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Associated Press Modified: January 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm •  Published: January 28, 2011
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Rob Reischel contributed reporting from Green Bay, Wis.

c.2011 New York Times News Service@

When B.J. Raji intercepted a pass and shimmied in the end zone Sunday, helping to put Green Bay into the Super Bowl, the feat was remarkable given that Raji is a nose tackle and, at 337 pounds, is thought to be the largest player to score a postseason touchdown in NFL history.

Forty-four years ago, when the Packers won Super Bowl I, their largest players weighed 260 pounds. As Green Bay prepares to face Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, 13 players on the Packers' active roster weigh 300 or more pounds, reflecting a trend over the past several decades in which players have become as supersized as fast-food meals.

In 1970, only one NFL player weighed as much as 300 pounds, according to a survey conducted by The Associated Press. That number has expanded like players' waistlines from three 300-pounders in 1980 to 94 in 1990, 301 in 2000, 394 in 2009 and 532 as training camps began in 2010.

On one hand, the largest players are celebrated for their strength, spry athleticism and beer-belly physiques that give them an Everyman quality.

On the other hand, the enormousness of many players, and the recent deaths of one active lineman and several relatively young retired linemen, have raised questions — and brought conflicting answers — about potential health risks associated with their size.

Various studies indicate that current NFL players are at a greater risk than the general population for high blood pressure and that retired players are more prone to obesity, sleep apnea and metabolic syndrome: conditions like elevated blood pressure, insulin and cholesterol levels and excessive body fat around the waist that together heighten the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Retired linemen have been linked to higher mortality rates than the general public.

"I just can't see how they can be healthy," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus of health policy at Penn State. "Yes, some may be 280 pounds of muscle, but then they carry 40 pounds of fat. It just overworks your heart. It puts a strain on your joints. You have the whole issue of concussive injuries.

''It all adds up to things that are not good for your health, but it makes for a good carnival atmosphere when you see the behemoths out there."

A 1994 study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that retired players had a lower mortality rate over all than did the general population, but that former offensive and defensive linemen had a 52 percent higher rate of death from cardiovascular disease. Since then, the players have only grown larger; the average NFL weight is now 252 pounds.

A 2005 study by the University of North Carolina found that more than a quarter of the NFL's players fit the category of Class II obesity, which is between moderate and morbidly obese. A 2006 survey by Scripps Howard newspapers of the deaths of 3,850 professional pro football players over the past century found that the heaviest players were more than twice as likely as lighter players to have died before their 50th birthdays.

The NFL disputed the methodologies of the North Carolina study and the Scripps Howard study. A 2009 study of 504 active players, funded by the league and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicated that during their careers, players, on the whole, did not appear to be at a greater risk of heart disease than other men their age.

The study said that NFL players had similar cholesterol levels and healthier blood-sugar levels and were less likely to smoke than the general population. Black players did not show higher cardiovascular risk than white players. The study did find, though, a higher likelihood over all of elevated blood pressure and borderline hypertension.

"The question is, if you are an elite athlete, can you be healthy at 300 or 350 pounds?" said Dr. Robert A. Vogel, a cardiologist and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a co-chairman of the NFL's subcommittee on cardiovascular health. "The simple answer is, being physically active is unquestionably a deterrent to the problems associated with weight. Having said that, are you at higher risk being a 350-pound lineman than a 210-pound quarterback? Yes."

Another 2009 study, published in The American Journal of Cardiology, found that retired NFL players had significantly lower occurrences of diabetes, hypertension, sedentary lifestyles and metabolic syndrome than did non-athletes.

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