Aaron Gibson recently lost a toe. His left big toe.
A blue-chip prospect out of Wisconsin, Gibson was once the heaviest player in NFL history, officially weighing in at 410 pounds in 2002 with the Dallas Cowboys. The Detroit Lions drafted him 27th overall in 1999, trading three draft picks to the Miami Dolphins to move up 12 spots to select the guy Sports Illustrated deemed "the prototype for the gargantuan linemen of the 21st century." Of course, all of that was before two shoulder injuries left him a fraction of who he once was and derailed a career that ended after 38 games in six seasons, his last in 2004.
Gibson had thought for years that his overeating could lead to gout or diabetes, knowing that a loss of a toe could come with them. But instead the culprit was a poisonous spider bite, the bug finding a way into his shoe during a day working on the backyard koi pond. As the flesh on his left big toe started dissolving, revealing tendons and, soon, bone, Gibson figured this wasn't gout.
The bite looked like a bull's-eye, black in the middle, red and then white. Seventeen days after the swelling started, Aaron, 39, lying in bed, felt a sharp, overwhelming pain in his left hip. His wife Brigitte Gibson abandoned her Costco trip that day to take him to the hospital, where doctors said he needed emergency surgery. His toe had gotten infected from the bite, and the infection had spread to his hip.
The doctors initially told Gibson he might lose his entire left leg, but when he woke up from surgery, it was still there. But there was the one digit, floating in a plastic container, in the surgeon's hand. Doctors amputated the toe and removed the infected tissue in his hip with two deep incisions, telling Aaron that if he had decided to sleep that night, he would've died.
"It was a stupid spider bite. It was ugly, but I guessed when it healed, it'd be better," Aaron says. "It hurts, but I've got a lot more pain than that."
After all, a life of lingering pain, always more serious than first expected, has been the one constant in his life.
When the hunger would hit hard during the summers—when there weren't school-provided lunches or food spreads in the locker room—a 16-year-old Aaron Gibson walked an hour to the Broadway branch of the Indianapolis Public Library on 42nd Street, where a summer reading program provided a coupon for free McDonald's french fries and an ice cream cone. It was all a charade: Gibson picking up a book, pretending to read and walking to the front desk, asking for his reward.
Both parties knew he didn't really read the book, but it didn't matter. They'd give him the coupon, and he'd walk 35 minutes to the McDonald's on 38th Street to get what would often be his only meal of the day. By the time he got home, the clock read 10 p.m., the walk alone taking nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Between ages 11 and 17, Aaron and his family moved around 30 times, spending a year in the Dayspring Center homeless shelter. Aaron got used to jumping off the school bus and seeing all of the family's belongings on the curb, every three months or so; the first month rent was paid, the second month unpaid, the third month—evicted. The Gibsons had a microwave, but not a working stove. Sometimes, Aaron says, the only meal of the day would be the leftover crust from a late-night pizza his parents, Richard and Constance, ate the night before. Other times, he and his siblings, Cobree and Adam, picked the meat off the bones of finished KFC chicken wings.
If their kitchen didn't have food—and it usually didn't—Aaron and Constance would go to the church on 29th Street to get a bowl of cereal and a little box of milk. When they were lucky, white cans, reading "BEEF" or "PORK" in bold, black letters, would sit on the counter, a haul from the food pantry. Aaron never complained about eating the scraps of his parents' leftovers or walking a few blocks to the church. Hunger constantly spoke to him, but it was the norm. As a child, he thought this was how everyone lived.
He didn't realize his family was poor until he was 16, when his parents encouraged him to stay at the house of his friend, Hunter Marshall. It seemed like Disneyland. There was a color television, food always on the table and parents always eager to ask how his day was. When Richard and Constance found out about the Marshalls' hospitality, Aaron says, they encouraged him to stay.
His first athletic dreams started in the pool, as an Olympic swimmer, and the wrestling ring, but by the time his growth spurt hit, football became his calling. As his star grew on the gridiron, the local media swarmed Aaron, the 6'6" high schooler who weighed around 420 pounds, a product of the Gibson gene. Almost all of the recruitment calls came to the Marshalls' house, and if they didn't, they were directed to the payphone near the window of the house where his parents temporarily resided more than 15 miles away.
As the attention grew, Richard and Constance began speaking to the local media about how proud they were of their son. Richard told reporters of how he got his son started in the weight room after seeing him unable to do push-ups. It never actually happened, Aaron says, but Richard told the fable to the media anyway. This is what Aaron feels is the story of him and his parents: never around until they needed him, gone the second they didn't.
