Southern cuisine cooks up championship players

December 6, 2011

As a native Louisianan, I am sometimes asked what it is about the South that produces so many elite football players. And it is true. The Southeastern Conference is the King Kong of college football. And without Southern blood and guts, the NFL would be little more than a skeleton of itself.

The South produces more of the biggest, fastest, hardest-hitting college and professional football players than any other region of the country. And the reason ought to be fairly obvious: Our boys eat real good.

Take the top-ranked Louisiana State and University of Alabama, which are set to play in the BCS National Championship next month. Both teams are powered by Southern-bred, country-fed warriors. Asked to name his favorite foods, Trent Richardson, Alabama’s fearsome running back and candidate for this year’s Heisman Trophy, reportedly said he likes to feast on Southern-fried chicken nuggets — and “the souls of skinny defensive backs.”

That’s what I’m talking about. Food so good it’ll make you jump up and smack somebody — then run for a touchdown.

Pac 12 natives might have to look up “Southern cuisine” in their Betty Crocker cookbooks; you’ll find a picture of gumbo but not the secret recipe for roux. Sorry. As for the folks in Big Ten states such as Iowa, if you ever hope to rule the roost someday, forget about wild rice, herring and breadsticks and start throwing down with some catfish, collards and cornbread.


Mary Barbour, assistant manager of the Saints Paradise Cafeteria (at the United House of Prayer) holds up a good selection of soul food for lunch in 2006, the same kind of food that powers SEC linebackers. ( Michael Williamson /The Washington Post)

Andy Staples, the college-recruiting guru, has also noted the connection between our Southern delights and elite football players. In an article for Sports Illustrated online this year, he said that if you took a map of the hometowns of the NFL’s defensive linemen and overlaid it on a map showing the percentage of obese people in each state, you’d get a pretty remarkable match.

According to the article, roughly 43 percent of the defensive players came from the 10 states with the highest proportion of fat folks: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Some might not see this as something to celebrate considering obesity levels in the U.S.

Of course, what someone in a Big East state like, say, Connecticut, calls fat, someone in a SEC state like Louisiana might call curvy. In the South, we have ninth-graders weighing 220 pounds, but they might stand 6-feet-6 and not have an ounce of fat on them.

When I was growing up in Shreveport, there were boys big as houses who could outrun a small farm animal. When the sandlot game got underway, that’s who you wanted on your side. Today, if an NFL coach needs a 300-pound tackle that’s fast enough to keep up with an elite sprinter for the first 10 meters of a race, he need only face south.

Staples suggests that coaches take this approach: “First, he should develop a taste for barbecue. The best is found in the states that produce elite defensive linemen.”

In other words, coach, make a beeline to North Carolina. It’s also a fact that Maryland and the District produce a disproportionately high number of professional football players. Then again, both places are located below the Mason Dixon Line.

Want a first-rate quarterback? Look for sweet shrimp cakes. That’ll take you to Savannah, where Carolina Panthers superstar quarterback Cam Newton was born. A taste for jambalaya will almost certainly take you to Baton Rouge or New Orleans, where you’ll find champions aplenty.

In fact, in Louisiana, even the grass tastes good. LSU coach Les Miles carries some from the football field around in his pocket, nibbling on blades for good luck during a game. It’s a kind of bluish-green Bermuda grass called Celebration.

Which is what LSU will be doing after beating Alabama for the title.

Geaux Tigers.

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