Bernard Owens enrolled at Garner High in 2009 with dreams of playing college football.
A defensive lineman, he was 5-foot-10 and weighed 250 pounds.
Mike Sutton arrived at Panther Creek the same year with the same dream. An offensive lineman, he was 6-1, 215 pounds.
Owens and Sutton knew two things:
They had to get better, and they had to get bigger.
So over the next four years they lifted tons of weights, ran hundreds of miles and made the same decision.
They decided, as have thousands of other young football players, that one of the keys to having a chance to play college football was to gain weight.
Combining challenging workouts with calorie-laden diets, Owens and Sutton each put on nearly 90 pounds during their high school careers.
“I really didn’t think I had a choice about gaining weight. I knew I had to get bigger and stronger if I wanted to start at Garner,” Owens said. “I wanted to get bigger, stronger and faster. If I did, the other guys would be smaller, weaker and slower.”
Mike Guerrero, the Garner certified athletics trainer, said he stresses proper nutrition with the players.
“But truthfully, if a player is adding muscle and is getting bigger and stronger and faster, I wouldn’t tell him he needs to lose weight,” Guerrero said. “Bigger isn’t bad. Fatter is.”
Guerrero tells his students in athletic training class that people are like balloons, they can only get so big.
“Some people can carry more weight than others,” he said. “We encourage the kids to get stronger and more healthy. We stress that they don’t need to get any fatter.”
At the end of Owens’ sophomore football season in 2010, Garner lost a playoff game 40-21 to Wake Forest-Rolesville, which had eliminated Garner from the playoffs the year before with a 42-8 win.
Wake Forest’s offensive front was anchored by 295-pound Dylan Intemann (now one of 12 300-pounders on the Wake Forest University roster) and 275-pound Ryan Doyle (now one of eight 300-pounders on the University of Maryland roster).
“We were destroyed by them,” Owens said. “They physically beat us. We came back determined to get bigger and stronger. We were not going to be physically beaten again.”
He lifted weights and became one of the club’s strongest players. Then-assistant and now head coach Thurman Leach, who could bench press close to 600 pounds in his prime, worked with the players in the weight room.
“He’d tell us to push that iron,” Owens recalled.
Owens worked hard and ate hard. He packed in the calories, working at a fast food restaurant and eating lots of peanut butter sandwiches. “That will put the weight on you,” he said.
He went from 250 as a freshman, to 275 as a sophomore, to 300 as a junior and to 330 as a senior.
Bulking up paid off for Owens’ Garner team, which went to the state finals in 2011 and to the semifinals in 2012.
‘I ate a lot’
Rose Sutton wasn’t concerned about her son Mike’s desire to put on weight.
Mike Sutton wasn’t getting fat, he was “getting bigger and stronger,” she said.
“He didn’t eat junk food or fill up on potato chips or ice cream,” Rose Sutton said.
“I ate a lot,” Mike Sutton said. “I’d eat anything and everything. I went to five meals a day. What would be a meal for somebody else was a snack for me.”
Sutton, the Panther Creek lineman, said he knew he needed to get to the 300-pound range if he wanted to play on a major college football team as a lineman.
“All I had to do was look at a college roster,” he said. “I knew I wanted to play college football. I have been a good size for my whole life, but not that big for an offensive lineman in college. No one had to tell me. Just you look at any major college roster. You need to be 285, 300 pounds or bigger.”
Sutton said he attacked the dinner table.
He avoided fast foods, relying on his mother to keep the plates coming. “My mom is a great cook. My dad is close to 300 pounds and I’d eat double what he did. I ate a lot of food, a lot of pasta,” he said.
Rose Sutton prepared large meals, including her own recipes for sausage-filled lasagna and spaghetti. Pasta dishes are Mike Sutton’s favorite and often after a big dinner she would find her son snacking on chicken breasts. She would pick out the biggest steaks and split one with her husband while Mike ate all of his and a big serving of potatoes.
“If we had chicken, I’d have one breast and my husband would have one and Mike would have three,” she said. “And many times he’d have a snack around 9 o’clock. I’d go in the kitchen and he’d be eating chicken breast. But he never has eaten much junk food.”
Sutton grew steadily, packing on 15 pounds during his freshman year to reach 230. He was 260 pounds as a sophomore and 280 entering the summer of his senior year. He played football at 295 pounds, although he would lose about 20 pounds within weeks of the end of football so that he could wrestle at 285 pounds.
“It wasn’t too difficult. I would just cut down on what I was eating,” he said. “I was able to cut the weight pretty easily.”
Owens and Sutton said they never had had a coach tell them to gain weight. Coaches talked about getting stronger, and the athletics trainers at their schools stressed proper nutrition and hard work in the weight room.
“Mike was a special case because he had his own trainers and his father was big,” said Wayne Bragg, Sutton’s coach and now the athletics director at Green Hope High. “I told him and his father that Mike really needed to make sure he was keeping his ability and flexibility.”
Carrying the weight
The high school careers of Owens and Sutton are over.
Sutton gained more than 85 pounds and weighed 310 pounds as a senior. His Panther Creek teams had mixed success, with a high of 13 wins in 2010 and just one win last season. His dedication and his academic work, plus his diet, paid off, however.
He was offered and accepted an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo, where he was recruited to play football.
Sutton, who plans to major in aerospace engineering, wants to lose weight as soon as he completes his football career.
“I don’t want to be this big forever,” he said. “I’m not concerned about losing it. I feel like I can lose it. A lot of it is muscle.”
Owens added 90 pounds during his career and grew another couple of inches, to 6-foot.
Since the Trojans’ 2012 season ended with a 14-8 loss to Fayetteville Jack Britt in the state semifinals in November, Owens has gained another 10 pounds.
“I don’t look that big. I have a lot of muscle. I’m like a big Teddy Bear to the girls,” he said.
In the fall, he enrolled at Wake Tech, which does not have a football team.
At 340 pounds, Owens still wants to play college football.