What happens when a pro football career comes to a sudden halt? How does a top-flight professional athlete stay in shape when he no longer plays the game or has access to training facilities, coaches and trainers?
Enter Luther Elliss, retired Detroit Lions football player. For years, sports, specifically football, were his consuming passion. Four years of Division 1 football at the University of Utah and nine seasons as a starter at defensive tackle in the National Football League were his life until injuries forced his retirement in 2005.
I had the opportunity to get a glimpse inside the life of Luther Elliss during his recent trip through Michigan to promote Fuel Up to Play 60, a children’s health initiative developed in partnership with the National Football League and the National Dairy Council.
How Elliss stayed in shape and worked out intrigued me, especially when he attempted to use a hotel treadmill one morning. “I had to stop,” said Elliss. “I thought the treadmill was coming apart. Then I took one look at the stationary bike and decided I would be better off going for a jog. Most workout equipment at hotels is not built for a man of my size: I’m at 310. I want to get under 300. If I can get there, 280 would be best for me—that’s what my doctor tells me.”
Elliss played at 310 pounds as a pro, but he sported a lot more muscle back then. During that time, he was known as the “Strongest Man in the NFL.” When he played for the Detroit Lions, he said he felt like “Superman indestructible” because he played healthy and injury-free most of his career.
“The trainers didn’t make adjustments to the workouts as players got on in years,” explained Elliss. “As we got older, we could have benefited from more stretching and flexibility exercises to maintain our level of fitness.”
During Elliss’ last few years in the league, his injuries began to pile-up. He sustained damage to the disks in his back, an orbital bone fracture, several concussions, a right ruptured Achilles tendon, multiple torn muscles and strains and two elbow injuries and surgeries—due to permanent loss of range of motion in one arm, Elliss can no longer touch his fingers to his shoulder.
Eventually, Elliss couldn’t play at the level he wished and decided to retire. Although retirement was a completely different lifestyle, the game had never defined Elliss’ character. He felt prepared to be successful doing whatever life had in store for him after football.
Although Elliss faced challenges, such as reducing his calorie intake and adjusting his fitness regime, he has thrived. His workouts and eating habits are now under the supervision of a physician. “There are some really good resources on the web and I’ve discovered resistance exercising with bands to build my flexibility,” said Elliss. “I try to get my cardio in on ellipticals and treadmills.”
Elliss and his wife, Rebecca, have 12 children, some of which are adopted and have special needs. Elliss speaks across the country to groups about foster care and adoption issues. “Now I prepare and work every day to improve children’s lives through the Fuel Up to Play 60 program and through my work with adoption groups. I’m blessed by what I have experienced as an NFL player and as long as people will listen, I’ll share my passion with them.”