One of D.J. Swearinger’s most memorable moments this season came after Washington’s nationally televised Thanksgiving night win over the New York Giants, when the Redskins safety jumped into NBC’s postgame interview semicircle while gripping a warm turkey leg. His teammates were noticeably munching on the bird’s juicy flesh, and so it was natural for reporters to later ask Swearinger how the thing tasted. He told them he was a vegan.
“I had to do it for the camera, you know?” he explained of his flesh grab. “I didn’t eat it, though. I left it, man. It already had a bite out of it.”
“I’d love some stuffing, but I’m going to let y’all eat the turkey,” he also said. “I’m going to keep it vegan.”
This was fascinating for any number of reasons. For one thing, the Colin Kaepernick imbroglio included the implication that an animal-product-free diet could be an impediment to an NFL job. For another, Swearinger was in the middle of one of his best NFL seasons. Then there’s his teammate Trent Williams, who tried going vegan during the offseason and then modified his diet this fall because he was losing too much weight.
Not least, I also had a personal interest in the topic, having been a vegetarian for the past 24 years. So a few weeks later, I asked Swearinger to explain his choice.
“I’m actually pescatarian,” he said. “Seafood only. But I try the vegan sometimes with my girl, and we try to switch it up a little bit. In 2015, I started no red meat, no pork; just fish and chicken only. And then this last year I just did no chicken, and seafood only, and tried to go more vegan.”
Swearinger said the inspiration came from his girlfriend, but that he found a meat-free lifestyle “cleaner.” He said he hasn’t had red meat or pork since 2015, and that when he has read up on the subject, he felt more confident that a plant-based lifestyle was right for him.
“It’s what God made, for us to eat plants and fruit, so I’m going to go that way,” he said. “It’s not [primarily] about animal rights, but that does have a big part. Our bodies, they weren’t made to eat animals, you know what I’m saying? That definitely has a lot to do with it.”
He has plenty of company in the NBA, if not the NFL. From Jahlil Okafor to Kyrie Irving to Damian Lillard to Enes Kanter to Wilson Chandler, vegan diets (or vegetarian or pescatarian diets) have been spreading throughout the league. Just observe this B/R Mag opus on the topic, with a grabby subhed:
Chicken wings are vanishing from the locker room. Superstars are slimming down — and speeding up. If ‘skinny ball’ has arrived, could the performance-enhancer sparking a revolution be . . . veganism?
Kip Andersen, whose documentary “What the Health” is oft-cited by converts, told B/R’s Tom Haberstroh that friends joke about the league becoming “the National Vegan Association” because “that’s how many players are going vegan or vegetarian.” But NFL players couldn’t last the brutal 16-week gantlet without at least a little meat, right?
“That’s not correct,” Swearinger said.
The safety, nicknamed “Swag,” said he played at about 203 pounds last year when he still ate poultry and at 202 pounds this year, although he weighed about 10 pounds more earlier in his career. He acknowledged that for larger players such as Williams, keeping weight on as a vegan would be far more challenging.
“But me, I’m a slim guy, so as long as I eat enough protein I’m going to keep my weight,” Swearinger said.
He said he gets protein in seeds and nuts, and especially in chia seeds.
“Guys just don’t want to eat chia seeds, though,” he said. “It’s not the ideal tasting thing. But as far as getting your protein and getting the things that you need, a lot of plants and a lot of fruits and vegetables have that.”
He said he also eats things such as tofu and veggie burgers, although his favorite pescatarian meal is sea bass with broccoli. He said he drinks shakes constantly — “Bro, what you got in there?” teammates ask — and he said they’re filled with seeds and fruits and kale and cucumber and spinach. This was the first time in the 26-year-old’s five-year career that he started all 16 games, and he had career-best numbers in tackles (79) and interceptions (four) while also emerging as the defense’s unlikely leader.
“I feel 10 times better than I ever felt: body-wise, sleep-wise, energy,” Swearinger told me in early December. “I just feel better.”
He said much the same when the season concluded, suggesting to a crowd of reporters that Redskins teammates may not have taken proper care of their bodies this season and that he thinks his diet helped.
Eliminating meat “helped me tremendously: how I felt, how well I could recover after a hard, long game, body being banged up,” Swearinger said. “Eating how I used to eat, I would recover almost on Friday or Saturday. Now with how I eat, I can recover on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So it’s definitely a difference. I can feel the difference. It’s evident. It’s clear that my eating habits and the things that I’ve been doing with my body have been helping me.”
Clearly you can eliminate meat from your diet without eating healthy; just check out my physique if you’re curious. And there are complicated debates about all of these nutritional issues. Swearinger also acknowledged that his diet poses a challenge at events such as team meals on the road; one time this season, he had to go order food from a different restaurant, and he wishes he had easier access to blenders on the road to make his shakes. But he recently told the team’s website that he plans to stay pescatarian at least for the rest of his playing career.
“A lot of people, like when my parents or people see me, they’ll be like, ‘Bro, you’re small, you’re little!’ ” Swearinger told the site. “I’m like, ‘Man, I’m healthy.’ That’s the thing, I’m healthy. They’re not used to seeing me so lean, so it’s different for them, but I definitely tell them I’m healthy, I feel better, [and I] try to get them to do some of the things that I do, because it can only help you.”
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