A before and after shot of Wes with his health coach Elaine.
On December 6, 2012, while the NHL lockout was in its 82nd day, employees of the Washington Capitals game entertainment crew reunited for hockey for the first time in seven months. The Caps AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, played the Norfolk Admirals in front of a sold out crowd. Hours before the game, arena employees met near the Caps locker room area for a briefing.
As PA Announcer Wes Johnson entered the room, Michael Wurman, Director of Game Entertainment and TV Products, pointed over to the man that many referred to as “Big Guy.” “There have been quite a few changes over the offseason,” Wurman said with a big smile. “And one of them just so happens to be sitting over here: Wes.”
The room gave Johnson a round of applause. “It was very gratifying,” Johnson told me in a phone interview. “And a little embarrassing too.”
“You’re probably in the last five to ten years of your life”
During a winter day a few years ago, Johnson walked out the front door of his Virginia home to run a few errands. As he made his way to his car, the 51-year-old actor, voice-over artist, and comedian, slipped on a patch of ice in his driveway. Despite his five-foot, nine-inch height, Johnson took a big tumble to the ground, ripping ligaments in his ankle.
When Wes went to get his ankle checked out, the doctor was more concerned about Johnson’s weight. With a busy work schedule and three kids at home, Wes saw his weight balloon over the years. The PA Announcer was also too charitable with his time, never quite able to turn down a request to hang out after Capitals games. “You don’t want to give up the after-the-game meal,” he told me. “You don’t want to give up going for drinks with folks.”
After years of constantly doing things for other people, finding no time for exercise, and putting no limits on what he ate, his body pushed back: hard. Johnson became diabetic and had to take multiple medicines for high blood pressure.
“You know, Wes,” the doctor began. “If you don’t do something about your weight, you’re probably in the last five to ten years of your life.”
“That’s pretty scary to hear,” Johnson admitted.
The doctor recommended Johnson have a gastric bypass, an aggressive surgery which reduces the size of a person’s stomach to force weight loss. Today show weather man Al Roker lost 150 pounds due to the procedure.
“I was nervous about that,” Wes said. “That’s a permanent solution. A permanent change to your body just so that you can make something else take over with the will power that you can’t muster yourself.”
He went home with a brace for his ankle and a lot on his mind.
A Chance Encounter
Before one of the final home games of the 2011-12 regular season, Wes went upstairs to the press area to hoard some refreshments.
“I was getting a bunch of bottled waters to take down to the penalty box area where I emcee, because once you get inside the penalty box for the game, you’re locked in there,” Johnson explained. “You don’t come out for intermissions. During a playoff game, you could suffer renal failure because you’re in there for overtime after overtime after overtime.”
As Wes was stocking up, he ran into another Verizon Center employee, Elaine Rom. Rom, who has worked for the Capitals since 1996 as a camera operator, is also a certified health coach during the day with Take Shape For Life, a division of Medifast. When Rom saw Johnson with so much water, she was intrigued. It usually signals someone who is on a diet trying to lose weight.
“For a lot of people, drinking a lot of water is the hardest part,” Rom told me in an email. “So I started a conversation with him and asked if he really drinks all that water. He said he does. Then I told him what I do.”
“Now if you’re a heavy-set guy, and if someone starts talking to you about a health coach thing, you get the same alarming sensation that you would get when a Jehovah’s witness asks for a few hours to talk,” Johnson told me. “But she was really nice. She told me that there were things she could do to get me back to a better weight. She said it in such a cool, casual way. She gave me her number, and I didn’t think anything of it.”
“I look at this way,” Rom said. “A lot of people would love to choose health over being unhealthy, most of the time they don’t know how to get there. If you don’t open this door for them, you’ll never know if this could’ve been the program to turn their health and their life around.”
The two would run into each other once or twice again. One night, she even visited Wes after a game at the penalty box where he sits. “I started thinking more and more,” Johnson said. “Maybe this is something I should do.”
Pulling The Trigger
At the end of May, after the Capitals were eliminated by the New York Rangers, Johnson continued his conversations with Rom. He decided to pull the trigger on the weight-loss plan.
“Sticking around for my family was a huge influence on me,” Johnson said. “My sons– I have two of them in college and one’s mid-way through high school– and I want to see them all graduate. I want to see them get married. I want to see them have kids.”
