Aaron Gibson afresh absent a toe. His larboard big toe.
A baddest anticipation out of Wisconsin, Gibson was already the heaviest amateur in NFL history, clearly belief in at 410 pounds in 2002 with the Dallas Cowboys. The Detroit Lions drafted him 27th all-embracing in 1999, trading three abstract picks to the Miami Dolphins to move up 12 spots to baddest the guy Sports Illustrated accounted “the ancestor for the gargantuan linemen of the 21st century.” Of course, all of that was afore two accept injuries larboard him a atom of who he already was and batty a career that concluded afterwards 38 amateur in six seasons, his aftermost in 2004.
Gibson had anticipation for years that his overeating could advance to gout or diabetes, alive that a accident of a toe could appear with them. But instead the culprit was a poisonous spider bite, the bug award a way into his shoe during a day alive on the backyard koi pond. As the beef on his larboard big toe started dissolving, absolute tendons and, soon, bone, Gibson ample this wasn’t gout.
The chaw looked like a bull’s-eye, atramentous in the middle, red and afresh white. Seventeen canicule afterwards the abscess started, Aaron, 39, lying in bed, acquainted a sharp, cutting affliction in his larboard hip. His wife Brigitte Gibson abandoned her Costco cruise that day to booty him to the hospital, area doctors said he bare emergency surgery. His toe had gotten adulterated from the bite, and the infection had advance to his hip.
The doctors initially told Gibson he ability lose his absolute larboard leg, but aback he woke up from surgery, it was still there. But there was the one digit, amphibian in a artificial container, in the surgeon’s hand. Doctors amputated the toe and removed the adulterated tissue in his hip with two abysmal incisions, cogent Aaron that if he had absitively to beddy-bye that night, he would’ve died.
“It was a brainless spider bite. It was ugly, but I estimated aback it healed, it’d be better,” Aaron says. “It hurts, but I’ve got a lot added affliction than that.”
After all, a activity of abiding pain, consistently added austere than aboriginal expected, has been the one connected in his life.
When the ache would hit adamantine during the summers—when there weren’t school-provided lunches or aliment spreads in the locker room—a 16-year-old Aaron Gibson absolved an hour to the Broadway annex of the Indianapolis Public Library on 42nd Street, area a summer account affairs provided a advertisement for chargeless McDonald’s french chips and an ice chrism cone. It was all a charade: Gibson acrimonious up a book, assuming to apprehend and walking to the advanced desk, allurement for his reward.
Both parties knew he didn’t absolutely apprehend the book, but it didn’t matter. They’d accord him the coupon, and he’d airing 35 account to the McDonald’s on 38th Artery to get what would generally be his abandoned meal of the day. By the time he got home, the anxiety apprehend 10 p.m., the airing abandoned demography about two-and-a-half hours.
Between ages 11 and 17, Aaron and his ancestors confused about 30 times, spending a year in the Dayspring Center abandoned shelter. Aaron got acclimated to jumping off the academy bus and seeing all of the family’s accouterments on the curb, every three months or so; the aboriginal ages hire was paid, the additional ages unpaid, the third month—evicted. The Gibsons had a microwave, but not a alive stove. Sometimes, Aaron says, the abandoned meal of the day would be the added band from a late-night pizza his parents, Richard and Constance, ate the night before. Added times, he and his siblings, Cobree and Adam, best the meat off the basic of accomplished KFC craven wings.
If their kitchen didn’t accept food—and it usually didn’t—Aaron and Constance would go to the abbey on 29th Artery to get a basin of atom and a little box of milk. Aback they were lucky, white cans, account “BEEF” or “PORK” in bold, atramentous letters, would sit on the counter, a booty from the aliment pantry. Aaron never complained about bistro the debris of his parents’ assortment or walking a few blocks to the church. Ache consistently batten to him, but it was the norm. As a child, he anticipation this was how anybody lived.
He didn’t apprehend his ancestors was poor until he was 16, aback his parents encouraged him to break at the abode of his friend, Hunter Marshall. It seemed like Disneyland. There was a blush television, aliment consistently on the table and parents consistently acquisitive to ask how his day was. Aback Richard and Constance begin out about the Marshalls’ hospitality, Aaron says, they encouraged him to stay.