Aaron Gibson remembers that first year of college at Wisconsin, seeing the food in the locker room and dining hall and feeling equal parts overwhelmed and excited. They had everything. Steak. Shrimp. Chicken. Pasta. Marinara. Alfredo. Hot dogs. Eggs. Bacon. Sausage. Lobster once a month. It was everything he didn't have as a child, and it "never wasn't amazing."
"I didn't ever want to be hungry because 'tomorrow,' as a kid, I could not eat," Gibson says. "That wasn't going to happen at Wisconsin, but that was in my head. I ate like that until exhaustion."
Gibson stacked his plate, coming back with three filet-sized steaks and spaghetti, on top of a plateful of sides. He'd sneak things past Wisconsin's strength and conditioning coach, managing to eat, he guesses, 20,000 to 30,000 calories each day.
Badgers teammates and staff worried about Gibson's eating habits, but he continued to produce on the field at nearly 400 pounds, in large part because of his otherworldly athleticism. "I've never seen someone who weighs 400 pounds, can squat 700 pounds, can clean over 400 pounds, can bench over 500 pounds and can do the splits," says Chris McIntosh, Gibson's fellow offensive lineman at Wisconsin.
Dunks from the baseline in pickup games: routine. Breaking apples with hand strength alone: a party trick. The standing back flips: standard. All this from a guy who reflexively ducked his head and turned sideways to get through door frames, a guy who wore the biggest helmet Riddell ever manufactured (an 8 ½) and wears a size-18 shoe.
The eating didn't slow down once he got to the NFL. Nakia Codie and Gibson were both rookies with the Detroit Lions when they bonded; through the veteran hazing, through the grueling days of minicamp, they stuck together. Codie liked cooking, which meant Gibson liked hanging out with Codie. At barbecues, Gibson would eat half of the food cooked, the rest split among six or seven people.
"I don't know how he burned it off," Codie says. "How do you eat that much food, and then still be hungry two hours later? … This guy was eating meals every two hours."
With the food came weight, and with the weight came weight clauses. During his rookie season, Gibson says the Lions fined him $80,000 for missing his weight goal of 376 pounds by coming into camp at 390, he says. His second year, the clause said 378, but he played much heavier and got rocked with fines weekly. That's when Gibson knew he needed to do something, and first came across StarCaps, a diuretic pill. For $110 a bottle, Gibson could take the pills, meet his weight goals and not get fined.
They called it Fat Tuesdays, and at first, it was just four guys. On Sundays, Gibson typically played at 384 pounds. On Mondays, he would take nine to 10 StarCaps pills (two to three were recommended) and "piss until it hurt." The group of guys sat in the sauna to sweat everything out, and at home on Mondays, Gibson rode his stationary bike to sweat out the little remaining water. He'd put on plastic bag pants, sweatshirts and hoodies, and sit in the car with the heat on. To top it all off, he'd take Milk of Magnesia, a laxative, to hit the 20 pounds he needed to lose some weeks to make weight and not get fined. By the end of the year, the group grew to eight guys.
"I was still playing at my regular weight on Sunday," Gibson says. "What were they getting? It was a charade."
He used pills to try to fix the pain, too. It started with his left shoulder on the second day of training camp, the third practice of his rookie season. During one-on-one drills, Gibson faced off against Kelvin Pritchett, a veteran defensive lineman who was "grandfather strong." When the whistle blew, Pritchett punched Gibson in the chest. As the defensive end began driving, Gibson's shoulder twisted. The pressure became so great that the bone pushed through the socket, and Gibson's arm dropped. The socket was gone, along with the labrum and rotator cuff, all in an instant.
Gibson rehabbed the injury and reclaimed his starting job. In his 10th game back, against the Atlanta Falcons, Gibson felt something in his shoulder, this time in his right arm. He tried to stay in the game, but as he took his stance, he felt liquid rushing down his back, which turned out to be blood. The Lions called a timeout, thinking Gibson had dislocated his right shoulder, but when they took off the pads, the bone had broken all the way through, again. Gibson was soon on painkillers, just to feel normal again. Before long, he was taking pills every three hours, 70-80 of them a day. Handfuls of aspirin would hold over Gibson between batches of the stronger stuff.
"You think, 'I'll stop. I'll stop when I stop playing. I'll stop needing the pain medicine,'" Gibson says. "You feel like when you're done, you're just doing it for football. 'I'm just doing this so I can play. It's not going to affect my life in any way.' And that's wrong."
By August 2006, Gibson was done in the NFL, cut by the Buffalo Bills without a game snap, playing at nearly 400 pounds. Three months later, he received a call from his mom. His dad had died in bed, suffocating, his lungs collapsing under his own excessive weight. Gibson saw his own future.
"I knew. I was gonna go out like my dad," Gibson says.
