Thursday, October 06, 2011

NFL Players Life Expectancy Might Be Longer Than Experts Say

(updated Sept. 2014)
There appears to be exaggeration that NFL players have a life expectancy of around 55 years, a full 21 years sooner than the average US man. The reports are alarming to say the least, and possibly misleading when you look at life spans of players from recent decades: men who played with less protective gear, less concern for head injuries and fewer rules dedicated to player's safety.

Extreme events have brought the issue center stage. Was obesity a factor in the death of 27 year old, 355 lb Korey Stringer, an offensive lineman for the Vikings who died following a heat stroke during summer practices? Or what about Hall of Famer Reggie White, who was just 43 and died of cardiac arrhythmia? Those tragedies and others got people's attention. Many articles make startling claims that life expectancy for NFL players is around 51 to 58. If you dig at all, quotes such as these are readily available:

" who play five or more years in the NFL have a life expectancy of 55... For linemen, perhaps due to their size, the life expectancy is 52." -

"...a violent sport characterized by startling low life-expectancy rates, depending on playing position, of 53 to 59." -

"While U.S. life expectancy is 77.6 years, recent studies suggest the average for NFL players is 55, 52 for linemen." -

The CFL Players Association reported this: 

"The average life expectancy for all pro football players, including all positions and backgrounds, is 55 years. Several insurance carriers say it is 51 years.”

Recognize the difference between life span and expectancy. Life span is how long people actually lived based on numbers after death. Life expectancy is how long experts think people will live, an estimate based on data and opinions. My research suggests the experts are exaggerating and raising concern for the general good of focusing on better health and a safer game (e.g. less obesity and not leading with the helmet). But shouldn't known life spans of NFL players over recent decades be taken into account when predicting life expectancy? Certainly that data must relate to today's predictions.

Football is a dangerous sport with pressures to continually be bigger, stronger and faster. Players push their bodies to the limits to make the grade at practice and in games. Many ex-players suffer from a range of ailments including concussions, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, knee/back/hip problems, neck and spinal cord issues, memory loss, dementia and other things. This report makes no intention of down-playing the physical and even emotional risks of football, especially in the NFL. I also recognize that players are larger and (often) more obese today than a few decades ago. This report only serves to offer some balance to several studies that may have exaggerated how low the life expectancy is for NFL players.

Let's factor in results of known life span with predicted life expectancy. For this study, examine the rosters from Super Bowl winners, the most battle-tested NFL players. In a random pick of three teams that represent a cross-section of America, look at the 1971 Dallas Cowboys, the 1981 San Francisco 49ers and the 1986 New York Giants. Look for a sign from these players' life spans, and presumably life expectancies, to see if today's dark picture shows up as evidence that was brewing in the past.

