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    Posted April 22, 2011 by
    Tuscaloosa, Alabama
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Your 'Aha' weight-loss moments

    How football and unemployment saved my life


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     willnevin said, "If I can change my entire life in 11 months, what can't I accomplish?"
    - meaganchoi, CNN iReport producer

    The single moment that changed my life happened on a gloriously sunny stretch of lonesome West Texas highway.


    Two friends, my wife and I were on our way to Pasadena, Calif. to see  the BCS National Championship game. Our team (and presumably the Lord’s  team),  the Alabama Crimson Tide, was taking on the University of Texas  Longhorns for the ultimate honor in college football. Since we were  impoverished students without the good sense to plan ahead for the  possibility the Tide would make the big game, we were driving from  Alabama to California, a journey of some 2,000 miles across America. We  planned the trip in chunks — driving from Tuscaloosa to Austin,  Austin to Truth or Consequences, N.M. to stay with my wife’s  grandparents and from New Mexico on to Pasadena. Drive for a day. Crash  for a night. Press on. A simple plan that was cheap enough for us to afford.


    It was the second day of the trip when it happened. I was driving,  behind the wheel of my big blue F-150 supercrew truck with one friend  riding shotgun and another in the back seat with my wife. It was bright  as hell, like some strange meteorological confluence above the skies of  Texas made it impossible for clouds to form. I was a bit bleary after  the night before, and I had a nagging lack of sleep. The sun and all of its brilliance wasn’t helping.


    As I navigated the twists and turns through the dry Texas brush, I  started to notice something: I was getting hot. Not  all-over-hey-guys-lets-turn-on-the-AC hot, but a strange hot — it was a  burning sensation in my chest. I started tweaking a little, but I didn’t  think it was a big deal.


    And then my chest started to tighten.


    And hurt. My pulse quickened, and my face went flush as I quickly put  all the pieces together and tried to process what was happening.


    After years of steadily packing on the pounds without regard to the  future, the single scariest moment of my life had finally come to pass.   I was having a heart attack.




    Exactly what compels a man — one who spent the better part of 20  years on the couch or in front of the computer, sneaking junk food  whenever possible and generally not giving a damn what or how I was  eating — to drop 150 pounds in nine months?


    “You’ve lost all that weight since February?” asked someone I  ran  into. I had most recently seen him at a birthday party, the last time  when I actually embraced cake and other goodness with abandon.


    “Yep,” I said.


    “Shit, man.”


    I never really answered the “Why” question. I joked and said either I  could lose weight or keeping eating and go for the world’s record in  fat assed-ness.I played it straight and said vaguely it was “just time.” But why now?  Why this “time” and not six months ago or six months from now? Why was  it not when my girthy gut began to swell and stretch the  extra-extra-extra-large shirts that comprised my wardrobe?


    The answer was simple: I was too ashamed and scared to admit the real truth.

    Even at 24, I was a prime candidate for heart trouble. I weighed more  than 350 pounds, and my most strenuous workout was climbing the stairs  at the law school to get to the second-floor classrooms. Sometimes that  was too much for me as I would take the elevator to avoid the  embarrassment of coming to class huffing and puffing, out of breath over  the smallest of exertions. I ate bad, pounding McDonald’s double  cheeseburgers by the sackful and never being satisfied by just one trip  to the pizza buffet line. About the only thing I managed not to do was  smoke, and that came more out of not wanting to spit directly into  fate’s face than anything else.


    So was I surprised to find myself near-convinced I was having a heart  attack? Looking back on it, I sure shouldn’t have been. But at that  moment, I was terrified.


    Yet, I didn’t say a word to my traveling companions, choosing to  calmly drive on through the scrub to our next destination. I was so  resigned to my fate — that I was going to die young, eating myself into  an early grave — that I didn’t even mention my predicament. Not that I  had any clue where a hospital might be, of course, but any sane person  in that situation would have said something.

    Thankfully (for both myself and everyone else in the truck)  it turned out to be nothing — at least nothing that meant my imminent  demise. I drove on to our next stop (as luck would have it, a Pizza Hut  lunch buffet) as my panic subsided.


    I don’t remember how much pizza I had to eat that day (chance are it  was more than you should eat, but probably less than what I would have  normally shoved down), but that day is a clear line of change in my  life, with a clear difference in the years that came before that scare  and the months that have followed.

    But before I could make it home to change my life, there was the  little matter of getting to California and the national championship  game. We made it to the Golden State without further incident, and we  had a wonderful time there. For Alabama yokels, California, with its  miles upon miles of freeways and smog-filled air was an experience to relish. We toured L.A., ate at a Chinese  restaurant where they shot a scene for one of the “Rush Hour” movies and  went to a taping of The Price is Right, where one of our crew nearly  won a car.

    The BCS National Championship was the actual reason for the odyssey  west, and it did not disappoint. Alabama lineman Marcel Dareus committed  what many would consider to be a felonious assault on Texas quarterback  Colt McCoy, knocking him out of the game and Texas’ hopes with him. The  Longhorns thrashed about for a while, sure, but it wasn’t enough as  Alabama would win the game 37-21.


