LOS ANGELES — He has not eaten a candy bar nor ingested a carbonated drink in a decade.
He consumes more than 10,000 calories a day, blends most of his meals into greenish shakes and eats so many sweet potatoes that the soles of his feet and palms of his hands are an unnatural shade of orange. He has played a football game with a cast on each hand and two bloody screws protruding from a swollen big toe.
He is missing an upper tooth, dislodged during another game, has hair down to his shoulder blades and completes 300 pushups and 300 situps before bed each night. He drinks more than two gallons of water a day, hasn’t had a good piece of deep fried food since he was 14 and plays a position on the football field dubbed “Predator.”
This is Porter Gustin.
“There’s a reason he looks like a Marvel superhero,” USC coach Clay Helton says of his 6'5", 265-pound edge-rushing team captain. “He looks like a cross between Captain America and the Incredible Hulk.”
If Gustin wasn’t already on your radar, it’s probably because he played in just four games in 2017. A cracked toe cut short a promising junior season (three sacks and 15 tackles in the first 10 quarters), but he’s one of the centerpieces of USC’s defense–something he proved in the Trojans’ season-opening win 43–21 win over UNLV. Three weeks removed from surgery for a torn meniscus he suffered in camp, Gustin had a sack and a half and forced a fumble. “A little bit rusty,” he told reporters afterward. “Just getting a feel for a couple things.”
Gustin is a most intimidating figure, especially when he arrives for an interview over the summer in workout gear after an “extra lift” in the weight room, his swollen arms uncovered and his powerful thighs bursting from his shorts. He participates in a lot of “extra lifts,” so many that coaches over the years—high school and college included—have urged him to at least take Sunday off, advice which he has finally taken.
To understand Gustin and that freakish body of his, you must understand his incredibly unique nutritional habits and workout regimen. “I’ll just give you today as an example,” he says. On this particular Friday in July, Gustin woke up at 4:10 a.m., chugged a Muscle Milk protein shake while lying in bed and then at 4:45 a.m. consumed his first of about a half-dozen blended meals. The other five are woven between a 5 a.m. stretching routine, conditioning drills at six, two weightlifting sessions, outdoor sled work that he watches later on video and a soft-tissue massage around 11. “His diet and the way he works out isn’t for most people,” fellow linebacker Cameron Smith says. “You don’t suddenly turn that on and then you’re Porter.”
Even he admits that his blended meals are gross. Their greenish-brown color makes his coach uneasy, and their stomach-churning aroma chases his father John from the room. Gustin’s most common blended meal includes chicken, sweet potato, brown rice, broccoli, spinach, a splash of water and a full bottle of Muscle Milk. He sometimes throws in salmon—that’s when the smell is strongest. “It just tastes awful,” he laughs. “The fish are the worst.”
A different hunger lingers inside Gustin this year, rooted in the frustrations of a junior season disrupted by a bizarre injury. His right big toe was split down the middle when he stubbed it into a door after a win over Stanford in the second game of the year. The next Wednesday, doctors inserted two screws into the toe, and four days later, he started against Texas, battling through serious pain. He had two sacks in the first half, but at halftime doctors removed his right shoe and “blood poured out,” Porter says. The screws loosened, the toe cracked back open and his season was lost. “He’s now hungrier than ever and fully rejuvenated,” his father says.
Gustin was exposed to his first on-field contact in more than six months during spring practice, and it was like “you had a dog on a leash and you finally let the dog off to just go run,” according to Helton. “We couldn’t block him.” That’s why Gustin’s knee injury during fall camp was so disappointing. But what’s a little surgery to this guy? He underwent the procedure on Aug. 8, missed three weeks of practice and then spent some time in the backfield last week, rounding into shape in time for a crucial early showdown with the Cardinal, whom the Trojans beat twice last season en route to the Pac-12 title.
Gustin’s eating habits make him one of college football’s more unusual rising stars. He blends 90% of his meals, and his reasons are simple: quick consumption and easy digestion. After all, he has no time to eat in bites. Food isn’t a luxury for Porter, his father John says, it is fuel. Gustin has been this way since he was in eighth grade, a scrawny kid who played football with bigger, older boys who used to refer to him as a “lightning rod” because of his slight frame.
That seems like so long ago, well before his athletically gifted family moved from Idaho to Utah when Gustin was 16. He still played quarterback then, before turning into a sought-after linebacker as a high school junior. John Gustin stands 6'6" and played quarterback at Wyoming in the 1990s, and Porter’s mother, aunt and sister were, at various points, named the Gatorade basketball players of the year in the states where they attended high school. But no one in this family is quite like Porter, whose self-discipline and will power remain oddities to outsiders.
Gustin has a short list of approved restaurants, including Chipotle and Subway, and the only real fat he ingests comes from avocados, which he only consumes in a double-chicken Chipotle burrito bowl. John Gustin pulled into an Arby’s drive-through during a recent camping trip with his son and some teammates, leaned out of the car window and said, “Roast beef on wheat bread. No cheddar cheese or sauce,” and everyone in the vehicle knew it was Porter’s order. “His mom one time was like, ‘Yeah, Porter hasn’t had a sweet since he was 11,’” Smith says. “I was like, ‘Oh. O.K. That’s pretty weird.’”
As a child, he ate apples for dessert while family members nibbled on cookies and downed pieces of cake. His high school teammates once played a prank on him by replacing his water with Sprite. He spewed the soft drink everywhere, the carbonation stinging his mouth after years without it. During his senior season while traveling on recruiting visits, Porter’s father and high school coach placed wads of cash totaling $500 on a restaurant table–the prize if he were to eat a dessert. Just one bite, John begged his son. Just one. “He wouldn’t budge. He wouldn’t do it.”
Porter is converting his teammates to his strict nutrition plan. When Smith reaches for an unhealthy snack, “I literally think of Porter,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘What Would Porter Do?’”
The answer: not eat it.