Former football player changed diet, life

lwertz@charlotteobserver.comOctober 12, 2013 

Zach Bevilacqua had a dream of playing college football. But, as a 6-foot-1, 235-pound freshman at Butler High in 1998, he figured he was not nearly big enough.

So Bevilacqua changed his diet. To gain weight, he ate about 5,000 calories a day, more than twice the recommended amount. A typical lunch was three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two or three snack cakes, two bags of chips and two or three apples. He washed it down with a couple of 32-ounce Gatorades.

Bevilacqua was only interested in playing college football. His self image would come to be built around being known as “Big Zach,” the football star who went on to play at Elon. He also never stopped gaining weight, until finally he realized that what he had become could possibly kill him.

Bevilacqua, now 29, said he never considered his future health when he started his quest to gain size. No coach ever pressured him to get bigger, he says. But at Butler High School in Matthews, just outside Charlotte, he wanted to get as big as he could, as fast as he could to get the attention of college scouts.

By hitting the weight room hard and increasing his daily caloric intake with heavy lunches, trips to the buffet and plenty of fast food, Bevilacqua gained 30 pounds before his sophomore year began.

Bevilacqua started at defensive end as a freshman on varsity and at offensive tackle as a sophomore. By his senior year, he was 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, 60 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman. He played offensive guard and was named all-state and to the Shrine Bowl team.

He hoped to go to N.C. State or Clemson, but ended up with a scholarship at Elon University.

He didn’t do much conditioning work after his senior high school football season ended. He arrived at Elon at 325 pounds. His coaches wanted him to be about 25 pounds less. He was red-shirted, then was starting by his third season before a shoulder injury ended his playing career.

He became an offensive assistant coach at Elon – and he kept eating the way he had since he was a freshman in high school.

“It was the lifestyle I was used to,” he said.

After college, Bevilacqua and his wife had a second child. He started coaching high school, first at West Lincoln, then at North Lincoln. He was up to more than 400 pounds and he knew he was too big. But he was known by everyone as “Big Zach,” and he liked the way that felt.

“When I would walk into the room,” he said, “people would say, ‘Did you play college ball?’ That was who I thought I was. It was my identity.”

By January 2012, nearly a decade after he last played football, Bevilacqua was 408 pounds. His blood pressure and his cholesterol were dangerously high.

His doctor told him things had to change. He was putting his life at risk.

“From the time I was in college on, I had been battling high blood pressure and I was big and I knew I was big,” Bevilacqua said. “I laid in bed at night and started thinking, ‘Man, 10 years ago, I was playing college football. Ten years from now, I could be dead from a heart attack.’

“I started thinking about that and the fact I had two kids and my wife was pregnant with a third. I’m going, ‘Ten years from now, my kids could have no dad because of the decisions I made.’”

Bevilacqua began to change his diet the next day. He eventually started running. He felt better so he kept going. He stopped eating between meals. One meal was a salad. Snacks went from potato chips to granola bars. Bevilacqua gave up red meat for chicken and fish.

By April 2012, four months after his lifestyle change, Bevilacqua had dropped 30 pounds. By November, it was 100. By this spring, he had lost 140.

Today, he’s lost nearly 160 pounds. He’s 6-foot-3 and 242, a little taller but about the same weight he was when he came to Butler High as a freshman. He coaches offensive linemen at West Rowan High and he hears familiar stories about players wanting to bulk up. He’s realistic with them, he said.

“I tell them you can’t be a lineman the rest of your life,” he said. “You can’t eat 5,000 calories per day and go to Cook-Out and McDonald’s twice a day. Find a way to get the weight off.

“Players ask me how I did it. I tell them discipline and not eating and lifting the way I had done before. It’s more cardio and eating better. Football is so short, man, and life, hopefully, can be so much longer than that.”

Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr

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