jack Youngblood, a defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, stands before an immense mirror in the team's exercise room in Long Beach huffing through a set of forearm curls. A 27-year-old All-Pro with craggy good looks, Youngblood has just finished a three-hour scrimmage in 90° September heat. He must now go through the stations of the weight room before calling it a day. The veins in his arms and neck bulge, and he is thinking about food.
Panting, Youngblood says, "The body is a test tube. You have to put in exactly the right ingredients to get the best reaction out of it. Nutrition is an essential element for any athlete."
The problem is that what comprises proper nutrition for athletes is a matter of considerable debate. Men and women whose professional success depends mainly on their physical capabilities must—at least to some extent—regard their bodies as test tubes. Dr. Timothy T. Craig, head of the American Medical Association's division of sports medicine, says, "Athletes' concern with diet is naturally from a performance point of view; they look for an elixir to give them a slight advantage over their opponents." Accordingly, it might be expected that athletes' diets would reflect a greater than normal concern for proper nutrition. However, within these human test tubes, there are as many Big Macs and Snickers bars as there are steaks and spinach salads, as much grits as Granola, as many servings of lasagna as liver, as much bourbon as brown rice. Indeed, athletes' diets span the same range from good to bad that those of more sedentary folks do. Most athletes simply consider food to be fuel and, like the majority of the rest of us, they do little more than try to follow a regimen of three well-balanced meals a day, just as your family physician suggests.
But there are other athletes—and their numbers are increasing—who set great store by magic potions. And at the other extreme there are even a few jocks who, if their diets are reliable evidence, seem to believe that it matters not what an athlete consumes.
February 28, 1977
Among those seeking an extra edge when they eat are vegetarians, megavitamin gulpers, high-carbohydrate dieters, glycogen loaders and even some who think stoking up on bee pollen will improve their performances. Many of these unconventional eaters are also serious students of the problems of overweight, underweight, weight maintenance, stamina building and strengthening.
What, for instance, does Youngblood eat? Here's a young man in the prime of life, in the best of shape, who has just used up a couple of thousand calories in a three-hour workout—equal to the number sedentary folks burn in a whole day. Certainly he's going to devour—as his name suggests—hot, red beef along with a few dozen potatoes soaked in sour cream and butter. Of course, this man who makes his living by throwing people to the ground is going to attack dinner the way he'd clobber a running back. Sure he is.
Says the 6'4", 255-pound Young-blood, "My favorite dinner is steamed broccoli, a piece of broiled halibut and one of my wife's great Italian salads. I can't eat beef. It's too rich, too acidic. Broiled or boiled chicken is good for me, and lots of fish. The normal American diet of steak, potatoes, ice cream and white bread is a killer. That's heart-attack and stroke country. The trick is to find out how little your body can do with, then stay there."
The rest of Youngblood's diet is as-bland as his dinner menu. For breakfast he has fresh juice and one boiled egg, for lunch a big tuna salad.
That greatest of gustatory authors, Brillat-Savarin, once bragged, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." On the evidence of diet, Brillat-Savarin would spot Youngblood as a particularly cautious cardiologist.
It wasn't always this way. We used to expect he-man feats when our heroes sat down to dine. And we got them. There were Jack Nicklaus' bouts with mounds of oysters and, before that, Babe Ruth's binges of whiskey and steak, hot dogs and beer. Eleven years ago Ernie Ladd, then a 310-pound tackle with the San Diego Chargers, defeated a similarly built Italian fisherman in something billed as The Eating Championship of the World. Ladd downed 10 steaks, several portions of prime rib, two fried chickens, a pound of butter, three quarts of pop, a coconut cream pie and miscellaneous side dishes. And even when Archie Moore went on his aboriginal diet or Billy Casper began eating buffalo meat, they did it for concrete reasons, the former to make the light heavyweight limit, the latter to forestall allergies.
