Today, NFL players are a highly specialized group of athletes. Each player has been shaped from a young age to perform their specific task on the field. Every body has the exact build needed to optimally compete; running backs are small and speedy, while linemen are bulky and imposing.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the early days of the NFL, players had a much different body type. To understand the reason for this change requires a fascinating look into NFL history.
The early NFL was a game for the everyman
In the early days, the NFL was full of “average joes.” The league didn’t have the popularity or financial means to support full-time players, so most men played football during in spare time and worked other jobs to support themselves. Many would build strength working in construction or railroad jobs.
When players joined a team from the ’20s through the ’40s, they were required to play every position. There were no substitutions, so each player had to know every part of the game. Because of this, an NFL player’s body had to be adaptable. If they were too big, they wouldn’t be able to run fast enough. If they were too small, they wouldn’t be able to block or tackle. Most players in the early days were average in size.
Wilbur “Pete” Henry, a Hall of Famer from the ’20s, was considered to be a dominating force due to his size. He was 5-foot-11 and weighed 245 pounds. Today, he would be considered small next to modern linemen. Early NFL players were slightly bigger and heavier than the everyman but not drastically so.
Specialization changed the game
World War II caused a shortage of NFL players. As a result, restrictions became looser, and free substitutions were finally allowed. Players wouldn’t need to play all positions on offense and defense. Instead, they could take the field for just a handful of plays. Small, speedy players joined the offense without needing the bulk required to play defense. During this time, the specialized player was born.
At the end of the war, the league tried to return to its previous rules and restrict substitutions. But the coaches, players, and spectators liked the changes and refused to go back. Slowly, the body types began to change with more variation as players focused their strengths on a specific position.
Around this same time, the NFL’s popularity began to rise. This allowed the resources for players to be paid a full-time salary. Instead of football being a hobby, it was now a job. They had much more time to dedicate to building their skills and working their body into the size required for their position.
Now, the NFL is highly specialized
Today’s NFL players are drastically different than they were earlier in league’s history. Competition for a spot is fierce. This means players start training, using diet and exercise to build their bodies into highly specialized machines. And they’re rewarded with a large paycheck. The average contract in 2017 was $2.25 million.
Instead of average body types, NFL players today are much more extreme. According to Business Insider, the average offensive lineman in 2015 was 6-foot-5 and weighed 312 pounds. In the ’20s, the average offensive lineman was 6-feet-tall and 211 pounds. The average running back today is only 6-feet-tall and 215 pounds so they can run fast and hide behind bigger players.