Meet football: A sport that averages around 16.7 million TV viewers per game annually and is the undisputed king of TV in the U.S. Some of the sport’s best – and biggest – moments revolve around helmet-rattling hits that leave fans buzzing and commentators flabbergasted.
But what allows these players to make these big-time plays? The answer: Weights — and a lot of them.
Football players need to be zealots about weight training throughout their whole career in order to pack on the muscle and strength required to barrel through offensive linemen and make game-changing tackles on 250-plus-pound running backs.
For some NFL stars, the final snap of their career also means a well-earned opportunity to take their foot off the gas and give all that time in the gym a rest. But other retired stars keep grinding away in the weight room as hard as they did during their prime, as if their number can still be called at any moment.
Let’s look at seven athletes who maintained — and possibly even improved upon — their strength in the gym even after retirement.
7 Retired NFL Stars Who Are Still Strong as Hell
- Heath Evans
- Rob Gronkowski
- Shannon Sharpe
- James Harrison
- Terrell Owens
- Deion Sanders
- Steve Weatherford
Hitting 225 on the bench press is a huge milestone for any lifter – but in the NFL, it’s an integral part of the annual NFL Combine, where post-college gridiron prospects gather to show pro scouts and coaches how strong – and fast and tough and smart – they really are.
And for retired NFL fullback Heath Evans, this feat is still part of his everyday fitness routine, as he repped 225 45 times at the ripe age of 38 while serving as an analyst for the NFL Network back in 2017. Evans was selected in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks and eventually played 10 seasons with the Dolphins, Patriots, and Saints, where he won a Super Bowl in February 2010.
Evans is 44 years old as of November 2023, and he retired from the league back in 2011. Despite that, he’s as focused on his fitness as ever, and the highlight of his post-NFL career might be the set of 28 squats he did with 405 pounds on his back as bodybuilder Mike O’Hearn looked on back in May 2020.
Standing at 6’6” and weighing in at 265 pounds, Rob Gronkowski is considered one of the greatest tight ends of all time. He is a four-time Super Bowl champ – three with the New England Patriots and one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – and is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a member of the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team.
To accomplish what was nothing short of a spectacular career, Gronkowski put in countless hours in the gym behind the scenes. In his college years at the University of Arizona, he got up to 365 pounds on the power cleans, squatted 365 for 10, and then benched 315 for nine reps between 2007-09. And that was all before he even turned 21.
Although Gronkowski retired in 2022, he still continues to train like an All-Pro and he even has his own line of gym equipment called Gronk Fitness. As he gets further removed from the gridiron, Gronkowski has become more concerned with improving his functional fitness rather than eye-catching one-rep maxes, but he can still be seen on social media pumping out sets on the belt squat, the landmine press, and the sled pull.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe had a football career anyone would envy. The Denver Broncos acquired him at the end of the seventh round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and he soon became one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league.
Sharpe collected two consecutive Super Bowls with the Broncos and a third in 2000 with the Baltimore Ravens. Coupled with this, he saw seven consecutive Pro Bowls, four first-team All-Pros, and was named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1990s. What kept him at the top of the proverbial hill in his career was his grit, determination, and work ethic in the gym. And while more than 20 years have passed since he retired, his strength is still as impressive as ever.
Even well into his 50s, Sharpe can still put up more than 400 pounds with ease on the barbell bench press and routinely uses 115-pound weights on the incline dumbbell bench press. (Both are remarkable feats for any age.) In recent years, he’s been known to train with seven-time Mr. Olympia Phil Heath as well as famed bodybuilding and coach Miloš Šarčev.
James Harrison began his career in 2002 as an undrafted linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He soon became a force of nature in the middle of the field, earning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 and winning two championships with the Gold and Black. He retired in 2017 and is 45 years old as of November 2023 — but you’d never know it from the videos he posts of himself in the gym.
Harrison is an absolute unit who mustered up an unreal 545-pound barbell bench press at 44 years old. He’s also posted videos of himself hauling 1,960 pounds – a whopping 42 plates – on the sled and pressing 135 pounds overhead with one arm.
What makes this all the more impressive is how lean Harrison is. He stands at six feet, weighs around 240 pounds, and touts a pair of 21.5-inch biceps.
Terrell Owens danced and dazzled through his NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, and the Buffalo Bills. In his 16-year career, TO eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark nine times, earned All-Pro five times, and went to six Pro Bowls. His accomplishments earned him enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
Now, outside of football, Owens still spends his days lifting weights and staying in ridiculous shape. Despite closing in on 50 years old, Owens can still run a 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds and trains at high intensity four to five times a week, concentrating on free weights and cardio.
In an interview with STACK, Owens said the key to his success is simple: “It’s all about nutrition and how you eat in moderation and just don’t eat to get full. I’ve been able to maintain my level of physique and shape just by eating healthy for the most part.”
Deion Sanders – also known as “Prime Time” or “Coach Prime” – is the biggest name in college football at the moment as the head coach at Colorado. He is also one of the all-time great defensive backs in NFL history.
Through 14 seasons, Sanders was an eight-time Pro Bowler and won two Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. He still ranks 22nd all-time with 53 career interceptions and is the only athlete to play in both the Super Bowl and a World Series as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
[Related: The Best Upper Body Workouts for Strength]
Though his playing career officially ended in 2001, he still spends plenty of time in the gym lifting weights – a lot of them. In a video from March 2023, Sanders casually hopped onto a flat bench to knock out six easy reps at 245 pounds at 55 years old. He didn’t even warm up, which we certainly do not endorse but is impressive nonetheless.
Punters don’t usually rank among the strongest members of an NFL team, but one look at Steve Weatherford’s carved-up physique quickly puts that stereotype to bed. Between 2006 and 2015, Weatherford was a special teams maestro, culminating in his role in the New York Giants’ victory at Super Bowl XLVI, where he booted three majestic punts that forced the New England Patriots to start drives within their own 10-yard line.
However, it is not only football that defines Weatherford. He also found his passion inside the gym, where he could leg press 1,000 pounds for an easy 12 reps, nail a 475-pound back squat, and get close to a 400-pound bench press, according to a New York Times profile during his playing days.
During an interview with Muscle & Fitness, Weatherford said his obsession with training and nutrition stems from the fact that he has “little man syndrome,” owing to the fact that he was always smaller than his teammates. And that drive hasn’t calmed down much since retirement.
As of 2023, nearly a decade away from the sport, Weatherford remains in absurd shape. He now promotes his own training app filled with specialized workouts, including 28 days of 30-minute bodyweight training. He also regularly posts his progress on social media, where you can watch him blow through circuit workouts, power through long-distance runs, and flex like an IFBB pro.
All seven of these athletes made big-time plays in their professional careers, and it stemmed from the work they put in in the gym. For anyone out there looking to put up big numbers — even as you get into your 40s or beyond — their stories can help serve as motivation for your own goals. And even if you’re just in the market to watch big athletes move even bigger weights, they’re more than well-equipped for that, too.
Featured image: @weatherford5 and @terrellowens on Instagram