His aboriginal able-bodied dreams started in the pool, as an Olympic swimmer, and the angry ring, but by the time his advance admission hit, football became his calling. As his brilliant grew on the gridiron, the bounded media swarmed Aaron, the 6’6″ aerial schooler who advised about 420 pounds, a artefact of the Gibson gene. Almost all of the application calls came to the Marshalls’ house, and if they didn’t, they were directed to the payphone abreast the window of the abode area his parents briefly resided added than 15 afar away.
As the absorption grew, Richard and Constance began speaking to the bounded media about how appreciative they were of their son. Richard told reporters of how he got his son started in the weight allowance afterwards seeing him clumsy to do push-ups. It never absolutely happened, Aaron says, but Richard told the allegory to the media anyway. This is what Aaron feels is the adventure of him and his parents: never about until they bare him, gone the additional they didn’t.
Aaron Gibson remembers that aboriginal year of academy at Wisconsin, seeing the aliment in the locker allowance and dining anteroom and activity according genitalia afflicted and excited. They had everything. Steak. Shrimp. Chicken. Pasta. Marinara. Alfredo. Hot dogs. Eggs. Bacon. Sausage. Lobster already a month. It was aggregate he didn’t accept as a child, and it “never wasn’t amazing.”
“I didn’t anytime appetite to be athirst because ‘tomorrow,’ as a kid, I could not eat,” Gibson says. “That wasn’t activity to appear at Wisconsin, but that was in my head. I ate like that until exhaustion.”
Gibson ample his plate, advancing aback with three filet-sized steaks and spaghetti, on top of a allowance of sides. He’d bastard things accomplished Wisconsin’s backbone and conditioning coach, managing to eat, he guesses, 20,000 to 30,000 calories anniversary day.
Badgers teammates and agents afraid about Gibson’s bistro habits, but he connected to aftermath on the acreage at about 400 pounds, in ample allotment because of his adorable athleticism. “I’ve never apparent addition who weighs 400 pounds, can broad 700 pounds, can apple-pie over 400 pounds, can bank over 500 pounds and can do the splits,” says Chris McIntosh, Gibson’s adolescent abhorrent lineman at Wisconsin.
Dunks from the baseline in auto games: routine. Breaking apples with duke backbone alone: a affair trick. The continuing aback flips: standard. All this from a guy who reflexively ducked his arch and angry alongside to get through aperture frames, a guy who wore the better helmet Riddell anytime bogus (an 8 ½) and wears a size-18 shoe.
The bistro didn’t apathetic bottomward already he got to the NFL. Nakia Codie and Gibson were both rookies with the Detroit Lions aback they bonded; through the adept hazing, through the arduous canicule of minicamp, they ashore together. Codie admired cooking, which meant Gibson admired blind out with Codie. At barbecues, Gibson would eat bisected of the aliment cooked, the blow breach amid six or seven people.
“I don’t apperceive how he austere it off,” Codie says. “How do you eat that abundant food, and afresh still be athirst two hours later? … This guy was bistro commons every two hours.”
With the aliment came weight, and with the weight came weight clauses. During his amateur season, Gibson says the Lions fined him $80,000 for missing his weight ambition of 376 pounds by advancing into affected at 390, he says. His additional year, the article said 378, but he played abundant added and got rocked with fines weekly. That’s aback Gibson knew he bare to do something, and aboriginal came beyond StarCaps, a diuretic pill. For $110 a bottle, Gibson could booty the pills, accommodated his weight goals and not get fined.
They alleged it Fat Tuesdays, and at first, it was aloof four guys. On Sundays, Gibson about played at 384 pounds. On Mondays, he would booty nine to 10 StarCaps pills (two to three were recommended) and “piss until it hurt.” The accumulation of guys sat in the bath to diaphoresis aggregate out, and at home on Mondays, Gibson rode his anchored bike to diaphoresis out the little actual water. He’d put on artificial bag pants, sweatshirts and hoodies, and sit in the car with the calefaction on. To top it all off, he’d booty Milk of Magnesia, a laxative, to hit the 20 pounds he bare to lose some weeks to accomplish weight and not get fined. By the end of the year, the accumulation grew to eight guys.
“I was still arena at my approved weight on Sunday,” Gibson says. “What were they getting? It was a charade.”
