Jared Lorenzen looks to pass against the Dallas Cowboys on September 9, 2007 in Irving, Texas (Matt Slocum/AP)
We never got to be friends, exactly. We were more like soldiers who had fought in the same war. We talked in shorthand. I didn't have to explain eating a box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting. He didn't have to explain trying to find a pair of pants that fit his waist and his thighs at the same time.
In a lot of the important ways, we had lived each other's lives.
In other ways, we hadn't. Jared Lorenzen had been a star quarterback at Kentucky and won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants. I'd had desk jobs my whole life, stringing together words for a living. That's why I was writing about him, instead of the other way around. But when we talked -- and we talked a lot, that spring and summer of 2014 -- I felt like I was talking to a mirror.
I'm just now realizing that we never ate a meal together. That would have been fraught for both of us.
I wanted to write about Jared because I was afraid to write my own story. Jared was known as the biggest quarterback anyone had ever seen; he often played at more than 300 pounds, and by the time I met him, he was somewhere about 400. But he wasn't as big as me. That year, I was closing in on a high of 460, and I had this weird two-sided life: I loved my work and loved my wife and loved my friends, but I often hated myself because I couldn't control my weight and I knew one day it would kill me.
For years, I had been hauling around the idea that I should write about all that -- that I should share the most important story of my life. But I was afraid to reveal the darkest parts of myself. And I was terrified of the damage it might do to the people I loved. So I stuffed all that back inside and kept writing about other people.
Telling Jared's story was a substitute for telling mine.
I went to his office. I went to the radio station where he worked part time. I watched him play Wiffle ball with comedian Jay Mohr. I hung out at the apartment he had just moved into, strewn with boxes and clothes and toys belonging to his two kids. The one thing he had managed to do was hook up the TV. On one of my interview tapes, you can hear golf announcers in the background, calling the British Open.
I talked to his mom and his ex-wife and his old agent and a bunch of his coaches. They all loved him and cared about him. None of them knew how to help him.
I try to keep myself out of stories I write about other people. But as I wrote Jared's story, it became clear I had to put myself in. My struggle was the whole reason I was writing about his. I started the story this way:
Jared Lorenzen and I are in love with the same woman. Her name is Little Debbie, and she makes delicious snack cakes.
The story on Jared ran that August and became one of ESPN's most-read stories that year. I got hundreds of emails and messages from readers who had their own weight issues and saw something in Jared's story that made them want to change. I forwarded a bunch of those emails to Jared. He was hearing from a lot of people too. His story moved so many.
One of the people Jared inspired was me. As I listened to him being so open and honest about his weight, I started to think that my story might be worth telling too. I wrote a book proposal for a memoir, and we found a publisher. That book, "The Elephant in the Room," came out this past January. Since then, I've heard from hundreds of more readers who were motivated to change because of the book or who used it as a way to connect with someone they know with a weight problem.
The book would not exist if not for Jared showing me the way.
I sent him a copy when it came out. We had kept in touch off and on over the years. He didn't say much except that he was doing OK. But every once in a while, I saw photos of him online. As I was getting smaller, he was getting bigger.
Jared died on Wednesday. He had gone into the hospital last week with an infection and heart and kidney issues. I don't know for a fact that they were related to his weight, but it seems likely. He was only 38.
After the story came out, he started a company called Throwboy Tees; one of his nicknames as a player was the Pillsbury Throwboy. He worked on the radio team at Kentucky football games. He always had a business idea or two in his head. But I don't know that he ever found anything with the clarity and purpose that football gave him.
A couple of years after the story, he finally went to the doctor and stepped on a scale for the first time in years. He weighed 560 pounds.
For a while, he did a video series called "The Jared Lorenzen Project" about his fight to get back in shape. When ESPN's show, E:60, did a piece on him last year, he had dropped down to 477. This past February, he was the subject of an online documentary series, also called "The Jared Lorenzen Project." The last clip on the series' Facebook page is from two months ago. He looks tired and stressed.
Jared had told the E:60 crew that he was willing to be the face of obesity, to be the one to stand up and say, "I'm fat," and then to show people what it took to get better. He had a desire to change people with the force of his personality, the way I always hope to change people with my words.
Wednesday night, on Twitter, a reader named Noble Brown told a story about reading my story on Jared. At the time, Noble was about to turn 40 and weighed more than 300 pounds. He read the story and stared at the unopened can of Dr Pepper on his desk. He resolved to never drink it. He started eating better and exercising. Now he lifts weights five times a week, and 5K races are a breeze.
His whole thread reads like poetry, and it ends this way:
As strange as it sounds
In some small way
Jared Lorenzen saved my life
I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing
He was younger than I was when I turned my life around
Perhaps in a few years, he might have done the same
I'm honored and humbled that the story on Jared has made a difference for so many. I wish my words had been strong enough to make the difference for Jared. His courage made so much of a difference for me.