Heading into year three, Mark Stoops made one objective very clear: he wants his players to start taking responsibility for their habits off the field as well as on it. That’s where the high-performance staff comes in. A few weeks ago, I profiled head high-performance coach Erik Korem, who told me about the hard work the team dietitian Monica Fowler is doing to educate players on the importance of eating right. Fowler, in her third year of working with the football team, started a cooking class this summer to help athletes transition from living in the dorm to living in an off-campus apartment.
“What we noticed with our football team this year is when they transition from the first year in the dorm to an apartment, they stumble a little bit with things because they don’t know how to cook,” Fowler said. “When I say they don’t know how to cook, I mean they would consider heating up frozen lasagna cooking.”
Approximately 70 athletes from the gymnastics team, volleyball team, women’s basketball team and football team participated in the class, which became so popular players bragged about it on Twitter, with sophomore wide receiver Alex Montgomery going as far to say he wished he could have cooking class three times a week instead of just one. Probably just because he gets to eat, right? Not exactly. Turns out the class has yielded results in the team’s body composition tests. Three football players who took Fowler’s cooking class scored better than their teammates by a considerable margin: redshirt freshmen linebacker Nico Firios, senior defensive end Farrington Huguenin, and walk-on Alex Brownell.
“I think it’s interesting that they were the ones taking personal responsibility for their time off the field to improve their performance,” Fowler said. “By coming to the cooking class, it’s just another step they’re taking to say ‘I’m taking care of myself off the field because I want to be good on the field.'”
So, what does cooking class entail? Fowler gave me the breakdown.
Step One: Think
Fowler said the objective of the class is to get athletes to think critically about what they’re feeding their body in order to achieve maximum results.
“I would equate learning how to cook for an athlete to a strength coach saying you need to lift weights to get better and not teaching them how to hold the bar or do a squat properly,” Fowler said. “If we don’t teach them how to do it, how can we expect them to do it?”
One of the first switches is probably the easiest: swap Gatorade for water. Fowler said a lot of the athletes she works with grew up drinking Kool-Aid or Gatorade like it was water, and by simply swapping it for actual water, they can drop three to five pounds pretty quickly. Also, more fruit and vegetables.
Fowler said she’s also trying to broaden the players’ horizons when it comes to foods. When I asked about if there were certain foods certain players were picky about, she said some of them don’t eat any cheese, which floored me. Who doesn’t love cheese? Also, she said some of the players don’t like eggs, which was equally as surprising. But, as my husband would tell you, who am I to judge a picky eater?
“Everyone has their little quirks,” Fowler said. “If I can just make 51% of them happy with the food, that’s my goal. I will say I think they’re more likely to try things now.”
“I’ve learned to accept ‘It’s not bad’ as a compliment,” she laughed.
Step Two: Learn
As far as lesson plans go, Fowler said the first class was all about chopping. While making frittatas, the athletes learned basic cooking skills, like how to hold a knife and rock it back and forth while chopping. Basic stuff, but for a generation of kids who grew up more with a microwave than a stove, it’s essential to start with things like how to cut an onion, mince garlic, or cut jalapeÃ±o peppers so the seeds don’t get on your fingers.
The second class is all about food safety, i.e. how to handle raw chicken, etc. The players learned how to make lettuce wraps with chicken and quinoa. Nico Firios said it was his favorite dish, and Alex Montgomery liked it so much, he ate a little bit, stopped himself, and took the rest home to his girlfriend.
“I’d never cooked anything for her before, so I wanted to share it,” Alex told me at Media Day. “She loved them.”
Step Three: Change
At the end of the class, Fowler said she just hopes the players can take home a few valuable lessons to change their habits. For example, adding in whole grains for your carbs and saving sugar for when you’re getting ready to perform. Also, not depriving yourself of your favorite foods, just eating them in moderation. (A good lesson for us all.)
“If you are going to have a day where you know you’re going to get chicken wings or something for dinner, your breakfast and your lunch has to be in line,” Fowler said. “It’s all about making those choices. Think critically.”
Ultimately, Fowler knows she won’t break all of the players’ bad eating habits. She just hopes to meet them in the middle.
“I’ll say, ‘Tell me what you’ve got in your kitchen,’ and give them suggestions. A box of mac and cheese? Okay, when you’re boiling the macaroni, add two handfuls of vegetables to that so you can cook the vegetables at the same time and still have the mac and cheese.”
