For National Football League fans such as myself, this is a barren time, with the draft well behind us and even preseason games (ugh) still almost two months away. On the other hand, it means that players have a little more time to spare, so I took the opportunity to speak with a trio of NFL athletes about how they maintain healthy regimens and what ideas they might have that average folks can apply to their own, football-starved lives.
Speaking of starving, or at least watching what we eat (nice transition, eh?), that subject came up frequently, so I also talked to an NFL nutritionist. Leslie Bonci, who advises the Kansas City Chiefs and spent more than two decades with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said that she’s trying to get players to think of a different type of “performance-enhancing diet.”
“ ‘Nutrition’ is a turnoff for people,” she told me by phone. “It means ‘things I don’t like.’ ” She said that because “football players want to perform better,” framing healthy food as “fuel” for “their internal equipment” produces a better response.
The players with whom I spoke — New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry and San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon — all talked about cutting way down on foods they had grown up enjoying and shifting to healthier diets.
“I’m half-Puerto Rican,” Cruz said, “so I was rice and beans, and meats and plantains — my mother cooked that every single day.” I met him last month at a hotel in downtown Washington where he was taking part in a conference organized by the Partnership for a Healthier America. Cruz is one of the ambassadors for that organization’s Fruit & Veggie (FNV) campaign, and it is apparent that he practices what he’s preaching.
The 29-year-old said that he particularly loves strawberries, grapes, watermelons, pineapples and mangoes. As for when it’s time to “load up” at the Giants’ training facility, he mentioned wholesome staples such as “grilled chicken, brown rice, vegetables — broccoli, green beans.”
Gordon, 23, was coming off his rookie season when I had a conversation with him in Georgetown, where he was staying while making appearances on behalf of Rally Health, a company that offers digital assistance with health and fitness choices. Not far removed from his days as a star at Wisconsin, Gordon said that one of his big changes was to curb his reliance on fast-food restaurants, including the Jack in the Box located temptingly close to the Chargers’ facility.
“I get it,” he said. “People are in a rush sometimes. ‘I don’t have enough time to go home and make something, so I’ll just go to McDonald’s right here.’ . . . If you know you have a tight schedule, pack meals. Pack meals for different times, different containers that you could put them in. Leave them in your car.”
Landry, also 23 and also a Rally ambassador, is going much further than that in his third season, telling me by phone he had picked up a vegan diet from fellow Dolphins receiver Griff Whalen. A native of Louisiana, where his mother would cook favorites such as gumbo and red beans and rice (with “pork, sausage or turkey neck”), Landry is now eating salads, plain rice, black beans and “a lot of vegetables,” along with quinoa, kale and squash with avocado, a healthy fat, on the side.
Not everyone is going to want to be as strict in their diets, but some might be interested to learn that Landry is also a fan of Pilates. Saying he does it “for that core strength, that overall strength,” the wide receiver credited the discipline with helping him overcome hamstring issues that plagued him at the start of his NFL career. He said that he had gotten many of his Miami teammates to take it up as well.
Even as someone who ran his way to the NFL, Gordon found that running is “definitely a big thing in this league.” He noted that San Diego tight end Antonio Gates likes to get in a couple of miles on the treadmill every day, and he described a workout that helps another teammate, linebacker Melvin Ingram, maintain explosiveness.
According to Gordon, who occasionally adds the drill to his own routine, Ingram starts off with 30 seconds on a treadmill at 8 mph, then slows for a minute, then adds a half-mph for successive sets until he tops out at 13 or 14. “Running should be universal,” Gordon said, adding that he would advise average folks to get in plenty of core work as well.
Cruz suggests that people can do body-weight exercises such as lunges, squats, chin-ups, push-ups and sit-ups, as well as curls. The benefit there is that no gym is required, nor a personal trainer, but the most important thing is being “active at least for an hour a day.” He also mentioned Pilates and yoga as activities many of his teammates do to stay limber.
Getting back to matters of food, nutritionist Bonci said the Chiefs make a point of offering players several protein options, a big salad bar, a charcuterie board with meats and cheeses, a smoothie/shakes bar, a grain (such as quinoa or pasta) and rice and bread. But, she said, “at the end of the day, if it doesn’t taste good, they’re not going to eat it.”
If players don’t like what the team is serving, Bonci noted, they are apt to “go out and order pizza.” So she works with the Chiefs’ culinary staff to “not only please their palates, but to help them perform well when they’re out on the field.”
One go-to is adding buffalo flavor to a protein — in particular, of course, chicken. Bonci mentioned garlic (“as long as everyone is eating it together”), or a lemon-garlic combination, and pesto and sun-dried tomato sauces as ways to dress up healthy food, in addition to preparing meat and fish in Cajun, blackened, jerk and teriyaki styles.
As for fruit, Bonci said that “the reality is, if it’s a whole piece of fruit, [players] won’t eat it.” However, when fruit is cut up into chunks and placed in grab-and-go cups, “they’re all over it.”
Another option is to turn the fruit into an icy beverage. Bonci cited a combination of frozen watermelon, frozen strawberries and a splash of orange juice, blended and served in small cups, the “slushy consistency” of which her athletes, after a hard day on the practice field, find very appealing.
That does sound good, especially during these long, hot days of summer. But while we wait for autumn — translation: football — to return, we don’t have to just sit around. Not when there are so many of the players’ healthy habits to emulate.
@desbieler on Twitter
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