The 1971-72 Dallas Cowboys were champions of Super Bowl VI. Some of the famous players then and now include Roger Staubach, Calvin Hill, Dan Reeves, Mike Ditka, Bob Lilly and Charlie Waters. Of the 45 players on the roster, here are some interesting facts:
  • 4 have died, 41 are still alive. (91% are living as of Sept. 2014)
  • Average age of the 4 deceased players is 56.
  • Average age of those living, 70. 
  • Positions of deceased: Receiver, Defensive End, Linebacker, Kicker.
  • The players had a 16 year age range. Those alive are 64 to 80.
  • Average life span if every living player suddenly died today would be 69.
  • Average life span if average living player lives 10 more years would be 78.
  • Average life span for US men is 76.
  • Average weight of '71 starting Cowboys offensive line, 253 lbs. For 2014, 318 lbs (gain of 26%).
  • Average height of '71 starting offensive line, 6'4". 2014, 6'4".
The 1981-82 San Francisco 49ers were champions of Super Bowl XVI. Some of the famous players then and now include Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, Keena Turner and Ronnie Lott. Of the 45 players on the roster (not including the reserves), here are some interesting facts:
  • 3 have died, 42 are still alive. (93% are living as of Sept. 2014)
  • Average age of the 3 deceased players is 53.
  • Average age of those living, 58. 
  • Positions of deceased: Receiver, Running Back, Offensive Guard. 
  • The players had a 12 year age range. Those alive are 54 to 66.
  • Average life span if every living player suddenly died today would be 58.
  • Average life span if average living player lives about 20 more years would be 78.
  • Average life span for US men is 76.
  • Average weight of '81 49ers starting offensive line, 261 lbs. For 2014, 315 lbs (gain of 21%).
  • Average height of '81 starting offensive line, 6'4". 2014, 6'5".
The 1986-7 New York Giants were champions of Super Bowl XXI. Some of the famous players then and now include Phil Simms, Joe Morris, Mark Bavaro, Lawrence Taylor, Pepper Johnson and Jim Burt. Of the 47 players on the roster (not counting the 5 punter-kickers), here are some interesting facts:
  • 1 has died, 46 are still alive. (98% are living as of Sept. 2014)
  • Position of deceased: Receiver.
  • The players have a 13 year age range of 48 to 61.
  • Average current age is 53.
  • Average weight of '86 Giants starting offensive line, 270 lbs. For 2014, 308 lbs (gain of 14%).
  • Average height of '86 starting offensive line, 6'4". 2014, 6'4".
Players from the recent past appear to have a close to normal life expectancy. Since height has stayed the same over the years, the thing responsible for recent concern is the increase in weight. Remember, some of that gain must be muscle while much appears to be fat. Since we know offensive linemen are the group with the most concern--I see no need to discuss many other positions, especially the speed positions like wide-receiver and secondary (other than to say I can't believe a wide-receiver or secondary player in the NFL is expected on average to only live to 58). If offensive linemen of 2014 are approximately 14-26% heavier than the men of the 70's and 80's, perhaps a quarter of that extra weight is muscle. It's a rough estimate, but perhaps the linemen today are about 10-20% fatter than they were 15 years ago and about 10% more muscular.

If players are roughly 10-20% fatter, are they really predicted to miss about 20 years of life? What about the prospects of losing weight, like Mark Schlereth, an offensive lineman from 1989 to 2000 for three Super Bowl Champions (twice with Broncos, once with Redskins)? Schlereth played around 287 lbs but now weighs 230 lbs at age 48. He looks fantastic, like he'll be alive far beyond 10 or 20 years from now.

It appears the main way to fulfill the 55 year life expectancy, is to not lose any weight after retirement and even to add more, which men commonly do as they age. This is an opinionated scenario, especially in a time with ever increased public awareness and scrutiny for good health habits. Perhaps this is my main beef with the recent studies, the perceived assumption that bad habits will remain and good health habits won't come into play.

Skeptics of my rational will immediately point out the time-lines involved, that even at the high school level today many players tip the 300 lb mark. In the 70's and 80's, NFL players over 300 lbs were rare. Today, nearly every NFL offensive lineman is over 300 lbs, many NFL defensive linemen are as well, and so are some high school players. This creates a longer time-line of obesity along with a more difficult job of losing the weight later; all of which are tougher on the heart and vital body organs.

Another example of a recently retired lineman with many eyes watching is Tony Siragusa (pictured right), who played 12 seasons as a defensive lineman and is now 47. His weight when he played was notoriously around 350 lbs. I haven't found stats on his weight since, but he appears not to have lost as much as Schlereth. Siragusa may likely become a poster boy for this entire issue. We'll wish him the best on that.

Nate Newton is another player who comes to mind. It's reported Newton weighed as much as 400 pounds before "vertical gastrectomy" was performed to surgically remove weight. He's currently around 220 lbs at age 52, and probably increased his odds at living to be 76 by a huge amount. This brings another question into the mix; how might modern medicine and procedures of the future affect weight loss? What if nutritionists develop fat-eating enzymes that can go through our bodies eating excessive fat and leaving us far healthier in a matter of weeks or months? Sounds like science fiction, but it might not be too far away with modern medical breakthroughs.

Clearly it's the rise in obesity rates, especially with linemen, that have the experts concerned. I believe they're painting a darker picture than what reality likely is, thinking it's in the best interest of people to take a hard look at a dangerous trend in football. If their dire predictions are true, then we should see players from the 80's dying off in bunches very soon, men in their late 50's and 60's who weren't much thinner than today's players and had fewer rules for physical safety.

