 215. The 14 offensive linemen at Scott City average 5-9 1/2, 233.5, while Chaffee's 20 offensive linemen average 5-9 1/2, 206.

Central 5-10, 260-pound junior lineman Trey Grovener said players who are vying for positions on the line certainly think about the need to increase weight.

"You do need size because if you're just too small, you're going to get overpowered," Grovener said. "But being an offensive player, you're going to need speed, too. ... Coach Payne has a philosophy that the lower man has more leverage. And that's kind of true. The lower you are, the harder it is for you to get moved."

College recruitment

Perryville 6-2, 265-pound lineman Garrett Leible said he does not think players on his team have to worry about hitting a certain weight to earn playing time. He said that many high school coaches put more emphasis on strength than weight. But Leible added that college coaches place great emphasis on the weight of players.

Some colleges have height and weight requirements when recruiting players, Southeast Missouri State coach Tony Samuel said.

Jackson senior tailback Adam Zweigart has been one of the most successful players at his position in Southeast Missouri. He was the 2007 Southeast Missourian player of the year and a Class 5 first-team all-state selection, rushing for 1,751 yards on 215 carries and scoring 17 touchdowns.

But the 6-0, 180-pound Zweigart said he lacks the weight needed to play running back in college, so colleges have not showed much interest in him to play that position.

Zweigart is underweight compared to the top Class of 2009 high school tailback recruits.

Scout.com's top 20 high school running back prospects average 5-11 1/2 and 201.5 pounds.

"I don't plan on getting much bigger because I'm fully grown," Zweigart said. "I just talked to SEMO's coach about what he'd rather me play. He didn't seem real enthused that I would be a running back."

Zweigart said Southeast is more interested in him at wide receiver or defensive back. He's accepted that if he wants to play in college, it probably will be at one of those two positions.

His teammate, Peiffer, said he thinks he is at a good weight — 225 pounds — to play linebacker at the Division I level.

The average weight of the top 20 high school middle linebackers in the 2009 class on Scout.com is 220.6 pounds. Of the 20 prospects, 13 either weigh the same or less than Peiffer.

"For me, at the middle linebacker, I'm right where I want to be pretty much," Peiffer said. "But they'll put the weight on you when you get up there."

Samuel said he does not have set size guidelines for recruits at Southeast.

"Some people like certain heights and weights, but we don't really have a layout as much as other people," Samuel said. "Some positions you've at least got to reach a minimum. But at other positions it's more ability than size. [A minimum] is really hard to tell because you have to look at film. It's not that simple.

"Great players come in all sizes and shapes. I remember LaDainian Tomlinson wasn't highly recruited because he was small, and he's a great running back. Barry Sanders was the same way. It varies."

Different positions require different size. By averaging the heights and weights of the top 2009 high school recruits at each position on Scout.com, an average wide receiver is 6-2, 192, an average offensive tackle is 6-5 3/4, 291, while an average cornerback is 6-0, 177.8.

Growth reasons

Jones, who graduated from college in 1974, said that the largest player on his high school team was 6-0, 195.

"We considered him a giant," Jones said. "We thought he was somewhat of a freak. In fact, that was his nickname. But now, it's not uncommon for eighth-grade kids to walk around wearing size 12 shoes and being 6-2 and 6-3."

Five freshman linemen at Scott City weigh 200 or more pounds. One is 200, two weigh 230 and two weight 240.

Jones said various reasons exist, including better weightlifting programs and nutrition, to explain the increase in size of football players over the past 25 years.

St. Vincent coach Keith Winkler, who played high school football 25 years ago, said weightlifting is emphasized more now than it was in the 1980s.

Lifting weights has become a year-round practice for many high school teams, and football coaches also have become more knowledgeable about weight training.

First-year Perryville coach Jim May said that children begin weight training earlier and that more schools now offer weightlifting classes.

Peiffer said football players drink lifting beverages and protein shakes to help them gain weight.

"In the weight room, everybody wants to be the strongest in there and try to out-lift everybody on something," Peiffer said.

Keller said one main reason that children are bigger than they were 25 years ago is because they have more access to high-calorie food. Plus more variety exists among high-calorie food, and it's easier to obtain.

"I think it's just eating habits of the population in general have tended more toward the high-calorie, high-fat foods," Keller said. "And this is just obesity in general. I'm not being specific to football. So kids are eating more calories at a younger age, and the family environments that they are in, it seems to be true that the dietary habits of the families aren't as good either. So they tend to eat out more, tend to choose the fast food kind of things that basically give you more calories."

Keller added that video games and television also have added to weight increase as more children sit inside rather than participate in physical activities.

The Body Mass Index is used nowadays to determine whether children are obese. But Keller said that tool does not factor in whether someone has a muscular build and a low percentage of body fat. For that reason, just by examining local rosters, it would be difficult to tell how many local players are obese.

But local coaches said there are players who are obese, and they do not ignore the problem.

"If I see something [on the physical forms about weight] that needs to be looked at, I call that kid in and I'll talk to him about it," Jones said. "I'll say, 'Now look, this hasn't got anything to do with football. This is called breathing. Football is one thing, but it's not everything.' Before you march them out there and it's 100 and something degrees and all that kind of stuff, we're going to make sure everybody is on the same page."

Peiffer said there are players who weigh more than they probably should.

"We all joke around and call each other fat all the time because a lot of people are on this team," Peiffer said.

A different game

Jones said the game has changed over the years because of the increased size of players. He thinks the sport has become more competitive and taken more seriously. He argued that since football increasingly is becoming more of a game for big athletes, it might not be as fun as it once was when players of all sizes got a chance to play.

"I think when you get into more established programs, a lot of [undersized] kids weed themselves out," Jones said. "It's almost gotten to the point where the fun is not there because some of the kids are being left out."

Zweigart said even when smaller athletes do try out, they might not receive much playing time, even if they have talent.

"We had some smaller kids last year, and they were fast and they had good hands and stuff, but just the overall size of height just singled them out from playing and getting playing time at high school," Zweigart said.

Some smaller athletes still continue to play locally.

Jackson has 10 players who weigh 150 pounds or less. Chaffee and Perryville each have eight. St. Vincent has 15, while Scott City has six.

Central declined to provide a roster that listed the heights and weights of its players.

One aspect May likes about his Perryville team is the size of his offensive linemen. He also is happy to have a tailback, Brent Roth, who is 6-2, 200 pounds. But May also knows that it is not all about the height and weight.

"To me, they can either play or they can't," May said. "You can have a kid who weighs 150 pounds and can hit and run and play the game just as well as somebody who is 200 pounds."

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