Late one afternoon following a workout, Washington Commanders running back Antonio Gibson sat on the couch in his house watching “Forrest Gump” while the low, chop-chop-chop percussion of a knife on a cutting board came from the kitchen. Mel Moore, wearing a black apron with “Chef Mel” stitched in red above his heart, was at work.
Moore, a local personal chef, grew up in Brooklyn learning to cook soul food for church dinners with his grandmother. He has worked with Commanders players off and on for about two decades, from tackle Chris Samuels to defensive end Chase Young. Early this offseason, he texted Gibson offering his services at a fortuitous moment. Last season, Gibson overcame nagging injuries to total 1,331 yards and 10 touchdowns on 300 touches, but he was heavier than he wanted to be, often feeling less than his dangerous, explosive best.
“Mmm,” Gibson said, as the smell of butter garlic sauce with shallots, white wine and Slap Ya Mama Cajun seasoning wafted into the living room.
At the kitchen island, Moore deveined jumbo shrimp and piled up spinach, broccoli and asparagus in a large aluminum foil pan. This dinner was one small part of a broader offseason transformation. Gibson said he played most of last year at about 235 pounds, and though he has lost weight — he said he recently has been walking around at 228 — the real change was in his body composition. His body-fat percentage, he said, has declined by several points.
Seemingly everyone in the team facility has noticed Gibson’s leaner frame. In April, when running backs coach Randy Jordan saw Gibson’s slimmer face, he exclaimed, “Hey, man, you’ve been working!” Offensive coordinator Scott Turner, like others, attributed the growth to Gibson’s maturing ahead of his third season — “having personal accountability … to go be the best version of himself.” Jordan and Turner seem excited about how a fitter Gibson could help the Commanders’ retooled offense.
“His body will hold up over the course of the season better. He will be more explosive, for sure,” Turner said. “You’re not carrying bad weight. So, all the weight you got should be working for you, not against you.”
Last year was not the first time Gibson had gotten heavier than he had liked. As a high school star in suburban Atlanta, he had been able to eat whatever he wanted, but as a freshman at East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., he said, “the metabolism started wearing out.” Gibson went from about 205 pounds to 220. A wide receiver at the time, he learned how to use that extra weight as power, and in 2018 he transferred to Memphis, where he parlayed an impressive senior season into becoming a third-round draft pick in 2020.
After a hectic rookie year learning running back, Gibson was poised to break out. But his weight crept up again. Gibson said he started last season at 236 pounds and struggled to get smaller, perhaps in part because toe and hip injuries limited his practice reps. This offseason, when he looked back at his film, Gibson could see how the extra pounds slowed him down.
The play that bothers him most was arguably the highlight of his year. In Week 3 against Buffalo, he took a screen pass 73 yards for a touchdown — but a defender hit him at the 5-yard line. Months later, it still bothers him. “Man, I almost got caught,” he said. “Like, that ain’t me. Hell nah.
“It’s not completely bad,” he added of the film. “I can still move. I can still run. But it’s just — I know what I can be. I’m so used to being twitchy … and I feel like I lost a good bit of that. So I wanted to cut some weight and get back to that and show people what I’m really capable of.”
In early March, Gibson, 23, visited Craig John, a chiropractor and physiotherapist with whom Moore frequently collaborates. John put Gibson through several tests — body composition, metabolism, allergies, bloodwork — and determined the root of several problems was Gibson’s liver, which was inflamed by an unhealthy diet and poorly processing nutrients.
“[The liver] is just like an oil filter in your car,” John said. “Every so often, you have to go get your oil filter changed in order to make sure you can have longevity and run most efficiently.”
The stakes for Gibson were high. Every pound a player is over his ideal weight, John said, is like an extra seven to 10 pounds on the knees. And while body maintenance is key for every player, it can be even more crucial at running back, which has a relatively narrow and shrinking window of earning potential. In 2014, the average veteran contract for a running back 27 or older was 2.2 years long at $4.43 million per year; in 2019, it was 1.5 years long and worth $2.17 million annually.