The NCAA deregulation was a game changer
Fowler’s work became even more important last April when the NCAA approved unlimited snacks and meals, doing away with all the ridiculous guidelines Fowler and her staff had to abide by. For example, when she first came to Kentucky on a part-time basis five years ago, the NCAA rules only allowed the staff to give players a piece of fruit, some nuts, and a bagel. At the time, they weren’t allowed to give players spreads to put on the bagels, so Fowler would go around practice and collect spare change from players, buy peanut butter for them at Kroger with that money, and save all the receipts so they could have peanut butter on their bagels. Fowler said it was a red-letter day when the NCAA finally allowed spreads like cream cheese, honey, peanut butter, and jelly.
“You would have thought it was like Shangri-La over at football. They were so happy. When we could start having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches over there, you would have thought we were feeding them prime rib,” Fowler joked. “They were so happy to get that stuff, and we were happy too. You wouldn’t believe how inventive we got. We started making shakes out of cream cheese and strawberries to help them gain weight.”
Another challenge was making sure players got enough protein. The old guidelines wouldn’t allow the staff to bring in anything with 30% of calories from protein except for shakes and protein bars. Once those guidelines went away in April 2014, it opened the doors for a total health makeover.
“The quality of diet improved automatically with the stroke of that pen when they enacted that legislation,” Fowler said. “We were able to give them better choices and we’ve seen that change their body composition.”
Results you can see
We’ve talked about the “eye test” a lot in recent weeks. More than ever, Kentucky’s football players look like their SEC counterparts, a testament to hard work in the weight room AND the kitchen.
“I think the team looks really good. Them being able to come in and get their snacks has really helped them,” Fowler said. “Being able to have that food there to give them is huge.”
Redshirt freshman center Bunchy Stallings told me he’s lost thirty pounds this year, and Fowler’s cooking class definitely has something to do with it.
“[Monica and her staff] played a huge part in it because I could eat healthier,” Bunchy said. “I try to eat more protein than breads now because the breads weigh you down.”
You could hear the smile in Fowler’s voice when she talked about Bunchy.
“At first, he struggled a little bit trying to get to where he ate the right way,” Fowler said of the 6’3″, 335 lbs. center. “He had a great summer and was one of the ones that came to cooking class and would ask questions. I’ve seen Bunchy really grow up over the summer.”
Bunchy’s favorite dish to make now? A grain bowl with brown rice, steak or chicken, broccoli, onion, garlic, vegetables and teriyaki sauce.
Alex Montgomery said the cooking class came along when he needed it the most. Montgomery tore his ACL celebrating a touchdown in 2013 as a true freshman, and redshirted his sophomore year to recover.
“I feel so much better,” Montgomery said. “When I got hurt, my weight dropped to 190 lbs. from 217 lbs. My body fat went up from 8% to 12%. My muscle mass went down from 190 to 177. Now that I did the whole summer from Ms. Monica and working out, everything’s back up. My weight’s at 206 lbs., body fat 7.1%, everything, I feel better, healthier.”
The most delicious final ever
The final class of the summer was a cookout for all of the athletes. Each athlete was responsible for a part of the meal and training table chef Marty Burton set up his grill so they could grill chicken and lamb, the latter of which many of the athletes had never tried. Farrington Huguenin came early to cut up the lamb chops and do the marinade, and Bunchy Stallings and Khalid Henderson helped man the grill. The meal also included green beans, tomatoes, fresh corn, fruit, watermelon, cantaloupe, and peaches from local farms. The staff also got fresh bread from Bluegrass Bakery, which the players grilled and brushed with olive oil from Stuarto’s Olive Oil, who also did a held a tasting for everyone to promote the benefits of cooking with olive oil.
Left: Khalid Henderson manning the grill at the cookout; Right: Mark Stoops trying things out
She’s just getting started, bro
Fowler worked with the team during Joker Phillips’ last year, but said her role really increased when Stoops took over and the high-performance program began. When the new practice facility is finished, Fowler will have a big kitchen, a large smoothie/nutrition bar, and a large room for the entire team to eat in. She said Stoops made a state-of-the-art dining facility a priority.
“That’s something Coach Stoops has put a lot of emphasis on, is guys having a place to eat together,” Fowler said.
For now, Fowler is just encouraged to see her athletes take responsibility for their bodies, even if it means taking the time to cook instead of popping something in the microwave.
“You see these guys come in and they just kind of get it. They get that food is important and they start finding the joy in eating the food that they make themselves. That’s the goal,” Fowler said. “We had several freshmen that came and really got into it, which is really encouraging to see. I feel like they’re going to be our leaders on down the road.”