Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Cover story

Cover story

Pluck and perspiration pay off for man who weighed 400 pounds (w/video)

ST. PETERSBURG

Charlie Roberts was dying.

At least, he was heading that way. Four years ago, Roberts was 56, weighed just over 400 pounds and battled Type 2 diabetes. A leg ulcer forced him to bed rest for more than a year at two hospitals and a nursing home. He succumbed to self-pity.

When Roberts hobbled into the office of his primary care physician, Dr. Jay Panara at Edward White Hospital, he received a chilling diagnosis.

"He said, 'Charlie, you're morbidly obese,' " Roberts recalled. " 'If you don't do something about it, you're going to be having your funeral.' "

Roberts went back to his Jeep and cried for 20 minutes. Morbidly obese. Even today, he repeats those words, and his eyes begin to water.

"That," he says, "was a wakeup call."

To see Roberts now, you'd never believe it. In three years, he has lost about 170 pounds, down to 236. And he did it the old-fashioned way, with a strict diet and working out at downtown St. Petersburg's Anytime Fitness, where he does every class offered, from Zumba to kickboxing and boot camp. He's the club's most motivational member, admittedly the informal "mascot." Roberts says the people at the gym — from the staff to new friends — have become his second family.

"I couldn't have done it alone, not 1 pound, not 1 ounce," Roberts said. "They inspire me."

Roberts has gone from a size 55 waist to 36, his shirts from 6XL to XL.

Most importantly, he's likely added years onto his life.

"They say, 'You're half the man you used to be' — I hear that all the time," Roberts said, laughing. "It's amazing. But I'm not done yet. Have a long way to go."

• • •

The hardest part, of course, was the first step.

After Panara's prediction, Roberts considered a different strategy, lap band surgery, which would have made his stomach smaller. He signed up, went to the orientation classes. Two days before the scheduled procedure, he canceled it.

Roberts, a cook whose late father, Willie Sr., worked in the mines in Ohio, didn't want to take a short-cut. So he called his insurance company, which gave him a list of gyms that were covered, from Gold's to LA Fitness.

"Anytime just stuck out to me," he said. "Anytime."

Roberts called the gym's owner, Steve Ashton, who invited him to come in on a Wednesday. Roberts made a "lame" excuse and didn't show up. A few weeks later, he mustered the courage, and with the help of two canes, he walked in, bandages over his legs. His ankles were so swollen, his shoes didn't fit. He was nervous, but knew he had to change, telling Ashton one day he would fit into a 2XL shirt. Now that's baggy on him.

"He was miserable," Ashton said. "But you could tell he was real determined. He was struggling to get into the door. From that day, I never would have thought he'd be where he is today."

Like most extremely overweight people, Roberts said it was very hard to come into the gym. "There are people looking at me, then you look around and see guys and feel intimidated," Roberts said. "You see guys doing one-handed (pushups)."

"Most people don't come back," says co-owner Shireen Hameed, Ashton's wife. "That was the surprise."

In the beginning, Roberts eased his nerves with a quick smoke outside before his workout. He'd sneak into the left corner and ride the stationary bike for five to 10 minutes, staring out the window and daydreaming. Then, he'd bolt. For the first couple of months, that's all he did. It might still be had it not been for personal trainer Brooke Warner.

"She caught me one day walking out, and said, 'You finished already?' " Roberts said. "I said, 'Yeah.' "

" 'Nope, come back here,' " she said. "She turned me around a lot. She did."

Warner taught him a few exercises. He took a kickboxing class. Then a total body workout. Another trainer, Aris Akavan, gave him nutrition tips. Pretty soon, he looked forward to coming back. Roberts was encouraged by the support from other members and staff. He felt a rare confidence. It took a few months for Roberts to lose any weight at all, then things picked up. By the end of the first year, he had lost about 50 pounds.

"The weight started to melt off," Roberts said. The second year, he lost close to 75 pounds, he said.

Hameed says 80 percent of weight loss is about what you eat. Roberts recalled how he used to go to Big Tim's BBQ on 34th Street S, buy a slab of ribs, half-chicken and a four-pack of Natural Light beer. "And I'd devour it until it's gone," he said. "My only exercise was pulling my fork and knife to my mouth."

