The questions were light and tinged with a little nervous laughter, a little trepidation, once the media entered the Eagles’ locker room Wednesday at the NovaCare Complex. So it goes when five of the largest players on the team — each of them at least 6-foot-4 and 284 pounds — allow themselves to be photographed naked for a national magazine.
The “Body Issue” of ESPN the Magazine, the final issue in the publication’s history, had come out earlier in the day. NHL star Evander Kane, Icelandic crosstrainer Katrin Davidsdottir, women’s basketball icon Nancy Lieberman: They and others posed as their mommas made ’em. The only group shots in the magazine featured the Eagles’ offensive linemen: tackles Lane Johnson and Halapoulivaati Vaiti, guards Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo, and center Jason Kelce. There they were in the first of three two-page spreads, hoisting red solo cups in front of a Winnebago as if they were tailgating, plastic Eagles masks affixed around their waists and covering their groin areas to ensure no offensive birds would be on display.
Brooks said he hadn’t told his mother about the shoot; she found out about it at work, when her colleagues brought it up to her. “My mom was like, ‘It kind of would have been nice to have a heads up,’ ” he said. Kelce was asked which image had garnered a greater reaction: his resplendent purple-and-green Mummers costume during the Eagles’ Super Bowl parade or his unclothed body?
“The Mummers,” he said.
Just because of the context?
“Yeah, and it’s not that surprising that I’d be naked.”
The questions and answers had that same tone and content for most of the 45 minutes of the availability, and that wasn’t surprising, either. You had to strain to see the serious point that the photos helped to make, and their nature — and the nature of how we in the media do our jobs most of the time these days — made it easy to miss that point. The photos were a ready-made story for the day, quick content, and it sure looked funny to see those five giants, their abs and hips cushioned by doughy rolls of fat, on the same pages as the gymnast and the sprinter and the UFC fighter — although, Kelce said, not everyone found the photos so innocent.
“Yeah,” he said, “especially some people who are homophobic or just against that kind of provocative, lustful nature — if that’s how they take it. I think it would be hard to take those pictures as lustful, but …
“I don’t really get too caught up in that. You’re always [ticking] somebody off in this world. I thought it was a fun experience to show the bodies of maybe the lesser-known athletes who aren’t 4% body fat. I think it’s a unique breed of athlete on the offensive line. We’re built differently than a lot of other major athletes.”
And it was there that Kelce touched on the photos’ genuine insight. It has been said before, but it is worth repeating: Until you have been on the sideline of an NFL practice or game, it is difficult to understand and/or appreciate how big these men are, how fast they move, how much power they generate and damage they wreak when they crash into each other. It is stunning and frightening and revealing, and if you really understood it or appreciated it, you would think twice before doubting the toughness of anyone who plays professional football, whether he’s a backup linebacker or a franchise quarterback or a wee little placekicker.
Here’s the thing, though: No one collides more than the biggest men on the field, the linemen — on every snap, for 60 snaps a game, at least 16 games each season, for as many seasons as they can take, sometimes more than they can take. So how do they gird themselves for that punishment? How do they build and maintain their bodies so that they excel in their sport and still protect themselves as best as they can? Look at those five men. Those photos tell the story.
“It’s beneficial to be like that for that position,” Kelce said. “I think that in most sports, outside of golf and maybe some other things, it benefits you to be in the best shape possible, to be portrayed with minimal body fat, on your diet, as a watchful athlete. On the offensive line, although you can’t just be eating anything, it directly benefits you to be heavy, especially if your frame can handle it. So the heavier you can be while still maintaining a generally quick and explosive frame, it’s going to be beneficial to have those extra pounds and look like that. ‘Force equals mass times acceleration’ is a proven law of physics, right?”