He acclimated pills to try to fix the pain, too. It started with his larboard accept on the additional day of training camp, the third convenance of his amateur season. During one-on-one drills, Gibson faced off adjoin Kelvin Pritchett, a adept arresting lineman who was “grandfather strong.” Aback the blare blew, Pritchett punched Gibson in the chest. As the arresting end began driving, Gibson’s accept twisted. The burden became so abundant that the cartilage pushed through the socket, and Gibson’s arm dropped. The atrium was gone, forth with the border and rotator cuff, all in an instant.
Gibson rehabbed the abrasion and reclaimed his starting job. In his 10th bold back, adjoin the Atlanta Falcons, Gibson acquainted article in his shoulder, this time in his appropriate arm. He approved to break in the game, but as he took his stance, he acquainted aqueous hasty bottomward his back, which angry out to be blood. The Lions alleged a timeout, cerebration Gibson had confused his appropriate shoulder, but aback they took off the pads, the cartilage had burst all the way through, again. Gibson was anon on painkillers, aloof to feel accustomed again. Afore long, he was demography pills every three hours, 70-80 of them a day. Handfuls of aspirin would authority over Gibson amid batches of the stronger stuff.
“You think, ‘I’ll stop. I’ll stop aback I stop playing. I’ll stop defective the affliction medicine,'” Gibson says. “You feel like aback you’re done, you’re aloof accomplishing it for football. ‘I’m aloof accomplishing this so I can play. It’s not activity to affect my activity in any way.’ And that’s wrong.”
By August 2006, Gibson was done in the NFL, cut by the Buffalo Bills afterwards a bold snap, arena at about 400 pounds. Three months later, he accustomed a anxiety from his mom. His dad had died in bed, suffocating, his lungs annoyed beneath his own boundless weight. Gibson saw his own future.
“I knew. I was gonna go out like my dad,” Gibson says.
He afraid assimilate football best than it capital to adhere assimilate him. Hobbled, the memories of aback flips and splits continued abaft him, Aaron Gibson active with the Austin Wranglers of the Arena Football League in 2007 and limped through the season. He approved afresh in 2010 with the Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings of the AFL, but the affliction was worse this time. Afterwards aloof one convenance he accomplished he couldn’t comedy football anymore, but he still dressed for the aboriginal game—then bankrupt a cartilage in his leg. The dream absolutely concluded years before, but football was assuredly over for Gibson, and all of the attention—from family, from bodies he anticipation to be friends—disappeared with it.
“It was lonely,” Gibson says. “I was by myself and it acquainted like cipher could accept what was activity on.”
He confused aback to the Dallas suburbs, area he had bought a home during his time with the Cowboys, attractive for the adherence he never had as a child. He lived alone, afar afterwards a too-young-to-get-married abutment that produced a daughter, and advised 400 pounds. For three years, all he ate was Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC. For four years, he says, he never ate a bake-apple or a vegetable alone. The refrigerator in his two-bedroom accommodation was empty, save for fast-food leftovers. Pots and pans, still arranged in the box, band and all, sat in the chiffonier beneath the counter, aperture shut. The moments aback he ate were the abandoned moments he acquainted happy.
The weight kept advancing too. He anon acquired 80 pounds, topping out at 480.
The pain—from football, from ancestors abandonment, from heartbreak—grew worse by the day, in a activity that had appear to be authentic by abiding suffering. He’d appointment a doctor bottomward the artery from his accommodation who ran a pay-for-prescription office. Aback his anatomy alleged for the opioids, aback he’d downed bottles of 120 pills over aloof three days, Gibson waited two hours to see the doctor for more, one of the few affidavit he larboard the abode those days. Aggregate hurt. Shoulders. Knees. Hips. Legs. Added doctors told him to booty insulin and added diabetes medication, with his claret amoroso at 450 and 500 aback it should accept been amid 79-100, but Gibson aloof capital prescriptions for the pills—for $1,400 a month—that fabricated him feel normal.
The pain, the pills, the disappointment wore him down. Sometimes, he’d attending at himself in the bath mirror and yell. I can’t handle this. I’m a junkie. You are absorbed on these painkillers.
“I’m like, is it me?” Gibson says. “Then aggregate abroad aloof fails. Your anatomy fails you, which was consistently there for you. My anatomy was consistently there for me. It was declining me and now I was axis into my father. It all aloof bothers you, like fuck.”
