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Former NFL lineman now cooks at his kids’ school cafeteria: ‘Kindergartners are my toughest critics’

“It took a while to capture some trust from the kids,” said Jared Veldheer.

Former NFL player Jared Veldheer with one of his salad bars this month at Saint Paul the Apostle Catholic School in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Katie Tietema)

Retired NFL offensive lineman Jared Veldheer was looking for a new challenge in Grand Rapids, Mich., last summer when he heard about a job opening. It was at his kids’ school, in the cafeteria.

The Catholic school needed someone to oversee cooking and serving lunch for about 260 students from preschool to eighth grade. The previous manager had quit, and the school wanted to line up somebody quickly because classes were to start in two weeks.

“I wasn’t looking to become the school lunch lady, but I figured this was something I could handle,” said Veldheer, 34, who was once named one of the NFL’s “most indispensable players.”

Veldheer, who played for several teams, including the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders, said he was intrigued by the job in part because he loves cooking, and as a professional athlete, he spent a lot of time focused on nutrition.

“I’d eaten meticulously for more than a decade and I thought, ‘There is value in being able to cook and provide kids with a good, nutritious lunch,’” said Veldheer, whose two children, Eva, 6, and Edwin, 4, attend Saint Paul the Apostle Catholic School.

He accepted the job at $15 an hour, a far cry from the millions he made in the NFL, including $29 million with the Arizona Cardinals. He did it for the experience and to help out, he said, not for the money. As soon as the cafeteria was renamed the SPA 68 Cafe after his NFL uniform number, students and parents said they right away saw a difference in the $3.50 lunch menu.

Slices of pizza with salty tomato sauce and greasy cheese were history, as were chicken nuggets, french fries and sugary desserts.

They had been replaced by smoked carnitas, mashed cauliflower, a salad bar and Korean beef bulgogi — a dish most of the kids had never tasted.

“I knew kids would love it,” Veldheer said, explaining there is brown sugar mixed into the marinade.

The trick, he discovered, would be getting them to try it.

“It took a while to capture some trust from the kids,” he said. “Kindergartners are my toughest critics.”

Veldheer slowly won them over with patience, artful food presentation, music to accompany their lunches and plenty of enthusiasm, he said.

To persuade students to try German sausage and sauerkraut, he dressed up in lederhosen — no small feat for a man who is 6-foot-8 and weighs 265 pounds.

“That’s down from my NFL career weight of 330,” Veldheer noted. “But even then, as a big guy, I always tried to eat healthy.”

School Principal Michelle Morrow said the healthier food and excitement in the cafeteria is a welcome change.

“Everything he makes is delicious and appreciated by kids and adults alike,” Morrow said.

“For him, it’s not just cooking — it’s making sure that the food and nutrients students are eating serves them best in the classroom,” she said.

Parents who were skeptical about whether their kids would get on board with braised cabbage and veggie English muffin pizza now say that Veldheer and his kitchen assistant, Brady Hunt, have proved them wrong.

Courtney McGivney, 47, mother to students Caroline, 13, and Andy, 9, said one of her children declined steak in a restaurant, explaining they “only eat Mr. Veldheer’s chimichurri steak.”

“They also don’t like my version of chicken tacos as much as his,” she added. “He really does have some sort of magic touch. We’re fortunate to have him giving back his talents to our school.”

Anne Sassano, a mom of five, said her kids now look forward to Taco Tuesday and World Wednesday — when Veldheer serves dishes such as chicken tikka masala and Italian polenta.

“Mr. Veldheer not only makes everything homemade and fresh, he’s introducing the kids to new foods and teaching them about nutrition and the mind-body connection,” said Sassano, 46.

“With all the things he could have chosen to do after his football career, it speaks volumes that he decided to take on this role,” she said.

She was stranded in the snowstorm. Her junior high coach, whom she hadn’t seen in 30 years, came to get her.

Veldheer said he never imagined that he would one day trade in his shoulder pads for a chef’s apron.

After he graduated from high school in Grand Rapids, he played football for Hillsdale College in south-central Michigan and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2010.

From there, he enjoyed a successful career as an NFL lineman for 11 years and was brought out of retirement twice to play for the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts.

But last year, Veldheer retired for a third time after he tested positive in the offseason for the female fertility drug Clomid — a banned substance in the NFL.

Veldheer said it was prescribed to him by his doctor to help boost his testosterone. When the NFL announced that he would be suspended for six games, he issued a statement and posted a video on YouTube in May explaining his use of the drug.

“I sent in my documentation about taking the drug and they asked me if I’d like to appeal, but I decided in the end not to,” he said. “It was time to move on.”

This man was at the end of his life. Strangers stepped up to take him on bucket-list adventures.

When he decided to take on a team of 260 picky eaters, Veldheer said he found a new sense of purpose. He arrives at the school by 7:30 every morning to prep for the day’s meal and get the hot dishes and salad bar ready for the first lunch at 11 a.m.

“I get my beef from a local organic butcher — Louise Earl — and I smoke a lot of the meats at home,” he said. “I also replace a lot of the fat in the cooking. And if anyone knows new ways to prepare vegetables, I’m interested.”

At home, he and his wife, Morgan Veldheer, 31 — president of the school’s equivalent of the parent-teacher association — share cooking duties. They welcome honest criticism from their kids, he added.

“We’re a well-fed house,” Veldheer said. “I try to consider what my kids have told me when I prepare meals at school.”

As fearless as he had to be blocking brawny opponents on the football field, his new occupation has toughened him up in a new, unexpected way.

“If somebody smothers something I’ve made with ketchup, I’ve learned not to mind,” he said. “As long as they try it.”

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