College football players are constantly being addressed, counseled, poked and prodded. Between coaches, academic advisors, trainers and managers, any newcomer to the staff has to come up with something fresh and unique to get a player to turn his head, especially after a two-hour practice in full pads.
Joey Blake found a way.
“Gushers,” he proudly said of the fruit snacks. “We had them out after practice and all the guys were running by, then a couple snapped their heads back. ‘Whoa, we got Gushers? Cool!’ ”
As South Carolina’s director of football nutrition, Blake already was original. At 25, he’s the youngest full-time sports dietitian in the country, and in December, he made history by becoming the first football-only college nutritionist. The idea was hatched by USC coach Steve Spurrier, strength coach Joe Connolly and director of football operations Jamie Speronis, the three deciding that the Gamecocks could benefit from having one person in charge of players’ diets.
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Blake, after serving at IMG Academies, Virginia and Tennessee, got the call and has made an impact. From being another guy in a USC windbreaker to a staff member that players might see more often than the head coach, Blake is sometimes around from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., planning, discussing and keeping the Gamecocks fueled and ready for the next workout.
“I’m making shakes for them after their lift, I’m cutting fruit and putting it in bags, I’m interacting with almost all of them every day,” Blake said. “If it’s somebody who’s a priority, we’ll sit down and meet. We have a weight board, so we keep up with their weight on a daily basis. If I’m noticing a guy is dropping or gaining, I’m going to talk to him.”
Blake has structured his approach so he’s the anti-norm. Players have enough sitting down in big rooms and listening to instructors in groups. Being that he has the advantage of overseeing one sport – most dietitians oversee 15 to 20 – Blake makes it a point to meet one-on-one with a player.
“It’s incredible the plan he has for every individual player,” left guard A.J. Cann said. “He’s great. It’s a great thing for him coming and working with us for proper nutrition.”
Blake is from New York but grew up in North Carolina, attending Western Carolina and finding his niche. He quipped that his three biggest interests in school were food, sports and girls, so since he couldn’t major in girls, he found a way to combine the other two.
As a prep football player, Blake committed himself to his senior season, doing all he could with nutrition and the weight room. It paid off in an all-conference year, and that fanned the spark.
WCU didn’t have a large athletics budget for a nutritionist, so Blake volunteered with the football, women’s basketball and baseball teams. That led to IMG and an internship at UVa, then to Tennessee.
At USC, he first compiled a list of players’ weights and players’ ideal weights. A contraption called the Bod Pod (think Robin Williams’ spaceship in “Mork and Mindy”), which measures a person’s body fat, was ordered and installed.
From there, it was dividing players into three groups – players who needed to gain weight, players who needed to lose weight and players who needed to maintain weight. Plans for each player can change daily.
“The first thing I want to address is quantity, to where I want to get a guy used to eating six, seven, eight times a day,” Blake said. “Even our weight-loss guys still need to fuel frequently, because your metabolism speeds up. Then we’ll address the quality. You have to get used to eating every couple of hours.”
Campus dining takes care of the meals and Blake handles the snacks and post-workout grub. That entails slicing 300 or so apples per week and delivering boxes of bananas to the weight room and locker room. It’s answering questions when players see something on Twitter about foods that can help, and keeping up with FDA and NCAA legislation about permissible supplements to regular meals.
A recent NCAA rule allows unlimited feeding for athletes, which is a boon for Blake and his brethren – not to mention players who sometimes go hungry. While USC will remain on the same system – training table during the week, stipend for weekend meals – the staff can now give the players something more substantial than a handful of grapes after practice.
“The biggest difference is probably during the season,” Blake said. “If we practice during an early day, we can eat at 4:30, and then have an additional supplement after practice. We can make sure they’re recovering properly.”
Blake’s approach to talking about nutrition also comes in handy when dealing with the other side of college athletics. That’s the “college” part.
“For me, I’m young enough to remember that college is having fun, too,” Blake said. “You ask, ‘Why is this kid doing this?’ Because they’re 21.”
Monitoring carbs and cutting out carbonated drinks can be handled by a college kid. But turning down a pizza with the guys, or Dollar Beer Night, is tough. Blake understands.
“With food, I tell them to give it 48 hours,” Blake said. “After Wednesday, it needs to be your game prep. You have to start eating clean. You don’t want to be thinking of that bacon cheeseburger in the third quarter.
“Alcohol can stay in your system up to four days. It’s OK to have your cheat meals and if you’re of age, to have your beers, but be smart about it. Live your life – if you’re cut and dry on nutrition all the time, you’re going to be burned out. But remember, we have a game this week.”
Making sure the players don’t view proper eating as a chore is what Blake is trying to accomplish. That’s where the Gushers and other treats came from.
“If we win, we may do wing night to give them a break from routine,” he said. “We don’t have anything fried at the Dodie, everything’s baked or grilled, so even on wing night, we’re throwing them a bone, but it’s our bone. We want to mix it up, so they don’t have the same thing for three years.”
USC is constructing a fueling center at one end of the weight room, which is expected to be completed in June, where Blake can upgrade his one-on-one interactions with players before they head to the locker room. They can stop by for a shake, or a baggie of fruit, and then head to class or meetings.
“I actually feel I’m moving around better,” defensive end Darius English recently said, after reaching a target weight of 240 pounds. “My body still feels fluid like it did before, but I’m stronger now and definitely faster.”
The new guy on staff smiled.
“We want to be our own guys. We don’t want to be ‘performance nutrition,’ or whatever,” Blake said. “I had to do all the little things in order to get myself able to compete at the highest level in high school. These guys are already at the highest level. I’m just trying to help keep them there.”