Back in those simpler times, athletes ate huge amounts of meat protein, usually in the form of steak. But in the confusing world of current nutritional thinking, beef is rapidly being discredited for a variety of reasons, being replaced with everything from pancakes to mung beans.
The almost mystical belief in meat as the necessary ingredient in athletes' diets goes back a long way in Western culture. In ancient Greece, athletes were special people. They often lived and trained apart from the general populace and maintained strict vegetarian diets. The practice was to reward a winning wrestler or runner with a few scraps of meat. Presumably, a winning Olympian might get a whole leg of lamb, but mostly it was vegetables and honey.
Then around 450 B.C. along came the first food faddist, the Euell Gibbons of Greece, Dromeus of Stymphalus. In an era when warriors customarily ate lion's heart for courage and deer liver for speed, Dromeus reasoned that athletes who needed great muscles should eat the meat of muscular animals—bulls, for example—for strength. Thus began sport's more than 2,000-year love affair with strip sirloin.
At the opposite end of the Ram front four from Youngblood is Fred Dryer, 30, a free-wheeling free-thinker who for two seasons lived anywhere his Volkswagen minibus happened to be parked.
"I only eat meat about once a week," says Dryer, who now resides in a Long Beach bachelor pad. "It's not because I'm a health-food freak or an organics guy, but because I'm convinced from my own investigation that meat is an inefficient means of getting protein. Besides, why kill a cow when so much is given to us naturally?
"It's like white bread. Some guy along the line thought, 'Ooh, look at this ratty, ugly brown wheat. Let's bleach it until it's sweet and white and all clean.' So they make white bread, taking out all the nutrients and fiber. To prove how fresh it is, you squeeze it—like this." Dryer brings his huge hands together until there's only enough room left inside for a walnut. "And that's what it does in your intestines."
Dryer lives on two meals a day that include little meat and no squishy bread. "About 8 a.m., I have eight raw egg yolks, milk, applesauce, papaya juice and two tablespoons of bran, all mixed in a blender," he says. "Then about 6 p.m., I steam up 10 or 12 different vegetables and eat two or three bowlsful of that. If I'm hungry at night, I have another one of those cocktails."
Even though Dryer's consumption of 70 egg yolks a week would seem to make him a candidate for intensive care, he is very healthy. "Nearly everything we're told about food and nutrition is nonsense," he says. "Forget about calories, carbohydrate grams and cholesterol. The AMA is so sanctimonious. They say only eat two or three eggs a week. My cholesterol count is always very low because I don't cook the eggs. Heat changes the molecular structure of food. If I ate 70 fried eggs a week, I'd be dead by now."
(According to two noted nutritionists, Dryer is wrong. Not only is he risking keeling over from too much cholesterol by eating so many eggs, whether cooked or uncooked, but he also could contract salmonellosis, an occasionally fatal form of food poisoning, by eating them raw.)
Dryer admits to a dietary failing that occasionally gets him into deep nutritional trouble. "If I've been out running the streets and really sopping up the beer some nights, I just hog into McDonald's or some greasy spoon and get right into the burgers and the grease," he says. "God, it tastes good. But I don't do it very often. They're killers, those fast-food places where you can poison the whole family for less than five dollars."
The positive results of NFL players like Dryer and Young-blood existing on such dainty fare as broiled chicken and steamed vegetables may be more mental than physical. "I can't make some statement like, 'I went to the Pro Bowl last year because of egg yolks, bran and vegetables,'" says Dryer, "but when I developed my diet, I learned to question things and to make my own investigation of my life based on facts, not hearsay. That carried over into football. I've played on a lot of teams and, frankly, very few trainers know what they're doing. They'll tell you anything."
One thing is absolutely sure. Don't call Dryer's diet crazy. "Lots of folks may think it's nutty not to eat meat and white bread and honey and all that jazz that's supposed to build strong bodies eight ways," he says. "I'd just as soon eat grass or go to the desert and live on lizards, as eat steak and white bread. Some things on this earth are just not meant to be eaten."
