Keith Sims got a wake-up call -- actually, more than one.
Sims, a three-time Pro Bowl guard in the 1990s, was saddened by deaths over the past few years suffered by former Miami Dolphins teammates early in retirement. At least three of them died before they were 45 because of heart issues; and all three weighed more than 300 pounds.
But Sims, who tipped the scales at 375, finally was spurred to action two years ago when Harry Galbreath, a standout guard who Sims said "struggled to get his weight up for the line so much that he had to eat breakfast just to get to 275 pounds each day," died at age 45 of a heart attack. Galbreath weighed 396 pounds.
"It was terrifying," Sims said.
Now 45 himself, Sims is nearly unrecognizable after lap-band surgery. He has lost more than 100 pounds and is reaching out as a spokesman for the newly created NFL Retired Players Heart Obesity Prevention Education and Referral Program.
The program was initiated by Dr. Henry Buchwald, professor emeritus of surgery and biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota, and his former Columbia University classmate Dr. Arthur Roberts, Founder of Living Heart foundation in Red Bank, N.J.
Buchwald, 80, said they were inspired by their love of sports and their concern for former players who were encouraged to play at heavy weights and were unable to shed that weight upon retirement. Roberts' expertise in advanced, mobile methods for cardiovascular screening paired with Buchwald's expertise on obesity and bariatric surgery allowed them to get the wheels in motion.
The program is expected to begin this fall in Florida. It aims to establish regional programs and centers for retired players to undergo a health assessments.
"Obesity leads to heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, herniated disks, gallstones, fatty livers. It's associated with cancer of the thyroid, pancreas, gull bladder, liver, prostate, colon," Buchwald said.
"We've come to a group in our society that is at much more risk because some of them, not all of them, though, put on a lot of weight after their career or are obese because they've been asked to put on a lot of weight during their career."
Sims gained 60 pounds following his career.
"I was one of those people that was on a flight and told that I needed two seats," he said.
Last year, Roberts and Sims met through a NFL Player Care Foundation spokesperson. They spoke about the program and ways Sims could help. He decided to take a more hands-on approach as a mentor.
"When players want to know what works and what doesn't work, how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, how to maintain your weight, what to do, if surgery is for them and how to determine that, I can help them figure that out," Sims said.
"I've been there before. I can sit down with somebody, a former player, and provide them with someone to talk to, someone who identifies with the fear they have, the pain they go through."
The NFL Retired Players Association and NFL Player's Union are other partners in the program, which Buchwald hopes will have a universal effect.
"The Surgeon General has spoken against things. Nobody listens. Mrs. Obama speaks out about obesity to children, but nobody listens," Buchwald said. "We think that the public will listen to their heroes, their idols -- these former football players. If they come forth and say let's do something about obesity, maybe we can get a public message across to this nation."
Sims has a simple goal: "I want to be able to help former players so you don't have to turn on your news and hear about another player dying in their 40s."