What awaited them was a veritable buffet of, well, buffets.
There was a hot breakfast buffet, which included eggs, bacon, pancakes, breakfast sandwiches, fruit and yogurt.
There was also a hot lunch buffet that featured salmon, chicken, rice and asparagus.
A salad bar and a healthful snack cart, which featured items like fruit cups, trail mix, pretzels and more, were on one wall. Just behind that was a sandwich bar featuring cold cuts, veggies and cookies. Drinks ranging from Gatorade to chocolate milk – the choice of Cardale Jones – were lined along the glass wall that overlooks the team’s weight room.
And in case that wasn’t enough, to-go tins – Stromboli and turkey wraps – were waiting near the steps that lead up to the lounge.
It was enough to make the average observer’s mouth water, but there was a purpose to all the food – to make sure each player on the Ohio State football team gets exactly what he needs to be fueled properly.
There are a lot of factors that go into top athletics performance, especially at a place like Ohio State, but one that cannot be overlooked is simple enough: nutrition.
“Every player that has lasted in the NFL for more than three years will tell you, the No. 1 reason why they last other than they’re a good player and they have talent and skill and are smart is their diet,” football performance czar Mickey Marotti said. “You can’t out-train a bad diet. You can’t.”
That’s why Ohio State has made major strides since the hiring of Urban Meyer to make sure the football players are using proper diets to take the most advantage of the advances discussed above.
That has taken on even more meaning as the Buckeyes have learned more and more about what it takes to recover from strenuous workouts and practices, and the recent NCAA ruling that allows teams to provide unlimited meals has allowed the staff to do more to make sure their players are taken care of.
Overseeing the food operation for the football team falls to registered dietitian Sean McMickle, who heads a crew of a handful of full-time staffers as well as graduate students and interns. A 25-year-old native of Cincinnati, McMickle has been in his current post for about 10 months, having taken over for Sarah Wick, the team nutritionist put in place by Meyer who now oversees diet plans for all OSU student-athletes.
Ohio State currently provides morning and lunch meals for the football squad, including food before morning workouts that can start as early as 6 a.m., food after those workouts and a lunch/snack to go. That gets players through two-thirds of their daily meals, but it’s not just about providing food – it’s about providing the right foods.
“I think guys are really buying into it,” he said. “It’s always nice to get provided for you, but it’s more than that. We really try to harp on the why – why are we putting certain foods here, what do these foods do for you?”
McMickle and his staff aren’t afraid to get specific. There are posters around the team’s lounge try to explain which foods to eat before workouts, which are better for full meals and which to generally avoid. One TV screen in the lounge features a food of the day with information on how to prepare the food and detailing its healthful benefits.
“It used to be, ‘Don’t put bad stuff in your body because (we said so),’ ” Meyer said. “We still do that because you’re modifying behavior, but as long as a player knows if you have any dream of becoming an elite athlete and you do that, there’s a great chance that’s not going to happen for you. So we really took all that and brought it back to our program (last) spring and summer.”
In addition, everything at the team meal was color-coded – red for those who need to drop weight, yellow for those who need to stay the same and green for those trying to get bigger. Athletes sit at corresponding colored tables – which they are expected to clean up after eating – in order to help McMickle and his staff keep tabs on their food intake, and the food staff checks off certain athletes and their plates as they eat each day.
McMickle said as a result he is working closely with about 20 players making major changes. Included on that list is defensive tackle Donovan Munger, who was given the goal to drop to between 295 and 300 pounds in order to see the field more often in 2015. Now 297, Munger said he’s seeing major gains based on his diet.
“He tries to do his best to see how I’m feeling after workouts and if I’m hungry during the day,” Munger said after having a breakfast of salmon and scrambled eggs. “He’s giving me little snacks and suggestions during the day to eat. I’ve had a great offseason because of that. It’s really helping me because I’ve been doing well as far as the weight room. It keeps you motivated.”
McMickle said the personal touch often helps, and his goal is to be more than just the “food police.” He works with athletes to make sure the foods they eat pass the test of both health and taste, and there’s an 80-20 rule that says that as long as a player eats right 80 percent of the time that there is room for freelancing in the 20 percent.
“They’re college kids, so a big part of it is picking your battles,” McMickle said. “90 percent of what we provide is going to be really nutritious and healthy, and every once in a while we have a day when we bring in fried chicken fingers, for instance. We give them an example of when you might be able to fit that cheat meal in. It’s all about the balance of things.”
The old saying is you are what you eat, and at Ohio State, that means a player can only be as good as what he puts in his body.
“A lot of guys are really thinking very hard about how they are eating and cleaning up their diets and are starting to see a lot of improvements,” McMickle said. “It’s been going really well.”