Now, Roberts doesn't eat fried or fast food, only fish and chicken, vegetables and fruit. He hasn't had alcohol in three years. He's down from eight medications to three, and no longer has diabetes. His leg looks healthier.

"It's been a long ride," he said. "You never know until you try, so go for it."

• • •

Roberts stretched before a recent total body workout class, wearing his trademark Yankees cap.

"That's the only thing we don't like about Charlie," Hameed joked. "He's a Yankees fan."

Born in Camilla, Ga., Roberts has family in the New York area, but most of his roots are in St. Petersburg, where he attended school from kindergarten to Gibbs High and St. Petersburg College. He has been a cook at Gulport Family Restaurant the past 15 years, working the morning shift from 7 a.m. to noon Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. That gives him plenty of time for workouts, sometimes twice a day, at Anytime Fitness. His steady workout partner the past three months has been Stacie Allen, 48, whom he met during a weight-loss challenge. Allen wants to lose weight to look better for her daughter's wedding next March, and has already dropped 25 pounds, one of many inspired by Roberts.

"He's like a little celebrity there," Allen said. "But he's very humble. He's done something that's unbelievable and motivating to so many others. I don't think he realizes what he's done."

Roberts takes Zumba and abs classes on Tuesday, with total body on Monday and Wednesday. I joined him for a recent Wednesday class, which involved heavy core and leg exercises, swinging kettlebells and squatting with medicine balls.

Halfway through, he asked me how I was doing.

"Hanging in there," I said, my legs wobbly.

"Oh, you're a young physical specimen," he said, smiling. "You'll be fine."

Roberts, who will turn 61 in July, takes Saturdays and Sundays off, his "chill days," mostly spent watching Scooby-Doo on the Cartoon Network or hanging out with his girlfriend, Shelby Robinson, 50, a nurse. Roberts, who has been married and divorced once, says Robinson has been with him the past five years, since his nursing home days, and is happy for him. So are his four living siblings, and nephews and nieces. As for Dr. Panara?

"He's amazed now, too," Roberts said. "He said, 'That's what I wanted. You should have done this 10 years ago.' I'll say, 'Yeah, you're right.' "

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]

Pluck and perspiration pay off for man who weighed 400 pounds (w/video) 05/30/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2014 4:26pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Review: Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald team up to cool down the Clearwater Jazz Holiday

    Blogs

    A cool breeze swept through Coachman Park Saturday night. Couple of them, actually.

    Kenny Loggins performed at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Oct. 21, 2017.
  2. No. 16 USF hangs on at Tulane, off to first 7-0 start

    College

    NEW ORLEANS — After half a season of mismatches, USF found itself in a grudge match Saturday night.

    USF quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) runs for a touchdown against Tulane during the first half of an NCAA college football game in New Orleans, La., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Derick E. Hingle) LADH103
  3. Lightning buries Penguins (w/video)

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Ryan Callahan spent a lot of time last season rehabilitating his injured hip alongside Steven Stamkos, who was rehabbing a knee after season-ending surgery. During those hours, Callahan noticed two things about Stamkos: his hunger and his excitement to return this season.

    Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek (29) advances the puck through the neutral zone during the first period of Saturday???‚??„?s (10/21/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
  4. Spain planning to strip Catalonia of its autonomy

    World

    BARCELONA, Spain — The escalating confrontation over Catalonia's independence drive took its most serious turn Saturday as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain announced he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.

    Demonstrators in Barcelona protest the decision to take control of Catalonia to derail the independence movement.
  5. Funeral held for soldier at center of political war of words (w/video)

    Nation

    COOPER CITY — Mourners remembered not only a U.S. soldier whose combat death in Africa led to a political fight between President Donald Trump and a Florida congresswoman but his three comrades who died with him.

    The casket of Sgt. La David T. Johnson of Miami Gardens, who was killed in an ambush in Niger. is wheeled out after a viewing at the Christ The Rock Church, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017  in Cooper City, Fla. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP) FLMIH102