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The Other Side of Grief

My dad died from aggressive liver cancer before my senior year of high school. He was a people-loving pastor who had sacrificed a lot in his efforts to start three churches near our hometown of Kannapolis, N.C. He was my teacher, my sensei, and my superman. I was 16 when he passed — really just a boy.

I was one of the captains of my football team and played on the offensive line, standing 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighing in at 340 pounds. I had always been big — all the men in my family were “just big.”

Like many Southerners, we connected through food, and I’d always had a huge appetite. When my mom made spaghetti, she made me my own pot. I once ate 105 chicken wings in one sitting at a restaurant. I grew up in a culture where eating was a centerpiece of any gathering and overeating was viewed as normal.

But when my dad died, I was thrown into a tailspin. After football season ended, I stopped doing any sort of exercise and started eating my emotions. That’s when my real weight gain began. Within two years, I gained more than 150 pounds.

At 19, I thought I had found my role: the fat, funny guy. I was likable, and I had a lot of friends. But the older I got, the more I began to notice there weren’t a lot of close-to-500-pound guys who were successful entrepreneurs and family men.

I wanted that version of the American dream — businessman, husband, and father — and I decided I couldn’t have it unless I made some big changes.

I remember lying in bed one morning in 2006 and thinking, You need to change your life now. I was living at home with my mom at the time, piecing together a living, going to community college part-time, and trying to figure out what to do next. So I got up, and I walked down the street. I set my sights on a stop sign at the corner. Then another. Then another. One stop sign to the next. I probably walked for only about 45 minutes; I could stand only that long before I was in a lot of pain.

From Workouts to Rewarding Work

Walking down the street wasn’t easy. I was a blob of emotions as I went from one block to the next. I fought an internal battle: Forget this. It’s easier being fat. Oh, come on now, you can do this! OK, maybe tomorrow. But my football training kicked in, and I kept pushing a little past what was comfortable.

The silver lining of weighing 500 pounds is that, initially, the pounds melt off as long as you’re doing something. I weighed my intimidation against my goals and signed up for a gym membership. I began doing circuit training, treadmills — whatever I could to get the weight to come off.

I also tried just about every fad diet you can think of and any miracle shake on the market. I met with a nutritionist, but it didn’t help. It wasn’t bad advice, but I wasn’t ready to eat the kinds of foods that would change my body. I first needed to change my approach: Food was fuel, not comfort.

By the time I turned 20, I had lost about 140 pounds, and people had started to notice. Friends would tell me I looked like a pro football player. I felt good; I had a whole new swagger. I started showing my arms at the gym. But at 360 pounds, I was plateauing — my workouts were no longer really working — and I was tempted to quit.

The football coach at a local high school knew what I was going through — grieving, weight loss — and, in 2009, he asked me if I would serve as a volunteer coach. It was just the opportunity I needed. I started coaching strength and offensive line, and I began doing the workouts I was setting up for the kids. At the same time, the other coaches stepped in to fill the gaps left by my father’s absence, offering me advice, course correction, and support. I was moving from boy to man-child.

Coaching also offered me the opportunity to attend a lot of different clinics, which piqued my interest in personal training. In the spring of 2010, I enrolled in a program and got certified as a personal trainer.

Stronger in Mind and Body

The personal-training program gave me an inside look at my food theories and helped me understand that there’s more than one way to lose weight or reach a goal. The light bulb really switched on when I realized I was an emotional eater.

I’m still dealing with that. The key for me is knowing it exists, and then knowing how to counteract it. I know that food is here to fuel me. But some days, I still find myself wanting an Oreo pie because I had a bad day. When I feel like eating that pie, I have to ask myself, What is this stemming from? That allows me to stop and consider why I’m feeling poorly and understand the source of the craving.

I won’t lie: I do sometimes eat an Oreo pie. I might have a sweet tea. And if my mom is cooking, I’m going to eat it! But then I just counteract it with time at the gym and healthier food choices. I do my research to see how to modify my diet to maximize my workouts. For example, I carbo load on the days I’m lifting, so I have enough energy.

With every few pounds that come off, I uncover a new part of myself. It requires intense self-evaluation. No one wants to admit to being obese or a closet eater — but acknowledging reality is a good thing. To me, positivity means coming to grips with truth and making something out of that truth.

That’s what I decided to do. My father’s gone, and last year my sister passed away. It’s even more vital now for me to take care of my body. I realize that I can lose the weight without losing the memory of my dad or my sister.

I look in the mirror and I ask myself, Are you satisfied with the man you see? Are you the man kids can look up to? I think so, but I also know that I have a ways to go. I am driven, and I’m proud of losing 275 pounds, but I want to be the best person I can be. I want to live right. I want to help other people be their best, too.

Success Summary


Meet: Vinson Smith (above, before), 28, a high school football coach and fitness consultant in Charlotte, N.C.

Big Achievements: Identifying effective strategies for emotional eating and losing 275 pounds; becoming a coach and personal trainer to “pay it forward.”

Big Inspiration: His dad, who modeled sacrifice, chasing dreams (to be a pastor), and love for everyone. “I know we are not promised anything,” he says. “I want to do what I can to maximize my longevity.”

What Worked: He got information and motivation from the training pros at his gym, and from doing his own research. Coaching high school football gave him an opportunity to be both a mentor and mentee, and the training clinics inspired him to become a personal trainer.

What Didn’t Work: “Fear is a constant thing you face: How will I be perceived? Is this going to work? You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Words of Wisdom: Self-examination is key. “Find the root of the issue. Name your triggers. Speak with a professional and see what he or she has to say. Ask a bunch of questions that are really specific to you and your situation. Take off that mask, look at yourself — the bad and the good. Every day you have is an opportunity to do better.”

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