1 year after the super bowl and 85 lbs lighter: how center john sullivan transformed his body
It's a rare thing to know exactly what you want to do with your life as a 15-year old, but for John Sullivan, the path was clear: professional football. Weighing in at 270 pounds as an eighth-grader, he was (and continues to be) a force to be reckoned with both on and off the field. We sat down with the recently retired offensive lineman to chat about his impressive post-career weight loss, how he got there, and life after football. Here's what he had to say.
Tell us a little bit about your story. Was it always a dream of yours to play in the NFL?
I think a lot of kids grow up dreaming of playing professional sports, but for one reason or another, as you get older, it seems unattainable. I got big very young, and I understood early on that I had met the prerequisites in terms of size so that a career in sports would be a possibility for me.
I played a lot of different sports growing up. Our parents exposed my brothers and me to everything: swimming, water polo, baseball, football, basketball--you name it, we played it, except for hockey. The one thing my mom wouldn't budge on is that she didn't want to be a hockey mom.
As I got closer to high school, I actually couldn't play football in eighth grade because I was too heavy for the town league in Greenwich. So I played fall baseball that year and then had a decision to make before high school: was I going to play water polo, which is a fall sport, or football. Fortunately, I chose football.
I was 270 pounds going in eighth grade. I've been heavy my whole life, and when I got to high school and decided to play football, it went well as a freshman. I got to the point where it was kind of dangerous for me to be on the freshman team because I was hurting a lot of my teammates in practice when we were hitting. So I got moved up to start on J.V. and then began playing as a backup on the Varsity team as a freshman. We won a state championship that year. The following year I became a starter on the offensive line. At the end of the season, I was named all-state and received a scholarship offer to UConn. I was 15 years old.
It was at that point that I realized, OK, this is for real now. If I could start training with the goal in mind of playing in the NFL, I knew I had a really strong chance of making it. So I've been planning on an NFL career since I was about 15.
But getting to the NFL is a confluence of a number of things. It's a lot of hard work, it's a lot of being surrounded by great people, and it's a lot of luck. There are a lot of incredibly talented guys that don't make it. And sometimes it's not through a lack of hard work, and it's nobody's fault. It's just things like injuries derail them, or life's circumstances derail them. It takes a lot of luck to make it to that level.
John pictured here in 2020 with Tareq Azim
So how long has your athletic career shaped your eating habits? At what age did you start to understand that your chosen position required you to look and perform in a certain way?
When I was younger, I trained really hard. Like a lot of young guys trying to get big fast, I was eating a ton and trying to put on weight. I was very heavy. I was a heavyweight wrestler (weighing in at 275) all through high school. I basically weighed the same at the end of high school as I did at the beginning of eighth grade, but my body composition was completely different. I started lifting weights and training really hard. I was reading the HIIT newsletter, which was put out by a guy who just recently passed away named Ken Leistner. I was doing a lot of strongman type workouts at a buddy's house, and I saw the results. At that point in time, I changed my diet. It was more like a bulking thing--mass gaining, trying to get as strong as possible.
Then, as I moved up the ranks and I got to Notre Dame, there's more input from the team and nutritionists. The strength coaches are also more intense about your body composition. Once you get to the NFL, the teams provide registered dietitians. They monitor your weight, and they're there as a resource, but the further up the ladder you get in terms of the sport, it's on you to eat the way that you see fit and then fall within the parameters that the team sets for you. The Rams, for example, gave me a weight range. So as long as I weighed in within that range, I was good. If I were outside of it, they would fine me. Towards the end of my career, I really just ate whatever I wanted. And then on Thursday night, if I were overweight, I would hop in the sauna, and I would try to sweat it out and try to make weight Friday morning so I wouldn't get fined.
A lot of guys struggle to maintain weight, whether that means they are too light or too heavy--they struggle to keep their body composition within the range needed. There's a whole gamut of issues. As far as I was concerned, I never really took the weight off ever. Since I was 13 years old, I've been very heavy, and I have been consistently over 300 pounds since 2005. I was getting close to 15 years at that weight, and it undoubtedly has had an effect on my body.
What inspired your body transformation? What about your NFL body no longer works with how you want to live your life?
