Obesity Surgery Puts Ex-Football Star Back in Play At 53, former USC running back Anthony Davis knew he'd lost control of his body. Life got in the way of keeping in shape, he says and dieting wasn't working. So he turned to gastric bypass surgery. He's since lost the pounds, but the toughest months may still be ahead.
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Obesity Surgery Puts Ex-Football Star Back in Play

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Obesity Surgery Puts Ex-Football Star Back in Play

Obesity Surgery Puts Ex-Football Star Back in Play

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Rene Montagne. Good morning.

In your health, obesity surgery and one former pro-athlete struggle with weight. Anthony Davis is best remembered for his days as a running back for the USC Trojans in the early 1970s, when he scored 11 touchdowns in three games against top rival Notre Dame.

ABC's Keith Jackson called one of those games.

(Soundbite of television broadcast)

Mr. KEITH JACKSON (Announcer): Hayden pitches the ball to Anthony Davis on a sweep to the right side. He's in there. Oh, I tell you, that Anthony Davis is a nightmare for Notre Dame. In this ballgame today he's scored 26 points.

MONTAGNE: That performance is considered legendary, and last weekend Davis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. But 30 years later, Anthony Davis' post-football lifestyle has taken its toll on his health.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.


When Anthony Davis got word last year that he had been nominated to the College Football Hall of Fame, he says two emotions sprang forth: elation at the thought of being honored, and complete anxiety, knowing that he no longer looked or felt much like an athlete.

Mr. ANTHONY DAVIS (Former Football Player): I lost control of my body. I have. I don't like weighing 260, 265, and escalating up to 300, because I should be 190, 185.

AUBREY: His play weight back in college. But getting back has been tough. There've been financial troubles and raising his daughter as a single parent.

Mr. DAVIS: When I think back on it, I think that is what really happened in terms of me losing control of everything.

AUBREY: The stress of life.

Mr. DAVIS: The stress, the stress of life.

AUBREY: Time for exercise seemed to disappear. Davis says as the weight piled on, it led to sleep apnea, diabetes, gout and the frustration of not being able to bend over easily to tie his shoe.

But he says early last year, his resolve kicked in. The sudden death of former NFL player Reggie White, who also suffered with weight and sleep apnea, hit him hard.

Mr. DAVIS: The fact that he was 43 years old, I'm 53, ten years older, and he passed away like that. I had a wake-up call with that.

AUBREY: Dieting brought off some weight. Then, last March, Davis opted for a more drastic step: bariatric surgery, suggested by a friend who promotes the procedure.

In early March, he went under anesthesia at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. And he agreed to let those promoters pay for part of the surgery and Webcast it as form of direct-to-consumer marketing.

Surgeon Alan Wittgrove performed the 50-minute procedure. He also advises the promotion group. In the operating room, Wittgrove's job was to craft a tiny, half-ounce-sized stomach for Davis. The first step was to divide the stomach into two parts.

Dr. ALAN WITTGROVE (Surgeon): This is the place where all bariatric surgeons kind of hold their breath a little bit.

AUBREY: It's a critical moment, where Wittgrove is connecting the new pouch directly to the small intestine.

Dr. WITTGROVE: This is the most important hookup and so we like to have this go nice and smoothly.

AUBREY: A few hours later, Davis was awake and alert and Wittgrove tells him it will be weeks before he has much of an appetite. It turns out the surgery temporarily cuts off the stomach's production of ghrelin, a powerful hormone that serves as a signal for hunger.

For Davis, the combination of the small appetite and a tiny stomach has led very quickly to significant weight loss. When we telephoned him in July, he was down almost 75 pounds.

Mr. DAVIS: I got my life back. I got a lot more energy, and that's the key.

AUBREY: Davis says his neck size has shrunk from a 22 down to 16 1/2, his waist from 48 to 34.

Mr. DAVIS: I mean I lost weight in my head. I mean, I went down a hat size.

AUBREY: His blood-sugar tests are normal, and his sleep apnea has improved significantly. Davis is now back to work full time. Two weeks ago, we reached him on his cell phone at the construction site he's managing in L.A.

Mr. DAVIS: What I do in the construction business, I'm on my feat all day and I'm walking.

AUBREY: Davis says for the first time in 15 years, he's starting to feel like he really is that guy the sports commentators remember. He says the peace of mind offsets the inconveniences, the food restrictions, having to swap larger cuts of meat for thin slices of sirloin steak.

Mr. DAVIS: And I cut it up real good and then I, you know, I have small portions and I chew, chew, chew.

AUBREY: If the food is soft and easy to digest, he can eat, for instance, two scrambled eggs in 20 minutes. Then he snacks throughout the day: pinto beans and tomatoes, or avocadoes. Occasionally, if he eats rich food, or eats too quickly, there's trouble.

He had an episode recently when he tried a heavy noodle dish.

Mr. DAVIS: What happens to you, you go into cold sweats. You get pale, you sweat, you know, and it's awful. It's a tough experience.

AUBREY: But it only lasts an hour or so.

Davis knows the toughest days may be ahead. In many cases, gastric bypass patients start getting back a serious appetite about six months after surgery.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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