LAWRENCE — The worst part was the running. Aslam Sterling would head to the practice field early, and then stay late. He would heave his way through extra sprints, and then find the energy to go full speed at practice. During those first weeks of his junior season, they always told Sterling that the running would be good for him. But in some ways, it always felt like his daily punishment.
For a player that had arrived on campus at close to 400 pounds, Sterling was always running uphill, or at least it felt that way. He was out of shape, of course, and stamina was his biggest problem. Could he deliver a powerful pancake block? Oh, sure. But after three or four straight plays on the practice field, Sterling would feel winded and gassed.
So the extra running — specifically designed to shed the excess weight — was supposed to make things better. But often, it only seemed to make things worse. He was tired because he was out of shape, and he was out of shape because he was carrying too much weight. But then he would go out and run, and the extra workouts would make him even more tired. How could he ever show the coaches what he could do?
“There was really no saving yourself,” Sterling says.
On year later, it is a Tuesday afternoon in August, and Sterling is sitting inside the Kansas football offices. The Jayhawks have already completed one morning practice, and in a few hours, they’ll return to the practice field for an afternoon session. But for Sterling, there is one welcome difference: no running.
Sterling, a senior, has dropped nearly 85 pounds from his first days on campus last year and is now down to 315. Twelve months ago, he was a junior-college transfer from the Springfield Garden neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., swimming against the current in an unfamiliar place. Now he is scheduled to be the Jayhawks’ starting left tackle, where he will be counted on to replace four-year starter Tanner Hawkinson and keep junior quarterback Jake Heaps from running for his life.
In almost every way, it’s been a year of transformation for Sterling. But he didn’t realize how much he’d changed until KU strength and conditioning coach Scott Holsopple showed him two photos: One from last year, and one from earlier this summer.
“I don’t think that anybody thinks they’re that big until they look at the before and after pictures,” Sterling says. “So, I look at the pictures now, and I feel great about myself. I feel like I really accomplished something.”
Sterling is quiet and soft-spoken by nature, a hint of humbleness belying his New York roots. But he can say with certainty that losing all the weight was the toughest thing he’s done in his life.
“I’m so much more confident in myself just because of the weight loss,” Sterling says. “And because of how much more knowledge I gained from last year.”
Sterling, of course, will need to put that knowledge to good use this season. Despite spending just one year in Lawrence, he is the de facto anchor on a line that could feature four new starters. It will be another challenge for Sterling, who started eight games last season at right guard and right tackle.
Sterling played left tackle in junior college, he says, so the transition to the new position has been relatively smooth. And offensive-line coach Tim Grunhard has already seen a difference in Sterling’s energy and athleticism.
“It shows up in his stamina,” Grunhard said. “When you’re tired, your mind tends to shut off a little bit. So that’s when you start having the mental errors … and maybe last year, it would be after three or four or five plays in a row. Now he can go through an eight-to-12 play period and really keep focused mentally and physically.”
Grunhard, a former Chiefs lineman, spent years playing alongside the big-bodied specimen that dominate NFL offensive lines. And when Grunhard looks at Sterling, he sees a 6-foot-5, 315-pound kid that just needs a little more seasoning.
“We’re excited about the promise that he’s shown,” Grunhard said. “He’s got a pro body. He’s got the body of the guys that I played with for 11 years in the NFL. That’s what they look like. If he can get it done mentally, and keep working physically, he’s got a shot.”
Sterling says his coach’s words serve as daily motivation. But for now, he’s most focused on winning games in his final season at Kansas. Perhaps it’s the reality of a junior-college transfer: You arrive on campus one year, then leave it the next. But it didn’t quite hit Sterling until just a few weeks ago, when he was finishing up his final workouts of the summer. He was now a senior, he thought, and it was time to make the most out of his last season.
“It went by so fast,” Sterling says. “I love Lawrence. I don’t know why I love Lawrence so much, but I really do. I don’t like going home that much anymore. I like staying here during breaks. I don’t know, there’s something about this town.”