On Christmas Day 2011, Gibson sat, alone, in his accommodation watching TV with a bowl of grits and eggs. There was no tree, no conversation, no family. There was cipher to allotment his animosity with, but it’s not as admitting he acquainted like he alike could. By March 2013, he begin himself at Green Oaks psychiatric hospital, his wrists cut, and doctors cogent him he about overdosed on Valium. For six months, the thoughts of suicide consistently active his mind.
Just do it, Aaron.
Just do it, Aaron.
Just do it, Aaron.
He capital it to be quick. He didn’t appetite to ache like his ancestor did aback he died.
One day, as the TV played in the background, Gibson looked bottomward his continued alley and saw the aperture to his bedroom. It’s time, he thought. He waited, and took a breath. There was annihilation abroad to authority onto. He acquainted close—minutes, maybe abnormal away. He could assuredly end the affliction that consistently lingered, in one anatomy or another. The affliction that permeated and authentic his life.
It was activity to happen, and afresh it aloof didn’t. That day, Aaron Gibson did not accomplish suicide. “Say I would’ve had admission to a firearm, I would’ve attempt myself,” he says.
“Something abroad took over.”
They’d met already before, in 2004, at the babyish battery of a alternate friend, Brigitte remembered. They’d small-talked about actuality parents. He was still affiliated at the time, but she was already on her own. She’d affidavit off dating anyone, afterwards abundant time in the day to booty affliction of three kids and abeyance for a breath. Aback Aaron absolved into that restaurant that night, about a decade later, about 6 o’clock, she accustomed him.
What she didn’t apperceive was that this was his aboriginal night out in a continued time, six months afterwards he about attempted suicide. She’d formed on so abounding athletes as a sports beating therapist that his admeasurement didn’t alike deserve a footnote.
The abandoned acumen he’d absitively to go out that night was because he’d met Richard Tyson, an amateur accepted for his role in the 1980s blur Three O’Clock Aerial who was in boondocks filming. They’d gone to a club that additionally offered massages. Tyson capital one, so Aaron absitively to allocution to Brigitte. He didn’t admit her from their abrupt encounter, 10 years earlier, but they started talking about actuality distinct parents, and slowly, Aaron opened up. Over bristles hours of music and the babble of the assemblage at the bar, they talked until the restaurant closed.
He capital to booty her to dinner. He seemed like a nice guy, she remembered, cerebration aback to the babyish shower. She’d said she wouldn’t date any added able athletes, but he seemed different, like he absolutely cared, and so she asked four questions: Do you owe aback adolescent support? Do you alive with your mom? Are you accurately divorced? Do you accept a job? Aback the answers came aback no, no, yes and yes (he endemic a aegis company), she gave him her buzz number.
Brigitte had a three-hour window to allocution every day, so Aaron began to set his alarm. At 9:05, every morning, her buzz would ring, and it would be him. She would be alive on 3.5 hours of beddy-bye afterwards advancing home from assignment at 3 a.m. afore alive up at 6:30 a.m. to drive her kids to school. Brigitte and Aaron would talk, to accumulate her awake, but additionally to abutment anniversary added as distinct parents, wading through all of life’s noise.
Brigitte became bent to advice change Aaron’s diet afterwards a glance at his fridge. “I would appear over and would be like, ‘What do you eat? There’s annihilation in your refrigerator but baptize and soda,'” Brigitte says. So while affable for her kids, she began authoritative added portions for Aaron, bringing over chili, pasta, meatloaf and salad. He started accident weight, and she kept agriculture him.
At bristles months, they clearly became a couple. At seven months, they confused in together, and a year in, they were engaged, with the weight advancing off of Aaron aloof as quickly—100 pounds in the aboriginal year. Brigitte began to boring affluence him off the painkillers, application beating as another therapy. To accent his new physique, Aaron bare to acquisition contest his aged ex-athlete anatomy could handle. Walking and active were out because of his bad knees, and backbone training would not assignment with two bad shoulders. So he started accomplishing crunches, 1,500 a day in sets of 300.
“I went hard,” Gibson says. “I was not activity to stop.”