He hung onto football longer than it wanted to hang onto him. Hobbled, the memories of back flips and splits long behind him, Aaron Gibson signed with the Austin Wranglers of the Arena Football League in 2007 and limped through the season. He tried again in 2010 with the Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings of the AFL, but the pain was worse this time. After just one practice he realized he couldn't play football anymore, but he still dressed for the first game—then broke a bone in his leg. The dream really ended years before, but football was finally over for Gibson, and all of the attention—from family, from people he thought to be friends—disappeared with it.
"It was lonely," Gibson says. "I was by myself and it felt like nobody could understand what was going on."
He moved back to the Dallas suburbs, where he had bought a home during his time with the Cowboys, looking for the stability he never had as a child. He lived alone, divorced after a too-young-to-get-married union that produced a daughter, and weighed 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 fruit or a vegetable alone. The refrigerator in his two-bedroom apartment was empty, save for fast-food leftovers. Pots and pans, still packed in the box, tape and all, sat in the cabinet below the counter, door shut. The moments when he ate were the only moments he felt happy.
The weight kept coming too. He soon gained 80 pounds, topping out at 480.
The pain—from football, from family abandonment, from heartbreak—grew worse by the day, in a life that had come to be defined by everlasting suffering. He'd visit a doctor down the street from his apartment who ran a pay-for-prescription office. When his body called for the opioids, when he'd downed bottles of 120 pills over just three days, Gibson waited two hours to see the doctor for more, one of the few reasons he left the house those days. Everything hurt. Shoulders. Knees. Hips. Legs. Other doctors told him to take insulin and other diabetes medication, with his blood sugar at 450 and 500 when it should have been between 79-100, but Gibson just wanted prescriptions for the pills—for $1,400 a month—that made him feel normal.
The pain, the pills, the disappointment wore him down. Sometimes, he'd look at himself in the bathroom mirror and yell. I can't handle this. I'm a junkie. You are hooked on these painkillers.
"I'm like, is it me?" Gibson says. "Then everything else just fails. Your body fails you, which was always there for you. My body was always there for me. It was failing me and now I was turning into my father. It all just bothers you, like fuck."
On Christmas Day 2011, Gibson sat, alone, in his apartment watching TV with a plate of grits and eggs. There was no tree, no conversation, no family. There was nobody to share his feelings with, but it's not as though he felt like he even could. By March 2013, he found himself at Green Oaks psychiatric hospital, his wrists cut, and doctors telling him he nearly overdosed on Valium. For six months, the thoughts of suicide constantly occupied his mind.
Just do it, Aaron.
Just do it, Aaron.
Just do it, Aaron.
He wanted it to be quick. He didn't want to suffer like his father did when he died.
One day, as the TV played in the background, Gibson looked down his long hallway and saw the door to his bedroom. It's time, he thought. He waited, and took a breath. There was nothing else to hold onto. He felt close—minutes, maybe seconds away. He could finally end the pain that always lingered, in one form or another. The pain that permeated and defined his life.
It was going to happen, and then it just didn't. That day, Aaron Gibson did not commit suicide. "Say I would've had access to a firearm, I would've shot myself," he says.
"Something else took over."
They'd met once before, in 2004, at the baby shower of a mutual friend, Brigitte remembered. They'd small-talked about being parents. He was still married at the time, but she was already on her own. She'd sworn off dating anyone, without enough time in the day to take care of three kids and pause for a breath. When Aaron walked into that restaurant that night, nearly a decade later, around 6 o'clock, she recognized him.
What she didn’t know was that this was his first night out in a long time, six months after he nearly attempted suicide. She’d worked on so many athletes as a sports massage therapist that his size didn’t even deserve a footnote.
The only reason he'd decided to go out that night was because he'd met Richard Tyson, an actor known for his role in the 1980s film Three O'Clock High who was in town filming. They'd gone to a club that also offered massages. Tyson wanted one, so Aaron decided to talk to Brigitte. He didn't recognize her from their brief encounter, 10 years earlier, but they started talking about being single parents, and slowly, Aaron opened up. Over five hours of music and the chatter of the patrons at the bar, they talked until the restaurant closed.
He wanted to take her to dinner. He seemed like a nice guy, she remembered, thinking back to the baby shower. She'd said she wouldn't date any more professional athletes, but he seemed different, like he actually cared, and so she asked four questions: Do you owe back child support? Do you live with your mom? Are you legally divorced? Do you have a job? When the answers came back no, no, yes and yes (he owned a security company), she gave him her phone number.
Brigitte had a three-hour window to talk every day, so Aaron began to set his alarm. At 9:05, every morning, her phone would ring, and it would be him. She would be working on 3.5 hours of sleep after coming home from work at 3 a.m. before waking up at 6:30 a.m. to drive her kids to school. Brigitte and Aaron would talk, to keep her awake, but also to support each other as single parents, wading through all of life's noise.