    Walking back to the house where we were staying after the game was  another sign something needed to change in my life. We had to walk maybe  a mile or so, and I couldn’t do it. After walking to the game, standing  and cheering for most of the tilt and then walking around after it was  over, I was exhausted. Spent. So I just obstinately sat down when we hit  a particularly hilly stretch of road, forcing my friends to wait around  for my out-of-shape ass to recover. It was just another embarrassment  in a long string of embarrassments, dating back to days in junior high  where I took a uniform away from a more accomplished upperclassman in  the marching band because they only had so many large jackets and even  earlier in Boy Scouts where I had to wear an adult uniform.


    We eventually made it back to the house, and I collapsed into bed.  After one more day in SoCal, we started the long drive back to Alabama,  choosing to do it this time in one continuous merry-go-round of driving,  napping, desperately trying to stay awake and drinking way too much Red  Bull. I probably should have been in the “let’s-get-back-quick” camp, seeing as I had a job and all to get back to.


    Or at least I thought I had a job.


    In his final statement to a Chinese court before he was ushered away  to the gulag, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo gave a stirring  and moving defense of the natural right of free expression. Along the  way, he said the following: “I have no enemies, and no hatred…[f]or  hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience.” Amazing words  from a man about to go to jail for nothing more than speaking his mind  and advocating for a better world.

    His words are deep and true, a perfect crystallization of a giving, gracious heart bursting with forgiveness.


    He is the better man.


    I was the managing editor of The Crimson White, the student newspaper  at the University of Alabama. I had worked there for most of my tenure  at the University, which to this point has been four years of undergrad,  three years of law school and a semester working toward, first, the  journalism master’s and, now, the mass communication doctorate. At my  last stop, I had finally worked my way to a position of authority as the  managing editor, the No. 2 voice at the paper. For most college  graduates and/or law students, it would have been a crummy job beneath  them. Four nights a week, I was at the newspaper office from 4 or 5 p.m.  until whenever the paper was put to bed, which was sometimes as late as  midnight or 1. The hours sucked. The pay sucked even worse. But it was my job, and I loved it.


    Working until midnight with a morning class the next day didn’t leave  much time for sleep. But the lack of sleep wasn’t the worst part of  working there. My diet, which was never all that healthy, reached a  lard-covered zenith while I was working nights, because for those four  nights, it was nothing but fast food. I’d help put the paper to bed, and then I’d drive to McDonald’s or  Arby’s for a bag of stuff I wouldn’t touch now if that damned Ronald  McDonald himself paid me.

    At Arby’s a typical meal was a large roast beef sandwich, a large  order of curly fries and a large drink — a large meal for my large ass  that rings up to 1,600 calories and 59 grams of fat according to Arby’s  website. McDonald’s was even worse. There, the standard meal was three double  cheeseburgers plain (so help you God if you put ketchup or pickles on  those burgers), a large order of fries and a large drink. That  gastrointestinal catastrophe came in at 2,130 calories and 94 grams of  fat. Those are some numbers I might not hit in two or three days now.


    It was my first day back at work, and everyone was still embracing  the glow of the national championship. I had class that ran into the  early evening, so I was late getting to the office that day. When I got  there, the editor calmly called me into her office (never a good thing),  and I sat down on the couch facing her desk. Then, she dropped a  megaton shit bomb on my head: I could “no longer be the managing  editor.” As I would learn through the fog of shock and dumbfounded  dismay, I had not cleared my travel plans to Pasadena to her liking, and  this was my comeuppance. Not wanting to discuss any future at the paper  that didn’t have me as managing editor, I simply gave her my keys to  the office. She walked me back to my desk and hovered over me as I  packed up my belongings.I stumbled out of the office in a daze and into the cool January air,  joining millions of Americans in the Great Recession as one of the many  unemployed.


    I was crushed. It was a crummy job, but it was my crummy job, damnit.  For the rest of the month, I went through alternating stretches of  directionless rage and unyielding self-pity. I didn’t know what to do  with myself — all the while I’d sit in my green recliner as the creeping  tingle came and went in my legs (a sure sign of diabetes) and my chest  would tighten and ache.


    At 24, I was waiting to die.


    But as January turned into February and the signs I needed to make a change in my life piled up all around me, I had an idea:


    I’d start going to the gym.




    It’s just past 2:25 a.m. as I step off the treadmill for the last  time and shamble toward the World Gym exit. Eight miles and 1,707  calories after my workout began, it’s finally, thankfully over.


    I have an odd bond of sorts with this treadmill, the one closest to  the stairs on the cardio floor. I hopped aboard one night and set about  to do the default exercise, which on most treadmills is set for a  maximum of an hour. This one, however, was different. As the elapsed  time inched toward 60:00 that night, I was ready to be done, ready to  leave and go home to do something fun or at least more lazy than  exercise. But the workout didn’t stop at 60:00 — it went right on to  60:01 and 60:02 and so forth, and I couldn’t figure out what was going  on. Being the curious type, I decided to keep working until it hit its  cutoff point. 70 minutes. 80 minutes. 90 minutes. They all came. They  all went. I could have stopped at any point, but I wasn’t going to let  this treadmill (or my sundry obsessions) beat me. I figured it would  stop at 99:59 (there was no other placeholder on the display, after  all), but it switched right back over to 00:00. Yep, I had been  outsmarted by a treadmill. But it earned my respect after that night.