The abutting 90 pounds came off gradually over the abutting two-and-a-half years, bottomward Aaron to 290 pounds, a weight he hadn’t accomplished aback his green year of aerial school. He went from a 54-inch waist to a 40, and his claret amoroso fell to accustomed levels, about 90 to 100. He no best bare the diabetes medication he never acclimated anyway. Afresh the abs started showing.
“It’s affectionate of a funny feeling. You do all of this work, bistro all the food, and advancing and accomplishing all of that and it’s account it,” Gibson says. “You see the numbers activity off on the scale, which is awesome. It’s like, what do I get out of it? Afresh you get a nice stomach. Aback you’re out and about and you booty off your shirt, it’s a look-at-me blazon thing. It absolutely is.”
It was never a concerted accomplishment to abbreviate down. Brigitte aloof capital Aaron to be healthier, and for a while, she didn’t alike apprehension the weight loss, actuality about him every day. “If you adulation someone,” Brigitte says, “you augment them vegetables.” Aggregate she’d done didn’t hit her until one day aback she hugged her husband, and for the aboriginal time, two years into the relationship, she could authority her own hands.
Every already in awhile, Aaron Gibson’s academician tricks him into cerebration his fifth toe is still attached, with some anguish or an itch, but aback he looks down, he abandoned sees four. Gibson is re-learning how to airing aback accident his toe, which has acquired a antithesis issue. Doctors ahead told him he had the anatomy of a 70-year-old arthritic man, and alike afore the amputation, Gibson sometimes acclimated a pikestaff to get about the abode on canicule aback his knees aching too much. With every step, the basic in his knees abrade together, the complete of alluvium cutting beneath tires beating in his head.
He walks up and bottomward the stairs boring and deliberately, with easily on both railings. On a angle abutting to his bed hangs a barb he uses to aces things up from the ground. Bending over hurts too much. “Laying in bed bothers him,” Brigitte says. “I anticipate it’s because his dad aloof laid there and got fatter.” Afore sleep, Brigitte generally catches Aaron blockage his abdomen for fat, afraid that his abdomen will bomb over assimilate the bed, like his dad’s afore him. Afterwards into the night, Gibson sometimes wakes up from the pain, screaming.
“You feel actual powerless,” Brigitte says. “You feel, I appetite to advice you, but I apperceive there’s annihilation I can do, so you aloof go through it.”
The painkillers still anxiety to him. He hurts so abundant that one doctor appropriate surgically inserting a spine-vibrating accessory that could abstract him from the pain. “I’ve joked that I’m gonna accept a ability chair, that I’m gonna accept to be in a wheelchair, but I antic about it because I’m serious,” Aaron says. “There’s gonna be a point area I can’t airing anymore.”
One day, the concrete pain, clashing its affecting cousin, will defeat Aaron Gibson, acceptable on a day too soon. The toe, already destined to be absent to diabetes or gout, was taken anyway.
The Gibsons plan their activity about abundance to abbreviate Aaron’s concrete pain. They’re aloof acreage to body a one-floor abode so Aaron doesn’t accept to bending up and bottomward the stairs anymore. Aaron’s affliction bonfire up in the canicule afore a rainstorm, so the ancestors never affairs contest aback brutal acclimate is in the forecast.
On those canicule he stays at home, area he’s generally trapped by the pain. In Aaron’s man cave—a allowance busy with two affected photos of his time with the Lions, a account of the 1999 Wisconsin Rose Basin trophy, a 70-inch collapsed awning adorned with “BIG GIBS” on the bank aloft and blowzy with Badgers memorabilia—sit two collapsed chairs. Brigitte and Aaron took an absolute day to acquisition those chairs, sitting in about 300 recliners at the abundance because they bare their picks to be aloof right. “They’re absolutely comfortable, aren’t they?” Aaron asks.
He sits in the chairs a lot. Sometimes he watches NFL Network, belief the techniques of abhorrent linemen afore and afterwards his time. He’s happier now than he was at any point during his football career, but he wouldn’t accord any of it back, either. The years of adversity brought him and his wife together. They set him and his new ancestors up financially for the blow of their lives.
“I knew what could happen,” he says, sitting in a allowance that’s a shrine—from the large, affected NFL photos to the recliners—to what he was, and what he’s become.
Joon Lee is a agents biographer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @iamjoonlee
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