The great farewell to beef has gained adherents among all sorts of athletes. One of them is Portland Trail Blazer Center Bill Walton, a sometime political radical and full-time vegetarian. Walton even eschews milk, cheese and eggs, limiting his diet almost exclusively to fruit, nuts, grains and vegetables. Among sports stars with more conventional ideologies and life-styles, Chris Evert is usually a non-meat eater. So is Wayne Stetina, an Olympic cyclist from Indianapolis. All the members of Stetina's family became vegetarians four years ago. Neither a fanatic Earth-Shoe, back-to-nature cultist nor a quasi-religious natural-foods advocate, Stetina simply says, "We read books on the subject—a lot of them—and came to the conclusion that, because of the number and amounts of hormones now used to fatten animals, meat isn't healthy."
In the parlance of faddists, Stetina is known as a lacto-ovi-vegetarian. "That means milk, eggs and cheese are allowed," he says, "but instead of milk I drink kefir; it's a drink that's cultured from grain and tastes like buttermilk. I eat a few eggs a week, and once in a while I have some fish."
A salad for Stetina is a major production. "I make one every day. I use romaine, endive, escarole, but no head lettuce," he says. "The dressing we make is apple-cider vinegar and olive oil. Then I spread sprout lentils on it, and alfalfa, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and mung beans."
Stetina fasts one day a week, drinking only juices. "It helps the body stay clean and efficient," he says. His favorite drink, which he runs through the family juicerator, is a mixture of celery, carrot, potato and cucumber juices.
"It's helped my cycling some," says the 22-year-old Indiana University student, "but the diet is more important over the long run and later in life."
If Dryer, Youngblood and Stetina seem overly concerned about their diets, it is because they are among those athletes who examine their bodies as if they were rare and fragile flowers. They talk at length about "cleaning out the system," "efficient bowel movements" and "healthy urine." But their diets, not to mention their intense concern for their bodily functions, are unbearably dull to those with livelier palates, and there are athletes with a craving for spicy foods. No one likes them hotter than Bobby Unser. A few hours before settling into his car for the 1975 Indianapolis 500, he ate a big bowl of his mom's chili, a fuming concoction of hot peppers laced with a secret ingredient—tequila. Unser won that 500, and a Mexican food distributor and a tequila company have since begun a promotion for their products featuring Mom Unser's recipe.
But even chili may be for sissies. Evel Knievel's breakfast before a recent jump over 10 vans in Worcester, Mass. was a shot of Wild Turkey and a can of beer. The Breakfast of Crazies.
Bachelors in sports often have odd diets, mainly because there is no one around to cook for them. Almost every athlete has a story about an unmarried teammate with a curious—even disgusting—eating habit, such as banana-and-Canadian-bacon sandwiches with diet black-raspberry soda.
Among the more peculiar diets is that of Baltimore Colt Defensive Tackle Joe Ehrmann. His favorite foods are peanut butter and beets, crunchy and canned, respectively.
"I eat steak and take food supplements, but I really love peanut butter," says Ehrmann. His former roommate, ex-Colt Quarterback Marty Domres, says, "Joe eats peanut butter on everything—on rye toast, with celery, even with mayonnaise. And beets. I never met a guy before who went to the store just to buy beets."
Be it beets or tequila or peanut butter, athletes, like most of the populace, tend to consume too much. Youngblood says, "You hear constantly that football players, because they burn up so much food energy, need to eat a great deal just to survive. It's a myth."
Adds Dryer: "The overweight athletes have just been conditioned by our own PR about how much we eat, how tough and animalistic we are. Athletes don't need to eat all that much more than anyone else, because we use our food more efficiently."
Nowhere in sports is weight more critical than on the scale before a horse race. A jockey, who usually weighs less than 10% of his mount, must struggle to keep his weight at a bare minimum. To do so, he often uses a time-honored method of the track.
