One Friday evening when he was at the University of Florida, Max Starks had a test and didn't eat with his football teammates at the training table - settling instead for canned soup and chips.
The next day against Auburn, Starks, who will be entering his seventh year as an offensive lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers, felt "horrible."
"It was an 'aha' moment," he said Monday after speaking to students at Altoona Area Junior High School about exercise and nutrition. "From that point on, I realized this is serious."
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Max Starks listens to Amanda Menegay, 13, at an assembly Monday at Altoona Area Junior High School. As a professional athlete, he must eat well to perform, he said, and encouraged students to do the same. (Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec)
As a professional athlete, he must eat well to perform, he told the students. They should do likewise, for the sake of their studies, their athletic endeavors and just to be healthy and live long.
His father has Type 2 diabetes, he told them as a warning. It's a disease most commonly caused by obesity and lack of physical activity.
Starks came to Altoona as a paid representative of the Fuel Up to Play 60 program, a initiative by the National Dairy Council and the NFL designed to combat childhood obesity.
American children are overfed and undernourished because too many eat too much of the wrong foods, and not enough of the right ones, according to a program news release, which cites statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Surgeon General's office and the American Heart Association.
About 32 percent of youngsters are overweight, and the proportion has grown by 17 percent over the last three decades, the release stated.
The Fuel Up initiative encourages kids to eat low- and no-fat dairy products, fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
It helps organize "teams" of students who experiment monthly to find healthy, tasty combinations and that walk together twice a week.
Starks, listed at 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 345 pounds, carries his weight easily and had no trouble touching his toes when demonstrating stretches that "awaken" the nervous system before exercise.
He joked with the kids, called a group up to the stage at each of two assemblies and didn't seem anxious, although Monday's was his first presentation for the Dairy Council initiative.
At the junior high, a monthly after-school food lab is held to compare the taste, quality, nutrition and costs of different types of foods, such as pizza. A walking club was also formed as part of the effort.
Eighth-grader Larissa Gil said she appreciates the walking, because she doesn't get much physical activity otherwise outside gym class.
Students got their initial motivation from Walk It! Club adviser Mary Edmiston, a family and consumer science teacher.
She didn't know what percentage eat healthy, but the school cafeteria provides all they need to make the right choices, she said.
Club members promote those good choices by "catching" other kids eating fruits and vegetables and rewarding them with pedometers paid for by an initiative grant, designed to help them take at least 10,000 steps a day.
The program has conducted two similar assemblies in Erie with Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch and in State College with safety Ryan Clark, said Jessica Pomraning, spokeswoman for the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association and the Pennsylvania Dairy Promotion Program, which is in charge of the initiative in the state.
Starks said he has no problem being a role model for kids.
"To whom much is given, much is expected," he said.
He learned early and often the importance of relating to people, projecting empathy and behaving in a way that gives comfort rather than distress because his family was in the funeral business and he was part of it from ages 4 to 18.
As for teammate Ben Roethlisberger - recently accused of rape by a college student in Georgia, a case the district attorney declined to prosecute - he said, "God gives everyone free will."
No two people are alike, he added.
Asked what Roethlisberger's teammates think of what happened, he said, "We play football."
The Fuel Up for 60 initiative vets athletes it hires as spokespeople through a Maryland organization called Team Services, Pomraning said.