A Nebraska player chooses his meal from various options at the training table.
by Kevin Clark
This season, dozens of top college-football teams are making the same expensive bet on one aspect of football that old coaches from the leather-helmet days never gave much thought to: sushi rolls, crab legs and hand-blended smoothies.
As college programs struggle to maintain their dominance in the face of increasing parity, the issue of how much the players eat during the season—and what they’re eating—has been elevated from a running joke to a serious matter that includes teams of chefs, dietitians and volunteers, and that’s becoming part of the way some teams prepare for games.
At Washington, four full-time chefs cook meals for the school’s athletes year-round, including the occasional feast of New York strip. Nebraska says it devotes around $1 million a year to feeding scholarship athletes—a process that starts with a breakfast spread at its training facility every morning at 5. As part of its beefed-up nutrition plan, Alabama says it instructs flight attendants on long trips to ply the players with Gatorade.
Before it takes on Stanford in November, Oregon says it will prepare for that team’s punishing running attack by trying to bulk up its defensive linemen. On the menu: chicken-noodle soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Florida, which started its program in 2003, may have taken the idea the furthest of all: It spends $58,000 each year just on pre- and post-practice snacks for the football team. Florida also provides five types of smoothies on demand and employs two full-time dietitians, a pair of interns and up to a dozen volunteers, with some staffers texting the players to remind them to eat lunch. To make sure they know what to buy, the school’s diet specialists take players on guided informational tours of the grocery store.
“It’s the last remaining edge,” said Chelsea Zenner, one of Florida’s nutritionists. “Every team at the top has a coach who deserves to be there and every team has great weight rooms and strength programs. The last edge is nutrition.”
NCAA rules restrict players to just one athlete-exclusive meal a day while campus dining halls are open. In the interim, all they’re allowed to do, besides provide fluids, is to offer fruit, nuts and bagels at any time.
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