Johnny Sellers weighs 113 pounds and has for most of his 21 years as a jockey. "I love to eat," Sellers said recently while proving it in the elegant private dining room at Chicago's Hawthorne race track, "and it's easier, particularly when you're with friends, to eat with them than to sit there with a bowl of soup and watch them go after the steaks.
"Take this lunch," he said, gesturing at his plate of chicken Kiev, oozing pools of buttery juices. "I love it. It tastes just great, but I can't keep it. It's noon now, and my first race is at 2:30. I'll have to flip it."
Flipping is throwing up. "It's been the best reducing method since the Romans," said Sellers. "I learned it as a bug boy, and I've been doing it for about 20 years. Doctors say it's perfectly O.K., and that's the way I keep fit. Lots of riders do it. Some can't, though. Laffit Pincay can't flip lunch, so he's got to exist on sunflower seeds.
"And it's funny when you get a new jock around. He goes out for a steak dinner with you, and afterwards you go and heave. Then the kid tries it and can't make himself do it. Sometimes he'll have to scratch the next day because he can't make the weight."
Later, in the jockeys' room, Sellers weaved his way through short, towel-wrapped men to the bathroom. He came back in a minute, looking pale but calm. Lighting up an expensive cigar, he sat back just as if he were digesting a fine meal. "Racing is a nervous business," he said. "Owners are nervous, horses are nervous, and jockeys are the most nervous bunch of athletes I've ever seen. Given that state of things, it's easy to flip lunch."
Athletes in other sports have resorted to other means nearly as drastic to lose weight. After Ed White, a Minnesota Vikings guard, weighed in at a lusty 288 before the 1976 Pro Bowl, he went on a diet of his own formulation. "I fasted five days a week," he says. "Just fruit juice, no solids. Then on weekends I ate everything that wasn't tied down." This season White played at 260, "with a lot more speed in the pit."
For the usual run of athletic fatty, the L.A. Rams have a simple plan. "We send the overweight guys to Weight Watchers," says Trainer Gary Tuthill. "But they don't have to go to those meetings with all the middle-aged ladies. They come to our meetings. We've got the paychecks."
There also are some athletes who must gain weight. Bob Maddox, the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive end who formerly played for Cincinnati, is remembered with awe by the Bengals' trainer Marvin Pollins.
The Bengals kept trying to fatten up Maddox and encouraged him to eat a lot. "He'd sit down at the table," says Pollins, "with six or seven T-bones and five ears of corn. He'd just stack the steaks on his tray, cover them with Al Sauce, pick them up in his hands and start eating. For breakfast Bob would have a whole box of corn flakes with half a gallon of milk. He was such an attraction in camp that I think he kept it up just because we all expected him to." Another reason he kept it up was that, after months of gluttony, Maddox had gained only six pounds.
Even when athletes have little or no problem with gaining or losing weight and have found a diet that sustains them, many still search for the elixir that will give them the edge. A few years back the megavitamin fad was the answer among coaches, trainers and players. But now the practice of ingesting massive doses of the water-soluble vitamins—B complex and C—is almost dead because mounting scientific evidence indicates that these vitamins are needed only in small amounts and that heavy exercise causes them to be excreted so quickly that they are practically useless—except perhaps off the court. Bob Ferry, general manager of the Washington Bullets and a former Detroit Piston player, says, "I remember one season in Detroit, we all took a lot of vitamins. I don't think we played any better, but three of our wives got pregnant."
And pro tennis player Julie Heldman, who has been the megavitamin route, says, "There's a 'mother' on the tour who's always passing out vitamin pills. All kinds, all shapes, all sizes. The younger girls take them without asking any questions. They don't even know why. Vitamins just sound healthy, I guess."
Doc Counsilman, the Indiana University swimming coach, says, "Kids grow up in a vitamin culture in America. We see ads for the most useless breakfast cereals. Doctors, health-food nuts—they all talk about vitamins. I give my swimmers 500 units of vitamin C a day—even though I can prove that it's useless. Too much C, according to the latest tests in Europe, can even be harmful. It can damage the kidneys and destroy itself in the body, which means that one can become allergic to it. But we give it to the kids in small amounts because they think it makes them swim better. And if they think so, it does."
