CLEMSON, S.C. — Nick Eason was lacing up a pair of cleats he’d borrowed from Clemson‘s equipment manager a few minutes before 5 a.m. when Ruke Orhorhoro first spotted his coach. It’s not that it was a shock to see Eason there. Clemson’s defensive tackles coach had been promising to run through the team’s offseason mat drills for a while, but Orhorhoro had always been skeptical. Eason is 42, 12 years removed from his last NFL game, and until recently, he’d been pushing 400 pounds.
“I was confused,” Orhorhoro said. “I was like, ‘What is this cat doing?’ Coaches don’t do mat drills. That just doesn’t happen.”
Mat drills are a staple of Clemson’s offseason conditioning, a gauntlet of high intensity, progressive workouts lasting about five minutes each — rope drills, agility drills, bear crawls, flips, tumbling, sled work, footwork drills. It’s as much a mental challenge as a physical one, something Orhorhoro paradoxically says, “has nothing to do with football but also everything to do with football.”
As other players arrived, Eason’s presence was met with a mix of curiosity and disbelief.
“They were taking side bets on how long I’d last,” said Eason, who’ll lead one of Clemson’s units in its intrasquad spring game on Saturday.
But Eason had no intention of quitting. The way he saw it, there were three ways this ended: He passed out, he died or he finished.
Since he arrived at Clemson in January 2022, Eason’s approach to the job has been immersive. His first conversation with Orhorhoro was a two-hour therapy session, an unfurling of Eason’s own life story as a means of getting to know one of his new players. He invites his linemen to his house for dinner. He takes them to church with him on Sundays. And he’s always believed he should never ask something of his players he’s not willing to ask of himself.
No one expected that commitment to include mat drills, but Eason was determined. He ran through the first drill, then the second and third and just kept going. He finished every station, often leading the pack.
“He’s going to do everything he can to show that nothing’s impossible if you do the work,” defensive tackle Tyler Davis said. “It was amazing.”
Eason wasn’t amazed though.
Fifteen months ago, Eason came to Clemson overweight, depressed and lost. He’s trying to find his way back to a better equilibrium now, and mat drills were really just a bench mark, a chance to check his progress and gauge how much farther he still had to go.
He’s lost 62 pounds in the past year. He hasn’t had meat or dairy in seven months. He’s pulled himself out of the darkest chapter of his life, and he’s found renewed hope at his alma mater, not by trying to recapture his youth, but by finding a better balance in his life.
“I look at old pictures, and sometimes that’s the worst thing to do,” Eason said. “But I’m looking at the 42-year-old version of myself now, and it’s still not where I want it to be, but I didn’t get here overnight and it’s not going to get fixed overnight. It takes a lot of patience and keeping the right perspective on the little things I’ve done just making the effort to get up every day and keep trying.”
BACK HOME IN Georgia, food is the connective tissue that binds folks together.
“When I go home, it’s, ‘Come over to my house and let’s eat,'” Eason said. “Go to church and let’s eat. Saturday in the park and let’s eat.”
But food took its toll on Eason’s family. Nearly all his relatives were overweight. Two uncles died in their early 50s. The ones who survived longer often ended up on dialysis, their bodies breaking down so drastically that their later years lacked any sense of joy. Eason remembers a time when he was playing with the Pittsburgh Steelers when a coach posed a question: How many 300-pound 80-year-olds did he know? Eason said he didn’t know any.
“Right,” said the coach. “They’re all dead.”
Food couldn’t be the centerpiece of Eason’s existence if he wanted to live a long and happy life, but his relationship with food was complicated.
He is, he said, “an emotional eater,” and when times have been hard, he would turn to the things that always brought him comfort.
Through COVID-19, Eason actually found a healthy rhythm. He ate well. He exercised. He trimmed down. But by the summer of 2021, things began to unravel.
Eason was a popular player at Clemson during his college days, but he’d only kept in regular contact with a few former teammates over the years. His closest friend from those days was Altroy Bodrick, a former Tigers linebacker who’d made a point to call Eason regularly and drive to his games. In late June 2021, Bodrick had a massive heart attack and died. He was 41. Eason was devastated.
Three months later, Eason’s grandmother, too, suffered a heart attack. Betty Holland had always been his rock, the person who’d inspired him to play football, to find God, to chase his dreams. Now she was in hospice care, and Eason spent two months driving three hours from Auburn, where he was coaching at the time, to visit her for an hour or two before turning around and making the drive back home. Holland died in November 2021.
Eason fell into a deep depression. His relationships with some members of his family were frayed at the time, he said, and he didn’t feel comfortable talking about his struggles with many people around him.
