We’ve always known him simply as “Big Dawg.”
But since undergoing bariatric surgery 15 months ago, the man who made a career out of being the Browns’ biggest fan (literally and figuratively) is now a lean, mean cheering machine after shedding an astounding 304 pounds from his 5-foot-10-inch frame.
In fact, John Thompson’s weight loss has been so dramatic that some people don’t even recognize the 44-year-old Clevelander anymore without his trademark rubber dog mask — even members of his own family.
“I went to a clambake last night with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while and it was quite interesting,” Thompson recalls. “My first cousin had to do three takes to realize who I was.”
Thompson says he’s always struggled with his weight thanks to his mom’s Irish immigrant clean-your-plate mentality and the proliferation of fast food joints in the North Olm-sted neighborhood where he grew up. And his recent battle of the bulge isn’t his first. In 1982, Thompson went from 330 to 190 pounds in six months by going on a protein shake diet, running five miles a day and working out three days a week. But he ended up gaining 95 pounds 18 months later when he left his physically demanding job as a concrete finisher for a position in telephone sales.
“I continued to eat heavily,” he remembers. “I’d go to McDonald’s for lunch and eat two Big Macs, a milk shake and two [orders of] french fries, drink a six-pack after work.”
The lose-a-lot-gain-more cycle repeated itself for years as Thompson went on and off at least eight different weight-loss programs, including a yearlong modified protein diet supervised by The Cleveland Clinic. By 2002, he was tipping the scales at 529 pounds.
“I barely could get around,” he says. “My legs hurt. I was always hobbling.”
A man in his row of bleachers at Cleveland Browns Stadium’s Dawg Pound always ended up sitting in the aisle because Thompson was so large. And flying coach class to out-of-town Browns games was downright uncomfortable, both for Thompson and the passengers sitting beside him.
Then, in 2004, Thompson walked into his physician’s office and was told he probably had two years to live if he didn’t make a change in his life. A couple of his buddies at the local cigar shop had suggested bariatric surgery, so Thompson started researching the program at St. Vincent Charity Hospital. First he had to lose 67 pounds on the hospital’s 12-week diet and exercise program. When he accomplished that, he underwent the procedure that reduced his functioning stomach to a pouch the size of a thumb.
Now weighing 225 pounds and still losing (Thompson hopes to drop another 30 pounds), Big Dawg admits he still goes to McDonald’s on occasion. He even appeared in a recent Browns-themed commercial for the fast food chain.
But downing a breakfast sandwich, two breakfast burritos and an order of hash browns for his morning meal is definitely a thing of the past. Today, he’s more likely to opt for a fruit and yogurt parfait or a salad when making a trip by the takeout window.
He’s even eliminated the lure of game-day gluttony by “loading up on liquids,” usually sugar-free, non-carbonated soft drinks such as Crystal Light, before kickoff. If he’s watching the game at home with friends, he only serves a healthy entrée — Cincinnati chili made with extra-lean ground turkey, for example — at halftime. “At the start of the second half, we start eating,” Thompson says firmly. “That’s my dinner.”
Then there’s his exercise regimen. When the weather got too cold for swimming his mile in Lake Erie each day, Thompson bought a bike to ride in the evenings. He’ll be working out at a local health club as the snow starts to fly. For the first time in his adult life, Thompson says the fear of turning back into a big, lazy puppy is gone.
“I feel very confident that I’m never going to gain that weight back,” he says.
Good dog, John. Good dog.