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@example.com.