I had been planning to lose the weight for the last couple of years. You have to start thinking about retirement as you become an older player. The average career is so short, but obviously you want to give yourself the best chance to play as long as you can to accomplish your goals and support your family. But I knew as soon as my career was over, I was going to fully commit to losing weight. I had seen a number of former teammates do it and guys that I respected around the league: Jordan Gross, Matt Burke--who was the center at the Vikings when I got there and kind of a mentor for me for my first season of the NFL--and Nick Hardwick. All of these guys had amazing transformations.
I really feel like you don't exist in a vacuum. A lot of the guys retire and they either do one of two things: they keep eating the way they have, they stop training the way that the NFL requires them to and they balloon, or they change their eating habits, they change their exercise habits, and they work hard. You're accustomed to working hard as an NFL player, but you have to work in a different way. They transform themselves and they lose a lot of weight, and I definitely wanted to be in that mode. I want to be around a long time for my wife and my kids, and I want to live a happy, healthy life and enjoy every single day. Losing this weight is allowing me to do that more and more.
What are the main differences between your diet during your NFL days versus now?
I would say the calorie intake is drastically different. When I first started losing weight it happened in stages based on where I was with the Rams. After the Super Bowl this past year, I had a hunt that I was preparing for in the mountains in Alaska. So even if I was going to play in 2019, I was going to lose a little bit of weight to prepare for that hunt. I was trying to get down to around 300 pounds and I did that relatively easily. It was during the preparation for that hunt that the Rams informed me that they weren't going to be exercising my option for 2019, but they also weren't completely opposed to bringing me back at some point. So that possibility was just enough incentive to keep some of the weight on.
After I came back from my hunt, I was waiting for a post-draft meeting with the Rams. I knew if they took a young center, it would be a signal that I was definitely not going back. Then in May, I spoke with Sean McVay on the phone, and he said that at that point in time, they weren't going to resign me, but they'd like me to stay in shape, keep the weight on, and be ready to come back if they needed me. I was getting in better shape. I was training, I was exercising, but I was also lifting really hard and eating a lot to keep the weight on still. I love Sean to death, but I told him on that call that it's too big an ask and I'm not going to sit around waiting, putting my life on the line on the off chance they want me. That was in May. I was still 285 to 290 pounds, By the end of July, I was down to 250. By September, I was 235.
At the start, I did Keto along with intermittent fasting. But I understand that these dietary decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. I wanted to make sure that even though I was becoming fat-adapted, I was testing my blood with a ketone meter. I knew that I was in ketosis. But given my family’s history with heart disease, I went and saw a cardiologist and I had a bad lipid panel. So I transitioned off the Keto diet at that point, stuck with intermittent fasting, and then just ate a more balanced diet. I don't want to call it a severe calorie restriction, but it was a way different calorie count than I was accustomed to as an NFL player. I would guess as a player I was eating 4000 calories a day. Over the past year since retiring, I have averaged around 2000 calories a day.
You have to learn to enjoy being hungry. It's got to become a feeling of satisfaction. It was a monumental shift. I was seeing results really quickly, and I think being able to see the results motivates you on a day in and day out basis.
Most of us love our food. For many people, their diet is the main thing holding them back. What's one piece of advice you'd give to people to help them keep with their goals?
I really believe that you have to have an answer to the question of "why" you're doing something. Find a purpose to sacrifice for, find a reason to work hard. I hate to use the word suffering because it really wasn’t. It was a gift to be able to lose the weight. But it did at times feel like suffering. You have to be willing to suffer a little bit for it. If you really want to achieve your goals, you have to know why you're doing it. For me, it's twofold. It's one, so I'm here longer for my wife and my kids. That's absolutely one hundred percent my number one goal. Nothing is guaranteed to us, but my health and fitness are something that I'm in control of ,so I'm going to do whatever I can to be as healthy as possible. And number two is, as I mentioned earlier, this whole thing was kickstarted by training for a hunt. I hunt professionally. I own part of a hunting consulting business, and I have hunts throughout the year, and they keep me motivated. I have an athletic goal that I'm trying to attain, and as a hunter, I feel like it's my responsibility to be in the best shape I can possibly be when I'm out in the field.
Do you have any retirement mentors who have helped you get where you are today and to get there so quickly?
The big thing is surrounding yourself with like-minded people when it comes to health and fitness. I have three brothers and everybody in the family is fit. Fitness is a huge part of what we talk about when we all get together. We all train together. We have a group with our Garmins where we can keep track of each other's progress. I also like being educated about topics that interest me. I listen to different perspectives. I am a big fan of Joe Rogan's podcast. I've listened to Peter Attia on there and Dom D'Agostino and the different takes on the ketogenic diet. I listen, I'm interested, and I'm continuously trying to learn more and more. I think the learning will never stop.
