On a typical weekday evening, Joe Reitz goes into his kitchen, fixes himself a big salad topped with chicken, a bowl of spaghetti or a plate of leftovers from the night before, and sits down to eat. Although it seems like dinner, this meal, typically, is his fourth or fifth of the day. Sometimes he even enjoys a few scoops of ice cream afterwards.
Like many 300-plus pound offensive linemen in the NFL, high-calorie, frequent meals throughout the day aren’t unusual. But for the 6-foot-7 Indianapolis Colts’ lineman who hasn’t always weighed in at 320 pounds, these meals are a critical part of his job. Reitz has to work hard to keep his size while still building strength, because unlike most players in the league, he spent his years in college on a basketball court instead of the football field.
After playing baseball, basketball and football in high school in nearby Fishers, Ind., Reitz enrolled at Western Michigan University, and by his sophomore year, his towering -- but slim -- figure caught the eye of a Baltimore Ravens’ scout.
“Growing up in Indiana, watching the Hoosiers since you’re a little kid, it kind of steered me towards basketball,” says Reitz of his college career as a 250-pound center for the WMU Broncos. “But even though I was more of that longer, leaner basketball player, when scouts started to look at me as a lineman, I knew I had a big frame and that I could put the weight on. I just had to reshape my whole body.”
That transformation began right after Reitz graduated, when he “tried to eat all of the time,” which initially meant any high-calorie, mass-building food he could get his hands on, including McDonald's chocolate milkshakes and 2 a.m. protein shakes. While it wasn't the healthiest diet, Reitz packed on 60 pounds in just six months, putting him over the 300-pound mark and into lineman territory.
By the time he landed on the Colts in 2010, Reitz shifted his focus to shedding fat while still maintaining his mass and building muscle.
“My wife and I joke around -- when I first put on all of that weight, I had chubby cheeks and all,” says Reitz, who married his wife, Jill, in 2010. “We laugh about it now, but it did took me a couple of years to feel comfortable with the weight, until I was able distribute it throughout my whole body and increase my muscle mass.”
Lindsay Langford, a registered dietician at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, where Reitz sometimes works out, says in order for him to gain, and maintain, his weight at 325 pounds, he has to eat roughly 6,000 calories a day. According to Langford, that feat is a lot harder than it seems.
"You can’t cram that many calories into 2-3 meals per day," says Langford, who also works with NBA and NHL athletes. "You have to be diligent about getting in three meals plus a few 700-800 calorie snacks, and sometimes that means waking up and eating."
While Reitz does occasionally drink down a midnight protein shake while half asleep, he says his main goal is to eat at least four substantial meals a day, keep himself hydrated and increase his caloric intake at any opportunity. Tricks that he learned early on -- like keeping a box of bedside Fig Newtons, which are low in fat but can add 330 calories in just five small cookies, and having other options that pack a considerable amount of calories in a smaller serving size like trail mix, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Gatorade -- help him meet his daily needs.
Since his initial weight gain, Reitz’s four seasons in the league have taught him to eat a more nutritionally balanced, wholesome diet. Despite the common stereotype, he says most of the Colts’ linemen are actually pretty healthy eaters. On an average practice day during the week, Reitz starts his day with an egg white omelet with turkey or chicken and vegetables, plus a side of fruit. Sometimes he likes a smoothie made with fruit and whey protein to add some extra calories. For lunch, a plate of chicken or fish with potatoes and a salad is his typical choice at the Colts’ facility, and for dinner, Reitz usually eats his wife’s home cooked meals -- followed by another meal a few hours later, eaten right before bed. Occasionally he will treat himself to dessert or something higher in fat, like chicken wings.
“I probably do eat a larger portion size than most people,” he says. “But it’s kind of like people who are on a diet trying to lose the pounds -- it takes a lot discipline and sometimes you have to do the best you can to force that second sandwich down, even when you’re full.”
Langford agrees, adding that players like Reitz are constantly thinking about food because if they miss a meal, they can cancel out the weight gain for the day. “It’s a very disciplined part of their training regimen that must be combined with a quality strength and conditioning program to build lean mass and keep them in the top tier of power, speed and agility,” she says.
Reitz says his high school football experience helped him to transition his workouts from basketball’s longer distance running and lighter weight lifting, to the more Olympic, explosive lifts and shorter sprints and agility work that are necessary for his position on the Colts.
“As lineman we know it’s our job to keep [Colts’ QB Andrew Luck] as clean as we can, to protect him,” he says. “And if we do our job, he’s going to have great success and bring success to our team as well.”
As he enters Sunday’s AFC National Championship against the New England Patriots as the Colts’ starting right tackle for the previous two games, Reitz plans to stay in his normal routine, at the weight he is now most comfortable with.
“Size and strength are so big in the NFL and I think each guy has their own body type and [optimal] weight,” says Reitz. “I experimented over the years and now I’ve settled in and found the weight that I feel best at, where I can be the most effective and get my job done on Sunday.”