The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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University of Florida Gators: Eating Like A Champion
Posted Sep 1, 2007 by Jeff Houck
Updated Sep 1, 2007 at 01:49 PM
If all goes as planned today, the University of Florida Gators will throttle Western Kentucky on Florida Field in Gainesville this weekend.
And if that happens, the players will enjoy dining on a victory banquet in a special dining room under the south end zone at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, just like they do after every win. Think sirloin steak. Think crab legs. Lasagna. Fully loaded baked potatoes. Fruits and vegetables. White linens and fine china on the table. Nice glasses for their lemonade or, of course, Gatorade.
And if they lose?
Back to regular lunch at the campus dining services.
“The dining hall … it’s a good facility, but everything over there is for high use,” says Cheryl Zonkowski, director of sports nutrition for the athletic program.
“We have nice plates and silver, nice glasses for guys to drink out of, orange and blue napkins. Banners from when we’ve won the SEC,” Zonkowski says. “We make it nicer for the guys, so they feel the honor of victory.”
The message: winners and champions get treated differently.
“Coach Meyer is big about saying that if you’re a champ off the field and in the weight room, then you’re champion here.
Zonkowski is consulted for all of the team’s menus in the sports nutrition department. She directs the training table on Monday through Thursday nights, focusing on leaner meats, higher-quality carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables.
The team also features a quarterly Champions Club dinner based on performances in the weight room, class room and on the field. The gatherings were one of the first things Meyer instructed the staff to organize on the “touchdown terrace” at Florida Field.
“The kids come off the elevator and have no idea what hit them,” Zonkowski says. “Guys are hugging and high-fiving.”
The players who earn champion status go on one side of the room, which has a nicer meal with linen on the table and coaches acting like butlers and waiters. Those who don’t qualify eat on the other side of the room, where plastic table settings and hot dogs are the norm.
“That was not a tradition before he got here,” Zonkowski says.
It’s a message that strength and conditioning director Mickey Marotti (pictured at right) preaches: If you work hard, you will become the strongest and fastest. Success brings benefits. If you don’t put your heart and soul in, you don’t automatically reap all the benefits.
The challenge, though, is how to balance reward and celebration with nutrition.
“I preach moderation,” she says. “You can have ice cream and wings. It’s about meal timing and portion control. If you want to eat those wings to celebrate, you go ahead. But it’s like gas in a car. Don’t put regular in if you want supreme performance.”
As the team’s dietician, Zonkowski meets with each player after their physicals. She measures body composition to see what progress they’re making toward strength goals. She also learns about their diets, what they like and dislike eating and any food allergies they might have.
From there, she creates a food plan around their class schedule, practices and naps.
She also helps them figure out what snack stands or dining halls are closest on campus, what the healthiest choices are and how many meals a day they should eat to achieve their own personal composition and performance goals.
Zonkowski also labels the food on the training table so the athletes can track their intake. She’ll also walk them through the food line to familiarize them with the offerings.
“At first, the introduction leaves them in a little bit of awe because they’ve never had anything like it anywhere else,” she says. “They realize, ‘I have someone I should talk to about food and supplements.’”
Zonkowski also offers cooking classes during the summer for players who live off campus, as well as educational trips to the grocery store to teach them how to shop.
“I’ll explain things like white cheese has less fat than yellow,” she says. I’ll do a taste test of skim versus whole milk. One of the players refused to drink milk once until I had him do a tasting. Then he saw the difference.”
Zonkowski meets at 7 a.m. on Wednesdays for new players, to teach them nutrition over breakfast. Players who need to eat more or who need to trim their diets meet with her every weekday at 7 p.m.
The nutrition staff also stocks a “fueling station” in the hall between the locker room and weight room where players can grab fresh fruit, sports bars and other healthy snacks 10 to 20 minutes before taking the field.
Zonkowski’s duties extend to road games as well. Before the team left for the Bowl Championship Series game in Phoenix, she arranged for a Tex-Mex meal to teach about the nutritional value of diverse items on the menu.
Eating Family Style
Meyer also uses meals to instill a deeper sense of responsibility among the players. As the strength and conditioning director at the University of Notre Dame, Meyer was responsible for the training table and the food players ate. Under his watch, the training table was mandatory. No excuses allowed.
Once Meyer got to Florida, he instituted a Thursday night dinner at which all the coaches’ families were invited to dine with the team. Players’ families were invited as well.
The idea: for players to understand that their performances affect the families of everyone in the room.
“We as coaches know their families and they know ours,” Marotti says. “A tight bond forms from both sides. Tim Tebow gets to sit next to my son, Mitchell. That way, the players understand it’s not just about them. They realize they’re playing for each other.”
Marotti stresses to players that they can train all they want, but “if you’re not putting the fuel in your body that you need, you’re not going to make the changes you want.”
As an example, Marotti notes that wide receiver, David Nelson, a 6-foot-5-inch redshirt freshman, came to school at 185 pounds. In just two and a half years, he’s up to 210 pounds.
“That’s not just weight,” Marotti says. “That’s muscle mass.”
Along the way, NCAA regulations for nutritional supplements must be followed. Players can’t eat more than 30 perrcent protein.
One of the favorite beverages: a cherry drink containing the juice 36 cherries in concentrated drink, with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to speed their recovery from injuries.
“You can’t make people eat what you want them to eat,” Marotti says. “When you deal with an 18- to 22-year-old person, all you’re consistently doing is teaching them what they can and can’t do. You’re always fighting them. It’s always a battle.”
During the long football season, coaches have a chance to get to know their players at the table. Marotti regularly sat with Tebow, wide receiver Riley Cooper of Clearwater, and wide receiver Jarred Fayson of Tampa.
“They’d save me a chair,” Marotti says. “Riley and I would always get the ice cream. We had a little deal going. Those are the team building things you do it a lot around the dinner table.”
Tebow is a perfect example of someone whose body matured through proper diet before he got to college.
“When he came here, he knew how to eat,” Marotti says. “His parents taught him how to eat to right, so he didn’t have to make too many changes. The only thing he did was eat a little more and take a few supplements.”
One person on the staff who still needs a little coaching: Urban Meyer.
“Coach Meyer loves fried chicken,” Zonkowski says. “He understands the moderation concept. He just has an affinity for fried chicken. I’m still working on that one.”