Brigitte became determined to help change Aaron's diet after a glance at his fridge. "I would come over and would be like, 'What do you eat? There's nothing in your refrigerator but water and soda,'" Brigitte says. So while cooking for her kids, she began making extra portions for Aaron, bringing over chili, pasta, meatloaf and salad. He started losing weight, and she kept feeding him.
At five months, they officially became a couple. At seven months, they moved in together, and a year in, they were engaged, with the weight coming off of Aaron just as quickly—100 pounds in the first year. Brigitte began to slowly ease him off the painkillers, using massage as alternative therapy. To tone his new physique, Aaron needed to find exercises his battered ex-athlete body could handle. Walking and running were out because of his bad knees, and strength training would not work with two bad shoulders. So he started doing crunches, 1,500 a day in sets of 300.
"I went hard," Gibson says. "I was not going to stop."
The next 90 pounds came off gradually over the next two-and-a-half years, dropping Aaron to 290 pounds, a weight he hadn't reached since his sophomore year of high school. He went from a 54-inch waist to a 40, and his blood sugar fell to normal levels, around 90 to 100. He no longer needed the diabetes medication he never used anyway. Then the abs started showing.
"It's kind of a funny feeling. You do all of this work, eating all the food, and preparing and doing all of that and it's worth it," Gibson says. "You see the numbers going off on the scale, which is awesome. It's like, what do I get out of it? Then you get a nice stomach. When you're out and about and you take off your shirt, it's a look-at-me type thing. It really is."
It was never a concerted effort to slim down. Brigitte just wanted Aaron to be healthier, and for a while, she didn't even notice the weight loss, being around him every day. "If you love someone," Brigitte says, "you feed them vegetables." Everything she'd done didn't hit her until one day when she hugged her husband, and for the first time, two years into the relationship, she could hold her own hands.
Every once in awhile, Aaron Gibson's brain tricks him into thinking his fifth toe is still attached, with some soreness or an itch, but when he looks down, he only sees four. Gibson is re-learning how to walk since losing his toe, which has caused a balance issue. Doctors previously told him he had the body of a 70-year-old arthritic man, and even before the amputation, Gibson sometimes used a cane to get around the house on days when his knees hurt too much. With every step, the bones in his knees grate together, the sound of gravel grinding under tires reverberating in his head.
He walks up and down the stairs slowly and deliberately, with hands on both railings. On a hook next to his bed hangs a claw he uses to pick things up from the ground. Bending over hurts too much. "Laying in bed bothers him," Brigitte says. "I think it's because his dad just laid there and got fatter." Before sleep, Brigitte often catches Aaron checking his stomach for fat, worried that his stomach will flop over onto the bed, like his dad's before him. Later into the night, Gibson sometimes wakes up from the pain, screaming.
"You feel very powerless," Brigitte says. "You feel, I want to help you, but I know there's nothing I can do, so you just go through it."
The painkillers still call to him. He hurts so much that one doctor suggested surgically inserting a spine-vibrating device that could distract him from the pain. "I've joked that I'm gonna have a power chair, that I'm gonna have to be in a wheelchair, but I joke about it because I'm serious," Aaron says. "There's gonna be a point where I can't walk anymore."
One day, the physical pain, unlike its emotional cousin, will defeat Aaron Gibson, likely on a day too soon. The toe, once destined to be lost to diabetes or gout, was taken anyway.
The Gibsons plan their life around comfort to minimize Aaron's physical pain. They're scouting land to build a one-floor house so Aaron doesn't have to limp up and down the stairs anymore. Aaron's pain flames up in the days before a rainstorm, so the family never plans events when inclement weather is in the forecast.
On those days he stays at home, where he's often trapped by the pain. In Aaron's man cave—a room decorated with two framed photos of his time with the Lions, a picture of the 1999 Wisconsin Rose Bowl trophy, a 70-inch flat screen adorned with "BIG GIBS" on the wall above and littered with Badgers memorabilia—sit two reclining chairs. Brigitte and Aaron took an entire day to find those chairs, sitting in nearly 300 recliners at the store because they needed their picks to be just right. "They're really comfortable, aren't they?" Aaron asks.
He sits in the chairs a lot. Sometimes he watches NFL Network, studying the techniques of offensive linemen before and after his time. He's happier now than he was at any point during his football career, but he wouldn't give any of it back, either. The years of suffering brought him and his wife together. They set him and his new family up financially for the rest of their lives.
"I knew what could happen," he says, sitting in a room that's a shrine—from the large, framed NFL photos to the recliners—to what he was, and what he's become.