“You see Nick, and everything looks perfect, but he just wasn’t right,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
Instead, he ate, and he worked, and he cried, and that was his life for nearly a year.
“It’s real, man. Human,” Eason said. “I’m a human. And it’s being able to survive those tough moments, and unfortunately that was my way of surviving. … I just kind of ate my depression.”
By the start of last football season, Eason weighed in at 394 pounds, the heaviest he’d ever been.
When he went to the doctor, the conversation went about as expected. They talked about heart disease and diabetes and blood-pressure medication. Eason needed to change, or he would die.
Truth is, Eason hadn’t really been living for the past year anyway. He’d let his grief overwhelm him, and he’d soothed that hurt with sugar and fatty foods.
“I just told myself, ‘You’re done with whatever you’ve got going on. You have to get it together or you’re not going to live,'” Eason recalled.
AN AVERAGE DAY of eating for Eason before he changed his life:
Breakfast: grits, eggs, bacon, a biscuit and, on a particularly indulgent day, pancakes.
Lunch: a double cheeseburger plate, ideally from Mac’s Drive-In, where he’d add a couple slaw dogs (all the way), a sweet tea and a milkshake.
Dinner: it varied, but Blue Heron outside Clemson was a favorite. He’d order sushi or calamari to start. Then salmon, grits and collards. A couple drinks. Then the coup de gras was a double serving of their cobbler (“The best in the city,” Eason said).
And then snacks: Little Debbie oatmeal pies, zebra cakes, chocolate chip cookies dipped in milk. Sodas. Oreos.
Total calorie count: Don’t ask.
“A lot of people turn to alcohol and drugs, and that’s not my thing. But an Oreo cookie or some ice cream or a juicy burger is right down my alley,” Eason said. “I’m just eating, eating and eating, and I’m feeling good. And that’s a trigger in your brain. You wake up to steak and biscuits and grits and eggs. Working out, that’s pain. I was choosing what was easy.”
Eason still talks lovingly about his favorite foods and restaurants, but his binging days are behind him. He’s gone vegan, and he has most meals prepped for him by a vegan restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina. The cheeseburgers have been replaced by black bean burgers that he eats with homemade French fries he cooks in his air fryer. He makes rice bowls — whole grain rice only, he said — and tops them with mushrooms and red peppers. He’s stopped guzzling sodas and now drinks water.
It’s a marked change to his lifestyle, but Eason said it was just a matter of making a decision and committing to it.
“It became a battlefield of the mind,” he said, “and once my mind is made up my body follows.”
Orhorhoro said his roommate, Jalyn Phillips, saw Eason recently and was so shocked by the new physique he was initially worried the coach was sick.
Nope. Eason is better than ever.
It’s not just the new diet either, Eason said. He works out three days a week at a local gym owned by former Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware. And because Swinney has always prioritized family time, it’s allowed Eason a chance to get back to Atlanta and spend time with family.
“In this business, I call myself a bad dad,” Eason said. “I take care of my kids financially, but you’re just never there.”
In the past year, however, Eason’s been home routinely, sitting in the stands for a majority of his son’s high school games.
More than anything, Eason’s opened up. He’s built trust with the people around him. He’s not pretending everything is OK while burying his feelings under a mountain of bacon and grits. He’s even sharing his journey publicly in hopes others will find hope in his success.
In 2021, I lost my former teammate and dear friend. Months later I lost the rock of my life, my grandmother. For a year, I ate on 80 pounds of depression. BUT I PRAYED and challenged myself to model the “hard work” I demanded of my players. I’m down 62 pounds, with 40 more… pic.twitter.com/vW47HQTMfg
— Coach Nick Eason (@CoachEason1) March 3, 2023
Swinney recalled his own struggles growing up amid poverty with a father who often drank too much, and how opening up about his journey offered a sense of peace. He sees parallels for Eason.
“Things I was embarrassed about as a kid, later on in life it helped me to share it and to realize that there was other people like me,” Swinney said. “That freed me up to speak about things I never would’ve spoken about before. Nick’s the same way. He knows he can inspire other people by what he’s been through.”
Eason isn’t at the end of the journey, he said. He’s got at least another 32 pounds to lose before the season starts. But that’s just a number, really. He admits his post-NFL career has been something of a yo-yo when it comes to his weight, so all the progress he’s made is simply a step — a big one — in an ongoing process of figuring out a better way to live and also lead.
The 400-pound Nick Eason was still a good coach who loved his players. This version, however — the one closing in on 300 pounds — isn’t simply teaching his guys. He’s showing them the way.
“Even when he was too heavy, he was a ton of energy,” Swinney said. “But now, he’s unstoppable and the players truly, truly love him. He’s special.”