Ex-NFL lineman and Hanover native, Damien Woody, talks “Biggest Loser”
By Joan Tupponce
A few months ago, former NFL offensive lineman Damien Woody felt self-conscious about his beefy 388-pound frame, especially when he appeared on-air for ESPN’s SportsCenter. Now, the Hanover County native couldn’t be happier with the way he looks.
Anyone watching SportsCenter recently got a glimpse of Woody’s svelte profile when he made his first appearance on the show since leaving to participate on this season’s “The Biggest Loser: Glory Days.”
“It was an unbelievable feeling getting that reception when I came back. I hadn’t been in contact with everybody for a long time,” the 37-year-old said, speaking from his home in Mendham, N.J. “They were shocked, blown away.”
Woody can’t reveal his weight until the “The Biggest Loser’s” live finale airs Jan. 29. However, he’s happy to tell you that by the Dec. 11 show when he was eliminated he had already lost 96 pounds. He says he owes his new look squarely to the reality show.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s been life changing,” he said of the show. “I am pretty good at my craft but my weight is always something that bothered me. I have been doing a lot of great things but that is one area I couldn’t figure out. I needed help. I couldn’t do it on my own.”
The show was transforming for the two-time Super Bowl champion in more ways than he had ever imagined.
“It gave me confidence to move forward,” he said.
It also helped him face his fear of heights. On the Oct. 9 show, Woody and his fellow contestants had to pull their body weight across a canyon while being suspended at the height of a 10-story building.
“I had never done anything like that before,” he said. “I thought, ‘How am I going to get through this one?’ This whole experience is about facing your fears one by one and learning to conquer them. I got hurt when I did it, but the fact that I did it was an accomplishment itself.”
Jessie Pavelka, Woody’s trainer on “The Biggest Loser,” saw that the ex-football player was mentally prepared for the show the minute the season began.
“He was a first-round NFL draft pick and very few people make it that far,” he said. “He was still in athlete mode. It was like he never left the field. He could do more than anybody starting out. While he did get fatigued, he could handle it.”
Woody’s work ethic on the show is a reflection of his childhood in rural Beaverdam. He credits his parents — his mother, Nancy Starkes, is now deceased but his father, Wilson Starkes, works for Dominion Power — grandparents, family members and the community for instilling that value in him.
“Friends would call and ask if they could use me to help on the farm or to cut lumber. I was used to working hard,” he said. “That work ethic stuck with me throughout my upbringing and to this point now.”
Woody weighed 300 pounds when he attended Patrick Henry High School. He didn’t start playing football until ninth grade.
“Initially, my mom didn’t want me to play football,” he said. “I have a big extended family of mostly males that play football. My father and grandfather convinced her to let me play.”
During his junior year, college recruiters started attending his games. In his senior year he received multiple offers from NCAA Division I colleges.
“Fortunately, I could pick the best opportunity for me and that was Boston College,” he said.
He was a first-round draft pick for the New England Patriots in 1999 and played center for the team until 2003. He played for the Detroit Lions from 2004 to 2007 and the New York Jets from 2007 to 2010. He announced his retirement from football in 2011.
When asked if the NFL was his goal in high school he said no.
“I was just a country boy that loved playing football. I loved to play the game,” he said. “I never thought I would play in the NFL for 12 years and win two Super Bowls. That never crossed my mind. When I sit back and reflect, I am still amazed.”
He found his background in football to be a good foundation for his stint on “The Biggest Loser” in terms of camaraderie and leadership.
“Football is the ultimate team sport,” he said. “You are acclimated to pushing each other. That was right up my alley, getting the best out of everyone.”
On the show, Woody is a natural leader just as he was on the field. He is constantly encouraging and motivating his teammates.
“It’s just a great experience. My teammates allow me to be who I am naturally,” he said, adding that the cast has been great. “At the end of the day I cared about getting the best out of everyone.”
Pavelka appreciated Woody’s leadership style.
“If he’s discouraged, he doesn’t let anybody know,” Pavelka said. “This was a guy that could jump in. It was almost like he was working with me. We are trainers but this is a team competition and he knows how to do that.”
Woody discovered that conditioning for football was very different than his workouts on the show, which were difficult for him.
“During my playing days everything was real specific to the game of football,” he said. “How we trained mimicked as close as possible the football field. Everything was about the power burst.”
Losing weight, on the other hand, can be slow and monotonous.
“Walking 10 to 15 miles or going for a light jog, that challenged him,” Pavelka said. “He was doing five to seven hours of slow-burn cardio but he realized this was a different game. It was the game of life. Shifting from a football player to a life player was the biggest thing for him.”
Woody appreciates the fact that Pavelka pushed him on the show. “He made me do things I wasn’t accustomed to doing,” Woody said.
When Woody was eliminated Dec. 11, he wasn’t shocked. He had lost 8 pounds and 11 pounds the two weeks prior. “I wished I could have banked that for the next week,” he said. “It was a tall order to come up with a third big week.”
Woody, who still has a chance to become the at-home winner, is proud that his seven children — four daughters and three sons — have seen firsthand how their father followed through on his goal of losing weight.
“I’m living proof that you can do whatever you put your mind to,” he said. “It’s been motivating for them.”
His wife had already started a family nutritional plan when he left for the show, knowing that when he came home the nutritional transition needed to be easy. Now that he’s back home and back to his hectic schedule, he has to challenge himself every day and create a plan for each day.
“I talk to my wife and kids about things I learned on the ranch (on the show),” he said. “I take our favorite recipes and change them up to make them healthier for us.”
Woody personally inspired Pavelka, who is coming off of his first season as a trainer on the show.
“He is someone who talks from the heart,” Pavelka said. “Damien gave back to me in a very big way. He gave me words back that helped me. It is neat to be part of that relationship. He’s someone I look up to.”
The experience has led Woody on a new path. In addition to his job at ESPN, he will be working with former athletes to help them stay fit. “I’m collaborating with the NFL,” he said. “That process has already started. When you’re out of the game you lose that structure and that is where guys struggle. I want to help the guys be more aware. This is a tough game we play. It takes its toll on you.”
Even though his time is limited, Woody makes it a point to come home to Hanover at least three times a year.
“I love everything about home. I love the people and the community feel. Everybody knows one another,” he said. “When I go home, people don’t look at me as an NFL player or an ESPN analyst. They just look at me and say that is just Danny (my nickname) that worked on the farm and played high school football.”
He’s been thankful for the encouragement he’s received while on the show from friends and family at home.
“Hanover County has been behind me 100 percent,” he said.