A group of four Lake Norman High School football coaches in Mooresville, North Carolina, have collectively lost over 350 pounds through running since July 2020.
And together, they call themselves the Thick Boys Running Club.
The four coaches are all former college football players who struggled with weight after their playing days were over; they said they had wanted to lose weight for years. When the pandemic hit and their coaching and teaching went virtual, they found themselves with some extra time.
Jay Keener, 40, the school’s athletic director and football coach, was the first to make a move.
“I always justified my weight [thinking that] 300 pounds isn’t bad, and then 310. And then, I was afraid to weigh myself,” Keener told Runner’s World. “When I saw 345, I realized it’s not going to get an easier to get the weight off later, so I better do something.”
Keener started on the track by running to the straights and walking the curves. A week later, he recruited offensive coordinator Sean Fitzgerald—who weighed 284 pounds, his highest ever—to join him.
By early August, head coach Jonathon Oliphant (278 pounds) and defensive coordinator David Johnson (365 pounds) joined Keener and Fitzgerald in running daily laps around the track. As the four runners progressed, they started doing stadium stairs, and ran 5Ks and 10Ks. Rarely did any of them run without a partner.
“There’s literally 300 feet between the school and the field house, and I would be out of breath,” Johnson told Runner’s World. “That’s how out of shape I was. Being 365 pounds was tough for me. Having these guys helping and encouraging me, it gave me the direction I needed, and it helped having that support system over the past eight months.”
The four coaches wrote their weights on a whiteboard in the field house by the stadium, and they weighed in every Friday starting on August 24. Instead of competing against one another to see who could individually lose the most weight, they decided to work together and collectively reach milestones. They celebrated every time they hit a combined 50 pounds lost.
“Myself and coach Oliphant had been involved in weight-loss competitions before against people, and we wanted to do something different,” Fitzgerald told Runner’s World. “Everyone wanted to pull their own weight. It was much more fun and we never had to go at it alone.”
The first to hit the century mark was Johnson, who has lost nearly 120 pounds. Chasing him for second place is Keener who has lost over 80 pounds to get below 200 followed by Oliphant who has lost just under 80 pounds, and Fitzgerald who has lost over 70 pounds.
With kids back to the classroom and at practice, the coaches are doing more runs before and after school. And all four have noticed some stares this spring.
“It’s definitely a combo of the weight loss and wearing a mask, but it’s been difficult for people to make me out. They wonder who the new teacher is,” Johnson told Runner’s World. “People keep coming up and saying how proud they are of us and are inspired. People are telling us that they saw me out there, and now they’re running and trying to lose weight. That’s the best part to me. It’s an influence you had that you didn’t know you had.”
Additionally, their athletes are taking particular notice.
“The kids have really gotten behind us with their comments and curiosity, asking how far we ran today and how much we lost that week,” Oliphant told Runner‘s World. “They get excited about it, which has helped us keep going. It’s a lifestyle we’re proud to share with them and one we hope they take with them in their lives.”
The four runners said they have received letters of support from people in the community, and notes from coaches around the state. And their families have been supportive, and appreciated the healthier lifestyle at home, especially the recipes shared between the runners.
“My mom came and ate lunch with us a while back and she made the comment that we sounded like a bunch of housewives sharing recipes,” Fitzgerald said.
The Thick Boys Running Club plans to grow their group in the future. They hosted the inaugural Thick Boys Running Club 5K in September and pulled in more than $2,400 for local charities. They hope to host another run in 2021.
“I’ve dealt with weight issues my whole life,” Oliphant said. “Now, I got a handwritten letter from a guy from a couple counties north saying how we motivate him, and he’s 40-something years old. I relate to that and it’s been so positive to see others inspired by seeing stories like their own so they know it can be done. Being able to be that positive for someone, it’s a blessing.”
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