Other questions that we're not getting to--what about athletes like basketball stars, Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis, people in perfect shape who died in the prime of their careers from heart related issues? What about sumo wrestlers in Japan who reportedly live to be mid-sixties with even higher rates of obesity than offensive linemen and are encouraged to drink heavily to gain all that weight? And perhaps most importantly, what about all the health benefits of playing football, which include a lifetime of consistent exercise, stretching and increased attention (now more than ever) for taking care of the body? Might those benefits balance some of the risks?

We recently saw the passing of famous football greats, Deacon Jones (74), Alex Karass (77) and Pat Summerall (82). These legends had an average of 78 years between them. Not bad for men who played without as much protective gear, concern for head injuries or refs and rules dedicated to player's safety.

Admittedly, I'm just someone willing to do basic research to satisfy a personal curiosity. NFL football players may live abnormal lives, but recent decades have shown they live fairly normal life spans as a whole. Do many of them have complications from years of playing a physically demanding and punishing sport? Of course. Do many of them, especially linemen, show an abnormal increase in weight gain over the past decades that is a health concern? Of course, that's also true. But that's not the only point of this article. The point is this: it seems hard to quantify that NFL players have a life expectancy of just 51 to 58, with linemen being around 52. That appears to be a gross exaggeration not supported by recent decades, even if it's for a good cause.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.

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  1. Anonymous8:33 PM

    Its a ridiculous study and a waste of time...not you, mind you...the university studies. What they don't tell you in the media, is what you researched yourself...what caused the deaths of the players and the percentage of those players who are currently still alive and their age. If they released that info, how would they justify the thousands of dollars they asked the government for to fund their research?? Just another media scare tactic...

  2. Thanks for this great comment, Eric. I agree with you, and I hope these current linemen (and NFL players in general) live to be much older than those government paid statistics predict.

  3. Scott-538:28 AM

    Thanks for some actual facts instead of propaganda.
    Here are a few more according to Centers for Disease Control.

    Life expectancy for Males = 76.0
    Hispanic Males = 78.7
    White Males = 76.3
    Black Males = 70.7

    1. Nice points, Scott.

    2. Matt Burke dropped a massive amount weight after retiring...looks half the man he used to be, but will probably live long and prosper!

  4. I agree with you. I looked up the top 25 list of NFL wide receivers, and then looked them up on Wikipedia. Several were in their 60s and 70s,and only one died, at the ripe old age of 84. So, I think your hypothesis is right, expectancy is off, and obesity is playing a large role.

  5. Also, check out this site:

  6. You have a coupe things right. That you are not a statistician and that your methods are not nearly as complex as those employed by real statisticians who know about the pitfalls of thinking statistics are as straightforward as they seem. You seem to have problems with expectancy projections and the "opinions" of the institutions that perform them, then you go on to cherry pick very small amounts of data that support your claim and assert your opinions about what we should really expect. You dont even address the formulas you have problems with and show why they are inadequate. On what grounds would you think you are on to something that they missed? Because you can look up a tiny fraction of the same statistics they use? Your way is more arbitrary, more opinionated, and less based in science. A case, all too common these days (people have access to numbers so they think that makes them statisticians), of wild misunderstanding and subsequent misuse of statistics.

    1. I didn't cherry-pick anything to support my data of NFL player's life spans. I picked the rosters of 3 Super Bowl winning teams that represent a cross-section of America and a range of appropriate ages: the 1971 Dallas Cowboys, the 1981 San Francisco 49ers, and the 1986 New York Giants. All of these teams have players who are headed for near average life spans.

      If you have data to support the claim that NFL players have life spans averaging between 51 to 58 years, please share your data.

  7. You totally missed the root cause of rising obesity rates...... 30% of former NFL players have had 5 OR MORE orthopedic surgeries. Schlareth dropped weight because he didn't need to replace both knees and both elbows. Weight gain is a side effect, not a lifestyle choice.

    But great job at being a shitty wanna lbe statistician for the day. You even insinuate that PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES ARE LAZY... but maybe they'll get healthy upon retirement....?!

    "the perceived assumption that bad habits will remain and good health habits won't come into play."