    It’s not easy to squeeze two hours of exercise into a 24-hour day  full of so many other things, but a gym with after-hours access at least  makes it possible. When life is busy, the exercise worms its way into  the wee hours, keeps me up late and steals my sleep. But it is also  helping me to work off the results of 25 years of good times and  living-out-loud fun.


    I wish it was easier. I wish I had a magic pill that could whisk all  the extra weight away, like it disappeared in a puff of fairy dust and  that losing weight was as simple as eating potato chips by the fistful.  But it’s not.

    My first trip in 2010 to the University of Alabama’s Student  Recreation Center in February was only my second visit there in almost  seven years as a UA student. I was a stranger to the gym and exercise, my only real experience an  aerobic walking class in high school where I got into a helpful routine  of walking a few miles a couple of times a week and then promptly  abandoned what little work I had put in when I was done with the class.


    On my first day at the Rec, I felt like a heathen sinner in a sacred  temple. The lights were bright and warm, the floor and equipment  spotless and well maintained. All around me were people who had taken  care of themselves, who had avoided the temptations of the sinful Krispy  Kreme crème-filled doughnuts and the dark lures of late night trips to  fast food joints. They, for the most part, were thin and sculpted. I was  neither.


    I walked to the nearest open treadmill and climbed aboard. I picked a  comfortable walking speed (a little under three miles an hour), did  what I had to do not to fall on my face and did it for an hour. I didn’t  pick the treadmill out of a grand scheme or exercise plan — it was  simply the only exercise equipment I knew anything about. It became,  however, part of my daily routine.


    Months after that day at the Rec, I was walking out of the bathroom  and into the locker room at World Gym. A bunch of the gym regulars,  guys who were there three or four times a week lifting weights, were  talking about what they did when a craving for a cheeseburger hit them  hard. Being a bit of a burger aficionado (and longing for the sweet  embrace of a greasy, meaty mound with melted sharp cheddar cheese) I  spoke up, suggesting a better burger was one sans-bun without many  condiments.


    However, the conversation quickly turned from food to me.


    The guys had been watching me as I went from the side door with the  24-hour access, up the stairs and on to the treadmill. Watching me night  after night. Watching a thinner me.


    “You can’t tell me it’s just been the treadmill,” said one of the fellas about my weight loss.


    “Yep,” I said.


    It was always the same workout. Hop on the treadmill. Let my mind  roam as my feet did the hard work. And it was hard work at the  beginning. Muscles ached constantly, and blisters were all too often a  problem. I learned the hard way that good sneakers are a near-damn  necessity after an ill-fitting pair caused bloody sores on one of my  ankles that persisted for the better part of two weeks.


    Rain or shine, ache or pain, from the middle of February to the end  of March (when I skipped my first workout) I was at the Rec every day.   I went that often not out of some iron-willed commitment, but because I  didn’t have any other better ideas. I knew if I went occasionally, it’d  only be easier for me to come up with an excuse not to go. If exercise  was going to work, I knew it had to be methodical and consistent. It had  to be just another thing I did as a person, like going to class or  getting up in the morning. It had to be the new reality.

    Progress was slow at first. Maybe it was a shirt here or there that  fit better. Maybe it was a tight pair of pants that cutoff the  circulation to my legs a little less. The first thing my wife and I  noticed for sure was that the fatty deposits on my upper torso (yeah, my  bitch tits) were getting smaller. I didn’t think, though, about my  overall progress. I focused simply on taking it one goal at a time,  getting through one trip to the Rec and living another day to chip away  at my gut.


    When I started in February, I didn’t really have a clue exactly how  heavy I was because I didn’t have a scale. Why, after all, would I have  such a thing? If my weight was the last thing I wanted to talk about,  why would I have a scale to remind me of my continuing failure? My wife,  though, did finally get a scale for our bathroom in March, and I  vividly remember the tiny screen’s first numbers for me: 338.  Calculating for a month of modest progress, we guessed that I was around  350 pounds when I started on my diet and exercise plan. When spring began to creep into the air and attention at the law school  turned to final exams, I hovered around 315. Graduation and summer  proper brought me below 300, and the free time given to the jobless and  those not studying for the bar allowed me to concentrate fully on  exercise and trying to get fit.


    Today, my one hour routine at the gym has doubled, usually  accomplished in two trips to the house of sweat and hard work, and I  walk an average of seven miles a day on the treadmill.


    Today, I weigh less than 200 pounds. I’ve lost 14 inches on my waist,  three shirt sizes and more than 150 pounds. It has not always been  easy, and I dream of one day living a life not constantly counting  calories and worrying about everything going into my body — like it was  before my great trip West, before I changed forever.


    But now, for the first time in years, I am content and at peace with my health.


    I am alive.


    [UPDATE: I reached goal weight in January. Heck yeah.]

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