Food was Matt Limegrover’s vice as he climbed the college football coaching ladder and became the Gophers offensive coordinator in 2010.
He was a 6-2, 300-pound lineman when he graduated from the University of Chicago in 1991. Once he settled into his coaching profession, he steadily started gaining about 10 pounds per year.
“I ate when I was happy, I ate when I was sad,” Limegrover said. “I ate when I was lonely, I ate when I was bored. If you put it in front of me, I was going to eat it.”
The Gophers went 3-9 in 2011, their first season running Limegrover’s offense. He also serves as the team’s offensive line coach, and the stress that year took a toll, leaving him lethargic. He went to the doctor in January 2012 and weighed in at 403 pounds.
“I was taking six, eight Advil a day, just because my joints ached,” said Limegrover, 44. “If we had practice, I’d take three or four more. I had sciatica in my lower back and my leg. I just thought this is how it’s going to be.”
Limegrover doesn’t smoke, and he’s never been much of a drinker, but he couldn’t control his weight. He had a 61-inch waist and a 22-inch neck. He suffered from sleep apnea, and the doctor warned that he was a candidate for diabetes and hypertension.
After years of failed diets, Limegrover was out of answers. He had considered gastric bypass surgery but wondered, “Does it work? Is it voodoo medicine?” He’d heard of the successes, such as TV’s Al Roker, but he’d heard of football coach Charlie Weis’ near-death experience, too.
Limegrover learned what the leading research now shows: Morbidly obese patients have far more success controlling their weight through gastric bypass surgery than they do through diet and exercise. That is, if they can adjust to the lifestyle changes that the surgery necessitates.
After visiting the HealthEast Bariatric Care unit in St. Paul, Limegrover threw himself into the preparation process, beginning in February 2012. He had the surgery May 21, 2012.
Now, nearly one year later, Limegrover weighs 235 pounds, a level he has maintained since New Year’s. He has a 42-inch waist and an 18-inch neck, and his quality of life has improved immeasurably. Instead of six Advil per day, he said he’s taken six Tylenol tablets total over the past year.
Limegrover avoided talking about his surgery publicly at first, but now he hopes his story can positively impact the lives of others. He feels like a new man.
“Being able to go play with my kids, and roll around on the floor and wrestle with my son,” Limegrover said. “Or go to the Children’s Museum, and not say, ‘You guys go ahead, I’ll watch from out here.’ ”
Limegrover and his wife, Ann, have two children, Emma (10) and T.J. (8). The whole family was seen after a Gophers football practice last month, playing softball together.
“He’s definitely not as tired,” Ann said. “He bounces out of bed in the morning and doesn’t complain. There’s that sparkle in his eye, which he’s always had, but he’s even sharper now.”
Key preparation phase
Weis had gastric bypass surgery in 2002 after winning the Super Bowl as the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator. He rushed into the surgery, went into a coma and nearly died. Those experiences are chronicled in Weis’ autobiography, “No Excuses.”
“I probably read that chapter six times,” Limegrover said. “The thing that struck me was, at minimum, this was going to be a six-month process for me as far as education, being on a monitored diet, changing my habits.
“And with [Weis], he decided to do it, and like three weeks later they had him on the table. So even if that part had gone as it’s supposed to, he had really no education to have success down the road.”
At HealthEast, Limegrover put together a thorough diet and health history. Name a diet — Atkins, South Beach, Nutrisystem, Slim Fast, Weight Watchers — and Limegrover had tried it numerous times.
“I was the typical yo-yo dieter,” he said. “I’d get on a roll, start feeling good — and life would creep back in.”
HealthEast also put Limegrover through two psychological evaluations. He met with a nutritionist three times and attended support group meetings. He also had to get the surgery cleared with his health insurance company and prove that he could go through a controlled weight-loss process before the operation.
“You talk to other people going through it, and they feel like it’s a deterrent, like they’re trying to convince you not to do [the surgery],” Limegrover said. “But what I realized was everything they were doing was an education, so you know what you’re getting into.
Limegrover came up with a mantra: “I wanted to be the best patient HealthEast has ever had.”
Fitting his schedule
The college coaching calendar has few breaks, since the offseason is filled with key recruiting windows. Limegrover knew the exact date he needed to have the surgery — May 21, 2012 — to recover in time to be at full strength in early June for head coach Jerry Kill’s football camps, which are showcases for recruits.
Limegrover didn’t just explain it to Kill. He gave the head coach a power-point presentation, explaining how the process should go.
“Matt graduated from the University of Chicago, and then he went and got his master’s degree at Northwestern,” Kill said.
“If you were going to play ‘Jeopardy,’ he’s going to win. I mean, he is a very intelligent young man.
“Anything he does, he’s going to research and make sure it’s perfect. He probably could tell you more about that surgery than the doctors can.”
Limegrover knew he needed to get down to 375 pounds so his doctor could perform the laparoscopic operation and not have to cut him open. He cut caffeine, started eating healthier snacks, began exercising and got his weight down to 351 before surgery.
At first, “I couldn’t go 20 minutes walking on the treadmill, and I couldn’t jog at all,” Limegrover said, but his stamina gradually improved.
He recovered from the surgery in time for the June camps, as he had planned. When the Gophers opened fall practice in August, he was down to 270 pounds.
Reporters noticed, but he chalked it up to diet and exercise. He didn’t want to talk publicly about the surgery. He wasn’t quite ready to claim it a success.
Whole new diet
The surgery permanently divided Limegrover’s stomach into two chambers — one large, one small. The small pouch is connected to the small intestine, bypassing the duodenum, where most calories and nutrients are absorbed.
Because Limegrover gets full so fast, he’s careful to eat proteins first — chicken, fish or beef. He drinks a protein shake for breakfast each morning, and has replaced his daily intake of seven Diet Cokes with three protein drinks.
Malnutrition is a real danger for gastric bypass patients, so Limegrover takes daily supplements of calcium and vitamins D and B12.
His job makes his new lifestyle especially challenging. No coach wants to turn down a mother’s cooking on a recruiting visit. And when recruits come to Minneapolis, the team treats them to decadent dinners and breakfast buffets.
Then there’s the constant snacking Limegrover used to do in the film room.
“On Sundays during the season, I used to stop and stock up for the week because I knew we’d be spending all our time in here,” Limegrover said. “So it’d be different kinds of chips, pretzels. It’d be stopping at Sam’s Club, getting that 5-gallon jug of the cheese balls, and I’d eat one after another.”
Those snacks have been replaced with cashews, almonds, string cheese and beef sticks for protein.
“If I have a craving for chocolate, I’ll have a couple bites,” he said. “I won’t have the whole candy bar anymore.”
Limegrover has kept up his exercise. Next month, he plans to run a 5K. His surgeon, Dr. Michael Schwartz, said he’s met his goal of becoming one of HealthEast’s best patients.
“I don’t have any magic operations,” Schwartz said. “The only thing I can do is create a tool that if he uses properly, he can control his weight. Using it properly involves choosing good foods and exercise. He’s just done beautifully with it.”
Limegrover was reluctant to tell his story at first because he figured some people would think he’d taken the easy way out or done something radical.
“In some ways it is [radical] because I can’t go back on it now,” Limegrover said. “But I don’t have any regrets.”
Actually, he does have one.
“I wish I would have had the financial means and insurance to do it 10 years ago,” he said. “I could have been a better coach, better parent, better husband, better son and better friend. Because I’m a totally different person.”
Star Tribune researcher Sandy Date contributed to this story.