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TGH/USF program turns weight loss into a team sport for former NFL heavyweights

Retired NFL players, from left, Rob Taylor, Brian Holloway and Jason Maniecki appear at a news conference Monday to tell of their success in HOPE, which stands for Heart, Obesity, Prevention & Education.
Retired NFL players, from left, Rob Taylor, Brian Holloway and Jason Maniecki appear at a news conference Monday to tell of their success in HOPE, which stands for Heart, Obesity, Prevention & Education.
Published Jan. 27, 2015

As a former linebacker for the Detroit Lions and the Kansas City Chiefs, James Harrell knows all about teamwork.

It was team-oriented care that drew him to participate in a six-month weight-loss program designed for guys like Harrell, who piled on pounds after retiring from professional football. The pilot program, run by two Tampa physicians, helped him drop 30 pounds and lower his blood pressure.

"The competitive side came out," said Harrell, who now is Plant High School's defensive coordinator. "We all started making sure that each week we came in, when we weighed in, that it was important. It was kind of like when we played in the league."

Harrell was one of four retired NFL players in a Super Bowl week press conference Monday at Tampa General Hospital to tout the benefits of a weight-loss plan geared specifically to the needs of men.

"I'm here because I was working out every day, yet I was not losing any weight," Harrell said. "Exercise will never outwork diet — that was the key."

The program was funded by the Living Heart Foundation, an organization started by NFL quarterback-turned-heart surgeon Archie Roberts. Tampa was one of five national sites for the effort, dubbed the HOPE (Heart, Obesity, Prevention & Education) Program.

In 2012, Roberts approached Dr. Michel Murr and Dr. John Paul Gonzalvo of the TGH/USF bariatric center about designing a comprehensive weight-loss plan for former professional athletes.

Murr said he and Gonzalvo observed the way players interacted with one another socially before developing a plan focused on their competitiveness and camaraderie.

"That's a very unique way we can get men to approach weight loss, as something to win," Murr said. "Now we have a blueprint in how to do it."

Murr said the team is applying data from the pilot program to a team-oriented weight-loss program for men in the community. It starts at $624 for 12 weeks.

"It wasn't a magic pill, it wasn't taking shots, because at the end of the day, that doesn't work," said Jason Maniecki, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle. "Changing our lifestyle works, and that's what these guys did for me."

Numerous studies have shown higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and joint problems in many NFL players after years of punishing play — and free-range eating that often continued long after the game-day action stopped.

Both Murr and Gonzalvo supervised the men over the course of six months on a high-protein, low-carb plan that cut about 500 calories daily after assessing their individual metabolic needs.

"We put them in what you call caloric deficit," Murr said. "We designed a program that takes into consideration team dynamics in addition to intensive visits to the center here, by which the players participated in behavior modification, nutritional counseling and supporting each other."

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The doctors visited with the players about 20 times throughout the study. In addition to weight loss, the players said they saw a decrease in both diabetes symptoms and hypertension after participating.

Former Buccaneers offensive tackle Rob Taylor said the name of the program — HOPE — is what first attracted him.

"To be honest with you, I had lost hope in the fact that I could actually lose weight," Taylor said. "When I saw that word, I thought, well, maybe they can restore some hope."

Taylor said he had an abnormal heart rhythm, swelling in his legs and sporadic soreness that doctors attributed to his obesity. But as he lost weight — he ultimately shed 93 pounds — the symptoms improved.

Harrell attributed the post-retirement weight gain to habit.

"You were burning so many calories back then that we could eat whatever we wanted to," Harrell said. "So we ate a lot of food. No one really thought about it."

Former offensive tackle Brian Holloway, who played for both the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Raiders, said he used to eat six meals a day while playing in the league. Since participating in the HOPE program, he said he overhauled his eating habits, dropping 75 pounds.

"I don't care what kind of pain you're in, you can get on a treadmill," said Holloway, who said his eight-year career left him with aches and pains that remain to this day.

"And if the big start for you is getting on the treadmill and going five minutes, that's a start."

Even slow weight loss, such as a pound a week, adds up, he said.

"If you can't find a reason, you take a look at your grandchildren. That's a pretty strong reason."

This story was updated to reflect the following correction: James Harrell is defensive coordinator at Plant High School.

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @rachelacrosby.

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