The latest dietary crazy is glycogen loading. Developed a decade ago by Swedish physiologist Erik Hultman while working with cross-country skiers, the technique involves exhausting the body's glycogen reserves, which are the major source of muscle energy. Then, shortly before his event, the athlete's muscles are "loaded" with glycogen, providing him with a higher level of fuel for endurance events.
As practiced by the 1976 NCAA-champion Iowa wrestlers, the process begins a week before a meet. Wrestlers eat a high-protein, low-fat, low-carbohydrate diet for three days, with a heavy workout on the third day to exhaust all the glycogen from the muscles. Then the wrestlers undergo light practice sessions and eat a high-carbohydrate diet—foods such as spaghetti, pancakes, bread—for the next three days. That loads the muscles with a new infusion of glycogen.
Frank Shorter, the '72 Olympic marathon gold medalist, says, "The technique might be worth another three minutes off my time." But Counsilman and others doubt the benefits of glycogen loading and consider it hazardous. "We tried it with our swimmers," says Counsilman. "We did muscle biopsies before and after loading and found that you'd have to swim four miles before it'd do any good.
"And during the days of high-carbohydrate eating you pull in three times as much water as usual. That's dangerous. Some athletes have gotten heart pains from it, and we believe that's from the excess water being absorbed by the heart muscle. No one has died yet, but the process makes us worry."
Ironically, a strong piece of evidence on Counsilman's side comes in the person of Chuck Yagla, the star of Iowa's 1976 wrestling team. Yagla did not do carbohydrate loading with the rest of the Hawkeyes and still had a 41-1 record. "I hate pancakes," he says. "A lot of the guys like them, so I guess the loading's O.K. for them, but I can't stand it."
After weigh-in, five hours before a match, Yagla likes to sit down to—what else?—a big meal of steak, eggs and milk. According to the latest dietary fads, Yagla is nuts, a throwback to the championship Green Bay Packers' training table, where all those huge men in torn T shirts and brush cuts fired down immense quantities of prime meat. Nonetheless, Yagla's record so far this season is 25-3.
Perhaps Dromeus was right about the benefits of meat. You certainly cannot prove otherwise by the appropriately named George Cook, who helps provide food for visiting NFL teams at a Dallas hotel. In 1975, before a game in which the Cowboys were favored to whip the Chiefs, Cook watched John Matuszak, then a Kansas City defensive end, eat a 14-ounce steak, six scrambled eggs and eight pieces of toast. But that was only an appetizer. The 6'8", 280-pound Matuszak next ate seven slices of bacon, a slab of ham and four more eggs, fried hard. After watching Matuszak in action, Cook correctly predicted an upset by the Chiefs.
Then the Oakland Raiders came to Dallas and ordered up a midnight snack—100 pounds of hamburger, 125 pounds of ribs—and Cook again correctly predicted a Cowboy loss.
Cook can spot a loser, too. When he saw Philadelphia Eagle Quarterback Roman Gabriel eating a modest toast-and-honey breakfast, he predicted a Cowboy victory. Right on, 27-17.
Cook's predictions notwithstanding, the only conclusion that can be reached after examining the bewildering array of athletes' diets is that the food that goes into the test tube of the body may not be nearly as important as the confidence that simultaneously goes into the psyche.
Most coaches and trainers agree with the AMA's analysis that "conditioning and athletic skill rank far and away as the most important factors in successful athletic performance. Nutrition can only assist to the extent that the diet is adequate in essential nutrients."
And about the only sure advice one can glean in the whole seven-course stew comes from the Los Angeles Lakers' resident health-fad devotee, Cazzie Russell. "Don't eat soul food before the game," he warns. "At halftime, you'll still be burping."