Two years ago during fall camp, former University of Miami offensive lineman Brandon Linder greeted sports nutrition educator Tony Musto with a glass of Sprite in his hand.
“I’m going to drink this Sprite and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Linder told the exercise physiologist as a group of linemen watched.
“OK. I’m fine with it,’’ Musto deadpanned, prompting two or three of the 300-pounders to approach the physiologist and “ask in disbelief, ‘You told him soda is healthy?’
“I never said soda is healthy,’’ Musto replied. “But if you’re in between a two-a-day practice, your goal is to get energy fast, and nothing is going to do it faster than sugar.’’
These days, the Hurricanes are trading in their Gushers and Skittles — and yes, sometimes soda — for yogurt smoothies, fresh fruit and chocolate milk.
They’re eating baked chicken instead of Big Macs, waffles instead of sausage, salmon instead of salami.
It has been a year since the Hurricanes built their 4,100-square-foot “training table’’ dining facility known as the “Canes Zone,’’ to provide specialized food and nutritional education for more than 400 athletes, including football players who say they’re feeling the difference.
“Refuel, Rebuild, Recover’’ are the new three R’s for the Hurricanes.
“I’ve learned a lot,’’ said 260-pound tight end Stan Dobard, who left with his team (3-0) on Wednesday for a Thursday night game at Cincinnati (2-2). “I’m cutting off the burgers and fries and getting some good stuff in me. I feel better. I can breathe better. I’m running better.’’
Now, Dobard and his teammates have another option. A student-athlete nutrition center – think snack bar or refueling station — opened Sept. 7 in the Hecht Athletic Center, providing grab-and-go snacks and light meals for those rushing to class or meetings after working out.
“Oh, wow,’’ quarterback Brad Kaaya said upon learning he’d get made-to-order smoothies. “Usually I go to Jamba Juice — Strawberry Whirl, Mango-A-Go-Go, Peanut Butter Moo’d.
“But this should be great. I love free food. And it’s healthy.’’
The athletes’ initial reactions when they entered the nutrition center?
“Whaaaat? Is it free?’’
“I told them, ‘Yes,’’’ said Chantrell Manning, who works there. “Take what you want.”
We had a kid who was eating two cheeseburgers, two hot dogs and a bunch of fries. And I was like, ‘You can’t be eating like that, dude. You’ve got to have some fruits and vegetables in there. You want your carbs, but not nasty carbs.’
In 2014-15, the NCAA lifted restrictions on how much and how often Division I schools can feed athletes. UM is taking full advantage. The athletic program used money it raised through outside donations to the Football Victory Fund as well as support through the university to build the training table that is adjacent to the general student population’s cafeteria.
The recently entered 12-year contract with Adidas, worth more than $90 million in cash, product and marketing, supplied the funds for the new nutrition center, which also has a full-time nutritionist available to educate athletes.
Any student can eat in the athletes’ dining hall at breakfast and lunch, though they tend to stay with the general population. And athletes can roam into the adjacent cafeteria for breakfast and lunch foods. But Chartwells, the university’s food service, prepares a specially designed dinner — there are choices — each night for athletes only. Football players, regardless of the meal, sit together as they watch ESPN on a giant video board, or just socialize with each other.
Musto, 41, who wrestled at West Virginia University, is UM’s director of fitness programs for the main and medical campuses. Also an adjunt professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Sports Sciences, Musto earned his Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Miami. He hangs out at the Canes Zone whenever possible, teaching athletes that their eating habits go a long way in determining productivity on the field.
“I go to their meals and don’t try to be the nutrition police,’’ Musto said. “Guys have questions and I might say, ‘Hey, where’s your fruit?’ Or, ‘Why isn’t there more protein on your plate?’’’
Senior flanker Rashawn Scott, 6-2 and 203 pounds, leads the Atlantic Coast Conference with 278 receiving yards in three games. Scott loves Hawaiian Punch, but he now drinks a lot of whole milk – “everytime I see it’’ – despite not liking it.
“Tony Musto is great,’’ said Scott, who called himself “a candy guy,’’ specifically Gushers. “Gushers. Boxes. Me and my boy [cornerback] Artie Burns.
“Tony and I talk about health and what you should eat and what you shouldn’t. He’s positive. I’m more physical, leaner, stronger and faster.’’
The candy “is still there,’’ Scott added. “I just can’t eat it as much.’’
Every Hurricane football player is given a goal weight based on body composition, position and what is needed to perform at an optimum level. Three times a year, each sits inside a chamber that resembles a giant white egg. Based on how much air an athlete’s body displaces inside the chamber, Musto determines body fat and composition. Then, data produced by the NFL Scouting Combine that lists each position group and the players’ body fat average and range and body weight average and range helps determine goal weights.
The beefiest players are the offensive linemen, who averaged 313 pounds and 24.4-percent fat at the NFL Combine over a nine-year period through 2014. But those are the best of the best. The freshmen linemen usually come to college with a bit more fat.
“The biggest problem with them is they confuse total calories with quality calories,’’ Musto said. “Their mentality is often, ‘I can eat as much as I want as long as I’m getting calories.’ They might load up on bacon and hash browns and tater tots and sausage, but that’s not necessarily what’s going to fuel them for practice.’’
Sophomore Nick Linder, UM’s starting center, is the younger brother of Brandon, the player who challenged Musto with the glass of Sprite.
“Nick for the longest time wasn’t eating enough,’’ Musto said. “The common misconception is that if you want to lose body fat, just eat less. But his calorie intake was so low that his composition wasn’t changing. We convinced him to eat more frequently, and he wasn’t eating junk.’’
Baby Linder, as he’s sometimes called, is a believer. “The training has been a great resource,’’ said Linder, 6-3 and 300 pounds. “We have really good, quality food that we didn’t have before. I lost body fat by eating clean — dry pasta and grilled chicken and salad. I eliminated all the junk food from my life. A lot of guys have leaned up with the training table.”
Offensive tackle Kc McDermott, a 6-6, 310-pound sophomore, is a particular favorite of Musto’s because “he calls people out.’’
“What’s on your plate? Don’t you know that’s bad for you?’’ McDermott might say to a younger, less experienced lineman. “Hey Musto, can’t you tell this guy what to eat?’’
“We had a kid who instead of eating what our nutritionist was telling us to eat was eating two cheeseburgers, two hot dogs and a bunch of fries,’’ McDermott said. “And I was like, ‘You can’t be eating like that, dude. Like, at least you’ve got to have some fruits and vegetables in there. You want your carbs, but not nasty carbs.’ ”
The player, who McDermott declined to identify, promised “to do better.’’
“And he did,’’ McDermott said.
UM athletic director Blake James said the school has “gotten a great response’’ from athletes taking advantage of the nutrition programs.
“More and more kids recognize the importance of nutrition for them to achieve excellence in everything they do,’’ James said, “whether it’s athletics or academics. It’s critical we provide the right fuel for our student-athletes’ bodies, and Tony’s expertise has been so important.”
Musto is a realist. Despite the Canes learning about maximum performance from proper nutrition, they’re still teenagers or 20-somethings who like their junk food now and then.
“Quite frankly, if a student-athlete is under goal weight and their body composition is fine, an occasional late-night trip to McDonald’s might not be so bad, as long as their choices are reasonable,’’ Musto said. “They get some of those extra calories and it keeps them happy.’’