The origin of Damon Harrison’s nickname was one part locker-room ribbing, one part motivational tactic. The Jets’ coaches noticed their young, raw defensive tackle was always eating during position meetings, so defensive line coach Karl Dunbar got his attention by way of his stomach.
“Dunbar used to put Rice Krispies Treats on my desk in the meeting room, just to see if I’d eat them,” Harrison recalls. “In the beginning, I would, but then I saw he was sending me a message telling me I needed to lose weight. So I would get them and I would put them on other people’s desks. So then I stopped eating the Rice Krispies and I would come in there with like sandwiches or salads or something.”
It was too late to keep his now-beloved moniker from sticking—Dunbar and head coach Rex Ryan made sure of that—but the diet change has helped “Snacks” scale the ranks of the league’s best interior defenders in short order.
After appearing in just five games as a rookie, Harrison became a full-time starter in 2013 and finished second only to J.J. Watt in Pro Football Focus’s run stop percentage metric—the next year, he led the league in the stat, serving as the primary tackler on 12.5% of the run plays the Jets had him on the field for. After a standout ‘15 campaign in which PFF named him the NFL’s best run defender at any position, Harrison signed a five-year, $46.5 million contract with the Giants this past off-season. As the anchor of Big Blue’s revamped line, he has played a leading role in lifting New York’s run defense from 24th in yards per rushing attempt a year ago to third this season.
Not bad for a sturdily-built but lightly-regarded prospect from William Penn University whom no team deemed worthy of a draft pick four and a half years ago.
After he latched on with the Jets as a free agent, Harrison began to realize his diet would need to change if he wanted to use his 350-pound frame efficiently to dictate the action in the trenches. That meant cutting back on carbs and the greasy foods he loved growing up in Louisiana.
“I was a pasta guy—major, major pasta guy,” Harrison says. “I was a fried chicken guy, any fried food, chicken wings, burgers. I was just that guy. College kid.”
He still eats chicken, only without the grease and batter—and it stays out of his salads, the “color” he added to his diet once he reached the pros. He rotates in salmon, too, and pairs it all with asparagus or brown rice, giving him a leaner way to stock up on protein that helps him recover faster and endure the grind of the regular season. Harrison enjoys cooking, but his staple recipes were the same fatty foods that got him in trouble, so he has largely yielded those duties to his wife Alexis, who has “kind of turned us all organic.”
Getting serious about his diet also meant altering his snack rotation, as well: He eschews the Rice Krispies Treats and Butterfingers that he loves (“I’m just that chocolate and peanut butter guy”) and opts for Uncrustables peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to fuel up before games. With an assist from Alexis, Snacks’s go-to late night snack has become a fruit combo of watermelon, cantaloupe and pineapple.
Those tweaks have helped mold him into the player that has been one of the Giants’ most reliable weapons down the stretch, but Harrison is still sensitive to the lack of appreciation that left him untouched in the draft process and on the outside looking in when Pro Bowl rosters were announced this week.
In the off-season, he’ll head home and temporarily set his dietary discipline aside, treating himself to the foods he grew up on—his favorite guilty pleasure Louisiana dish: crawfish fettucine alfredo—before trimming down his cupboard for another run at league-wide respect.