Johnson continued: “Being around for my wife. I’ve waited my whole life for somebody as sweet and as wonderful as her.”
There was one tiny caveat, however. Johnson would begin Rom’s plan in five weeks on Independence Day or as Wes put it: “my independence-from-weight day.” Before then, he wanted a few weeks to say goodbye to some, um, close friends.
“The last few weeks of June,” Johnson said. “You’ll never see someone eat as shittily as I did.” He called his binge “The Wes Johnson Foods-I-Love Farewell Tour.”
First, Wes went to Mario’s and had a foot-long Triple Cheese and Egg sub. “You eat one of those things and it knocks you in a coma for three days,” Johnson said with a laugh. Another night, he went to the Irish Channel and had some sirloin dips. Finally, the PA announcer went to The Celebrity Delly in Falls Church, where they have a sandwich named after him. The “Wes Johnson” is grilled roast beef, melted Muenster cheese, creamy cole slaw, and Russian dressing served on grilled sourdough.
Then July 4th came around, and it was time to get down to some serious business.
“The first week I lost 18 pounds”
On July 4th, Johnson went on the Medifast plan, a diet consisting of five small meals and one lean and green meal per day.
The first week was tough as Johnson found himself eating smaller portions than he was accustomed to. After just a few days, he noticed a difference. “Your metabolism starts to catch up,” Johnson said. “For the first time since my mid-30′s, my metabolism came back. My metabolism was suddenly working again.”
Even after just a change in diet, Wes saw immediate results. “The first week I lost 18 pounds,” Johnson revealed. “It was incredible. And then I continued on.”
Johnson lost anywhere from one to five pounds per week, posting his weekly weigh in on his Facebook timeline. He began to take brisk walks around his neighborhood. Three weeks into the diet, Wes went to the gym. He made a new friend: the elliptical machine. “At first I started walking for about 10 minutes,” Johnson said. “Then I’d go to 15 minutes,, and then I’d go a little farther.” Johnson was shedding weight.
About a month into the diet though, there was a scary moment. The family went on vacation to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. One day while he was there, he felt woozy, close to passing out. Fearful there was something seriously wrong, Johnson went to see a doctor.
“You know what it was?” Johnson recalled. “It was the fact that I was getting healthier and my blood pressure medication I was taking was suddenly too strong. It was over compensating. So the doctor lowered it.”
What could have been a set-back actually became a galvanizing moment for Wes’s turnaround.
“Now I’m going over 4 miles and 40 minutes on the elliptical,” Johnson said. “I love going out and walking. I go for a brisk mile walk, even in the winter time. It’s wonderful.”
Most importantly, he has the support in Rom that he never had before. “Elaine has a sixth sense. If I start to waver, I will suddenly get a text from her and she helps me out. It’s nice to have a little angel on your shoulder.”
The Less Johnson
Since Johnson began his Medifast diet and exercise regiment, he’s lost 92 pounds in six months. He’s been taken off of two blood pressure medications and, oh, by the way, he’s no longer diabetic.
Not only does Wes feel better in general, the weight loss has helped him land new acting roles. He was in a national VISA commercial with Ray Lewis and landed a role in Veep, an HBO series, featuring former Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “Would I have gotten those if I weighed 90 pounds more?,” Johnson rhetorically asked. “I don’t think I would have. It puts me in a brand new weight-category as far as acting is concerned.”
Johnson’s dramatic weight loss has inspired those around him. Rom and Johnson recently met with other Caps fans looking to lose weight. After hearing his story, five of them started with the Medifast plan and are already losing weight. Even Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has reached out to Johnson. “He was proud of my effort and he said it was inspirational. Then I turn around and I see Ted’s losing weight too.” During the Capitals home game Sunday against the Sabres, CSN panned to a svelte-looking Leonsis looking on from his lower-level suite.
“Wes is this genuinely passionate and kindhearted person,” Rom said of Johnson. “You can’t help but root for the guy. He’s made me shed a tear or two along the way.”
Meanwhile, I wondered what Johnson thought about the fact that now that he’s on the diet, he can’t even eat his own sandwich at The Celebrity Delly.
“I’ve gone in there many times with people since and I encourage them to order the Wes Johnson Sandwich. But I order myself a salad. I think eventually, I would like for them to have a Wes Johnson sandwich and a Less Johnson salad.”
Yeah, Celebrity Delly. I think Wes deserves that.