For the first step in a broader overhaul of Gibson’s diet, John recommended a “liver detox.” He wanted to eliminate all processed and refined foods, as well as sodium, nuts, dairy, eggs, grains and animal protein. Gibson had never really liked vegetables — his girlfriend, Victoria Taylor, once asked when he ate them, and he replied, “When you give them to me” — and now John wanted Gibson to eat exclusively plant-based foods for 11 days as the opening stage of a lengthier, Standard Process “purification program.”
In mid-March, Moore said, he put the plan in action by flying to Katy, Tex., where Gibson was training. Over the years, Moore had become an expert in getting athletes to eat foods they needed but disliked. Moore discovered what worked for Gibson — kale chips, sautéed mushrooms with garlic, onion and paprika seasoning — and followed a booklet with foods color-coded by their risk to inflame Gibson’s liver, such as green (apples, black beans), yellow (rice, bananas) and red (dairy, alcohol, coffee). He slowly reintroduced animal protein.
The regime was intense. John prescribed Gibson eat pink Himalayan salt, not regular salt; fresh fish, not farm-raised fish; and fruits low on the glycemic index, such as blackberries and cherries. He drank three to five protein shakes per day with “thermogenics,” a heat-producing supplement intended to spur his metabolism. He had a long list of other supplements — seven “cleanse” capsules three times per day, three fiber capsules three times per day, five capsules of an herb and vitamin mixture two times per day.
If Gibson was tempted to crack, Moore couldn’t tell. But, in an interview, Gibson admitted he missed sweet wine. During the season, he had begun unwinding after each game with a glass, which was now prohibited.
“[I hadn’t] got into the tart stuff,” Gibson said. “It’s like Moscato and Stella Rosa — I’m big on that. I love a glass of Stella. I’ve been trying different flavors.” Gibson looked forlorn. “But I can’t. I can’t.”
By the time Gibson returned to team headquarters for organized team activities in late May, his body had transformed. Moore cooks for him occasionally now, Gibson said, but the lessons have stuck. He said he doesn’t eat after 6 p.m., and when he has unhealthy foods, it’s in moderation.
In the kitchen, Moore plated the shrimp and veggies as Gibson and Taylor sat down at the table. Over dinner, they jokingly argued about mumbo sauce — “Stop it!” Gibson said when his girlfriend suggested it was just sweet-and-sour sauce — and Moore praised Gibson’s dedication to the program, saying he expected his client, like many others, to crack at some point.
“I had nothing in the house but like water and snacks,” Gibson said. “If I had [junk food] in the house, I would've cracked. I would've snuck and grabbed it.”
“Actually, you had that stuff in the suitcase,” Taylor reminded him. “Pringles and gummies.”
“That ain’t nothing,” Gibson replied. “Pringles and gummies — I wasn’t tripping about that.”
“[You] did say one time, though: ‘Man, I’m sooooo hungry. I got Pringles in there,’ ” Taylor said.
But, she added, Gibson resisted the temptation, and on the last day they were in Texas, she threw out the untouched snacks.
That diligence has led to results, said Jordan, the running backs coach. At a recent practice, he ran a drill in which two backs raced and cut through a metal contraption meant to simulate a small hole in the offensive line. “Oh, [expletive]!” the coach yelled as Gibson burst through the hole, looking lithe and powerful.
Jordan pointed out what comes next for Gibson might be the hardest. After the Commanders hold minicamp this week, the NFL schedule shuts down until training camps open in late July.
“It’s easy when you’re here,” he said. “But what do you do when you’re not here? That’s what we’re going to find out when we report to camp.”
As Moore cleared the plates after dinner, Gibson said he wanted to arrive to training camp between 220 and 225 pounds. He said with a smile that he thought he would have his burst back. Then, as the faucet turned on for the dishes, he went back to the couch for the final scenes of “Forrest Gump,” one more day that he had stayed on track.