Though at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds he’s as sturdy as a frigate, there were times this football season when Navy’s senior guard Chris Gesell wished he’d had a little more ballast in the beam.
“An extra 10-15 pounds would have been nice,” said Gesell, who will be ending his football career in Saturday’s 119th Army-Navy Game at Lincoln Financial Field. “There were games when I was outweighed by 40 pounds. Tulane’s nose guard was 320. Tulsa and Temple had guys who were about 330.”
It’s been more than 50 years since a service-academy team has seriously competed for a national title. One significant reason is that as Division I players have grown Brobdingnagian – the NCAA says the averages for offensive and defensive linemen, respectively, are 297 and 270 -- Navy and Army remain at a sizable size disadvantage.
To allow for the physical demands of military life and the constraints of the submarines, tanks and fighter jets their graduates will occupy, both Army and Navy have long employed height and weight restrictions.
“Leadership and physical fitness go hand in hand,” reads the Midshipmen’s Physical Fitness Assessment policy.
At Annapolis, certain athletes are permitted to deviate from the weight standards during their careers, but none can graduate until they’ve met them. According to academy guidelines, the maximum weight for a 6-foot male is 201 pounds, 231 for those who are 6-6. (Army did not provide its standards but a spokesperson said they were similar to Navy’s.)
That presents a huge dilemma for offensive linemen who, having spent four years chowing down and bulking up to maintain muscle and weight, must within the span of a few months in their senior years slim down considerably.
Navy’s O-line, for example, though one inch and 13 pounds below Division I norms, averages 6-3, 285 pounds. To comply with the academy’s height-weight regulations, a 6-3 Midshipman can weigh no more than 216.
As a result, it’s not the prospect of maritime battles that most concerns Gesell as the future naval-warship officer prepares for his final few months in Annapolis. Instead, it’s visions of the dieting and long-distance runs, the pizza-less study sessions that await him when bowl-ineligible Navy’s season ends Saturday.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve seen what the older guys have had to do once football season is over,” Gesell said this week. “At lunch we normally eat whatever food is there, burgers or whatever. But these guys had a little salad and maybe a chicken breast and that’s all they could eat.
“I think I’m going to struggle with that,” he said.
The weight requirements are part of Navy’s Physical Readiness Test. According to its guidelines, Gesell will have to drop 69 pounds in the next few months or, failing that, reduce his percentage of body fat to the 22 percent limit.
“It’s been on my mind and I’ve been worried – maybe anxious is a better word -- as that time nears,” Gesell said. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work.”
Despite a muscle- and weight-building regimen of weightlifting and the unlimited buffet at King Hall, Gesell has held his high-school weight during four years at Navy. His senior offensive linemate, tackle Andrew Wood (6-4, 300), has dropped 10 pounds since entering.
Now, with the assistance of the academy’s coaches, trainers and dieticians, their will-power will be tested further. After Saturday’s game, the two seniors will begin the switch to far fewer calories and far more distance-running. Gesell plans to drop 40-some pounds by graduation, while Wood said he needed to lose 70.
They can fall short of those goals, said Lt. Austin Clouse, the officer in charge of administering the PRT, as long as their body fat is at or below 22 percent.
“That’s the highest body fat allowed at the academy for males,” said Clouse.
Then, to complete the PRT, they must also perform 65 sit-ups in two minutes, 45 push-ups in the same time and finish a 1 ½ mile run in under 10 minutes, 30 seconds.
“The coaches and strength coaches they have do a great job in helping them get their weight down safely as well as getting them back in shape to pass the 1 ½-mile run,” said Clouse.
Actually, football players, like every member of the Brigade, are required to take and pass PRTs each semester. But certain athletes -- football linemen, heavyweight wrestlers, shot-putters – typically are granted weight waivers and allowed to substitute a bike ride for the run.
“We don’t want to put a lot of undue stress on the joints of these big guys by making them run distances,” said Clouse. “While they’re at the academy, they have to take that PRT twice a year, so rather than them yo-yoing their weight, we allow them to apply for a waiver every semester.”
But for seniors like Gesell and Wood, the waivers will end and the diets and distance-running will begin when they return to the academy following the Army game.
“I’ve been selected to be a Navy pilot so I’ve got to get down to at least 230 pounds,” said Wood, who has started every game the last three seasons. “I’ve got a plan. I’ll start cutting down on my food, and changing my workout to more endurance training.”
Neither Gesell nor Wood, an all-state performer as a junior and senior at Friendship Christian in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., said they were initially deterred by the restrictions. But many other recruits have been.
Since smaller players guarantee that Navy will be undersized against most of its opponents, coach Ken Niumatalolo’s offense has relied on speed, shiftiness and a relentless running game. In each of the last six seasons, Navy -- along with Army and Air Force - has ranked among the top four Division I schools in rushing attempts per game.
“Because we’re smaller, we play differently,” said Gesell. “Our style of play, coming off the ball low and fast, is something teams aren’t used to. Firing off the ball the way we do works to our advantage. Not a lot of teams see that.”
Gesell, the son of a Navy pilot, also was recruited by Yale, Air Force and San Diego State. He said he learned about Navy’sweight restrictions during his recruiting visit to Annapolis.
“It happened to be the day of the football banquet in 2015,” he said. “I saw Jake Zuzek [a standout lineman from West Catholic who graduated that spring] and he had already dropped like 25 pounds. I knew it was something I was going to eventually have to do too. Actually, I thought it was kind of cool.”
Zuzek, who played at 325, lost nearly 70 pounds in the three months between his final Army-Navy game and graduation. A Marine officer, he’s lost even more since.
“[Having to pass the PRT} was a blessing,” Zuzek said in 2016. “You see these O-linemen who don’t make it to the NFL and they just blow up. They’re eating the same but no longer working out. This helps us make our lives healthier.”
Besides, while a 310-pound Wood will be better-equipped to take on Army’s defensive line Saturday, he’d never have fit into the cockpit of an F-18 come this summer.