What are your ongoing fitness goals? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
When I hit 235 pounds in September, I actually started feeling kind of bad. I think I lost the weight really quickly and so I allowed myself to naturally gain a little bit of weight back. I wasn't totally loose with my diet--I did not go back at all to eating how I ate when I was playing. But I allowed myself a little bit more freedom in terms of the fasting and in terms of carb intake. Around the holidays I ate a little bit more. I didn't completely deny myself and I got back up close to 250 and now I'm in weight loss mode again. I don't want to go too low. I want to live a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. But I'm eating really clean and working out pretty hard right now. I would like to see if I couldn't get the 220s. That being said, I'm also not a small man, so I'm not sure where the bottom is in terms of total weight. Even if I stayed at my current weight, though, with the way I'm training, I'm without a doubt changing my body composition. So even if I did stay at that 235 to 240 range, I can undoubtedly be healthier within that range.
What does a typical day of working out look for you? Have you found specific things you love?
I have tried a lot of different workouts over the years. As a professional athlete, you get exposed to a lot of different things. The one thing that I've really come to enjoy is running. I was an offensive lineman so I hated running. I wanted to run as little as possible. Even now I'm not doing insanely long distance runs but I'm running three miles at a time a few days a week and I’m really enjoying it. On top of that, I mix in fitness classes. I've been doing a Metcon class with calisthenics, bodyweight exercises, and boxing. It's really centered around boxing. I love training in boxing. It's a really good way to burn calories and have fun doing it. I do a lot of training on hill walks, hikes, and incline treadmills. The Stairmaster is also key. The Stairmaster is maybe the best way to train for a mountain hunt.
The other thing is I don't lift the same way I used to. I'm not lifting to be absolutely as strong as possible. I'm not a powerlifter. It's not part of my goals. Moving forward, I want to be strong and fit and able to hold my own, but I don't need to be 100 percent as strong as I can be and expose myself to the injury risk that comes along with that type of training.
Many people struggle to find as much time as they'd like to dedicate to the gym. For those time crunch people out there, what would you say is the most efficient workout you currently have in your rotation?
There are two answers to that. If you want to get a workout in, just don't stop moving. Stand as opposed to sit, walk when you can, and make choices that force you to walk. Park further away from the front door of the place where you're going as opposed to grabbing the first spot. Make movement a part of what you're doing every single day. In terms of burning a lot of calories really quickly, I'd recommend Metcon-style workouts. We'll do stuff like 25 jump ropes, run 25 yards, do 10 pushups, run 25 yards,10 sit-ups and rest for 30 seconds. Do that for 20 minutes for as many rounds as possible and you're going to burn a ton of calories. Metcon workouts are great if you have a half an hour.
And then the best piece of advice I have is that working out will come. Really focus on your diet. I think the diet is an underrated piece. People think they can do one or the other: “If I work out really hard, I can eat whatever I want”or “If I don't eat anything, I don't have to work out”. Both of those thought processes are out of balance. Keep them balanced with each other. Eat a good diet and find as much time as you have to exercise. But you've got to attack it from both sides.
How will you continue to push yourself as a husband, father, and a man? How do you keep yourself moving forward?
Like I said, surrounding myself with people where health and fitness is a priority. I've never struggled with being self-motivated, even as a football player. I never needed a coach to yell at me to get me to try hard. I wanted to try. I have intrinsic motivation, and I think that's coming across in terms of my health and fitness now. I want to be here as long as I can. And the NFL undoubtedly takes a toll on you and we'll see the effects it has down the road, but I'm not going to spend one minute of my time worrying about it. However, there are aspects of that career that I know have a direct effect on my longevity moving forward (body weight and body composition) and I have some control over those, so I'm going to make the best moves possible to ensure that I'm here the longest.
Any final thoughts?
I hope people are able to find something that motivates them, find their "why", and that they're able to be healthy and live their best life possible. It's amazing when you make a change and you see the results and you benefit from it every single day. And that's what I'm feeling right now. Every day of my life is better when I feel good. I think most people would agree with that and I feel better than I've ever felt as an adult and really at any point. And that's after playing eleven years in the NFL and five years Notre Dame and four years of high school football. You can change your life, but you just have to choose to do it and then commit to it.