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Photo Credit: Jack Graham / The Daily Princetonian

It isn’t hard to find the biggest eaters on campus. Whether it’s at a dining hall or in an eating club, they show up in droves — and they bring their appetites. As they thread their way to empty tables, they balance multiple plates piled high with food, ready to sit down for an hour and feast away.

Yet, none of those telltale signs are what most obviously distinguishes them from the crowd. Emblazoned on their sweatshirts and sweatpants, backpacks and hats — the list of gear goes on — are two words: “Princeton Football.”

GAME OF INCHES, GAME OF POUNDS

In 1999, Al Pacino made famous the expression that football is a game of inches. Twenty years later, reckoning with the end of Princeton football’s 17-game win streak, Bob Surace ’90, the Charles W. Caldwell Jr. ’25 Head Coach of Football, said the same thing. Apt though the adage may be, football is as much a game of inches as it is a game of something else: pounds.

Though the stereotypical football player calls to mind a thick-necked, burly defensive lineman, a quick scan of any football roster tells a different story. The cornerback must be slight enough for explosive speed on the field. The running backs need agility and strength to dart through holes and fight the defense for extra yardage. The defensive tackle must be formidable enough to stop the opponent’s running game.

There is room for every body type — and every size of neck — on a football team. But still, for each player, one metric reigns supreme. Every pound means the difference between a failed tackle and a successful one, a win or a loss, a healthy or an injury-plagued season.

In short: pounds allow for inches.

Incoming football first-years are evidently expected to commit themselves to the team’s grueling practice and game schedule. And fresh off the heels of their adolescent growth spurts, they are also expected to change their bodies for the good of the game.

When it comes to new players, the coaching staff encourages an immediate, steady loss of body fat and a steady accumulation of poundage. “Gaining half a pound a week, that’s 26 pounds a year,” Surace said.

With that goal in mind, Princeton’s football players require vast quantities of food to fuel themselves, even for a day. That caloric phenomenon is universally recognized. Less understood is the particular process these players use to gain mass in muscle, not fat.

Uchenna “Uche” Ndukwe, a 260-pound sophomore defensive lineman sums it up best: “I just assume people think we’re fatter than we are.”

Football players and staff at Princeton are quick to note the difference between gaining weight through fat and building genuine muscle.

Take it from Surace: “Our guys are in really good shape.”

Football strength and conditioning coach Mike Tufo echoed Surace’s point in an email.

“Speed, conditioning, and efficiency all decline when athletes store extra fat,” he wrote. “Thankfully, the Princeton football team does not have this problem.”

How, then, do Princeton’s football players manage to pack on the pounds without sacrificing the fitness and dexterity that allowed them to play at the University in the first place?

A SNACK BY ANY OTHER NAME: EATING, EATING, AND EATING

Biweekly nutritional presentations and weekly tips from a dietician inform Princeton football players’ standards of healthy eating. But Surace is aware that diets such as the Tom Brady Diet — an organic, local, and plant-based meal plan with no highly processed food — are unrealistic for an adolescent, college-campus-bound boy. Princeton’s players enjoy a good deal of flexibility when it comes to what makes it into their diets.

If there existed a general rule for the “Princeton Football Dining Plan,” it would be this: take what a health-conscious person would eat. Then double, triple, and quadruple it. If you are prone to stomach aches, skip this section.

Tufo’s meal recommendation for his players is simple: “protein for muscle repair and growth, carbohydrates for energy and brain function, fruits and veggies for vitamins and antioxidants to build the body up from the inside out.”

That doesn’t seem like a dramatic departure from the average American’s recommended meal plan. But wait.

Tufo again: “Two of these plates every time they go to the dining hall are essential for success.” That’s right, two.

Jake Strain, a 270-pound senior captain and defensive lineman, eats anywhere from four to five full meals a day. He supplements them with plenty of what he calls “snacks.” Ndukwe reported the same.

But in the world of Princeton football, “snack” takes on a different meaning. Here’s Strain’s definition: two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, three packs of trail mix, and four chocolate milks.

Graham Adomitis, a 255-pound senior captain and tight end, aims to intake somewhere between 4,000 and 4,500 calories in a day. For a 19-to-25-year-old active man, the United States Department of Health recommends no more than 3,000 calories a day.

Adomitis measures his food intake in grams of protein — 20 grams every two hours — and whole-grain carbs. He requires so many calories a day that he can’t eat them all. He relies instead on the consistent aid of liquid calories, such as skim milk and protein shakes.

But the players don’t operate in a constant state of fueling.  They largely break their Princeton careers into two sections: an early focus on weight gain and a later period of weight maintenance. And they try to coordinate their gains to coincide with two periods of the year: the winter and summer off-seasons. 

Princeton football lines up against Yale. Photo Credit: Jack Graham / The Daily Princetonian

FOUR-YEAR PLAN: WEIGHT GAIN, WEIGHT MAINTENANCE, AND THE OFFSEASON

Every player on the football roster weighs significantly more now than when he graduated high school. Ndukwe jumped from 220 pounds to 260. Senior wide receiver Andrew Griffin shot from 190 pounds to 205. The list goes on.

Most of these guys can pin their weight gain to their first few years on the Princeton campus. Ndukwe is a sophomore and has put on 40 pounds since getting to campus. Though Griffin only put on around 15 pounds, his weight gain revolved around the periods before his freshman and sophomore years.

Strain explained that most young players set target weights for themselves for the year.

Weight gain is “almost like picking a school,” he said. “Here are my top-choice schools where it would be great if I ended up there, but realistically, I might end up somewhere around ‘here.’”

Having navigated college admissions and athletic recruiting, incoming Princeton football players find themselves thrust into a new challenge upon arriving on campus. Between balancing the new social scene and coursework and making the transition from high school to Division I football, they gain pounds upon pounds of lean muscle to compete with 250-pound rivals.

The football players change their diets to match these different periods of weight gain.

“My nutrition plan is constantly changing to suit my needs,” said Ndukwe. “For example, last year, when I was gaining, I would eat five or six meals a day, not including snacks, but now I can eat less and focus on maintaining my size.”

To be clear, eating less for Ndukwe and others in the weight maintenance phase is typically four to five meals a day with snacks — the football version of snacks, that is.

Yet despite their hard work throughout the year, over the course of their years here, football players have to compete against a vicious enemy, which threatens all of their gains: the off-season.

Adomitis pins the best time of weight gain as the winter training period of February through March. Griffin agrees. The coaching staff “pairs the weight gain time of the year with the time that we are working the hardest,” he said, “ because you kind of feel like you need a lot of the food that you are intaking.”

For most football players, the change in diet between their time in-season and off-season involves modifying how often they eat or what they eat — an increased focus on protein, for example.

Summer weight gain proves more difficult.

In summers, 50 to 60 football players stay on campus, train hard, and sweat buckets — all without a meal plan. Over the course of the break, players who carefully achieved their ideal weights often watch as their hard-earned pounds slip away.

Fortunately, the coaches are aware of the difficulties that summer training presents to their players. Surace said he personally ensures that players are adequately refueling their bodies after long, hot practices.

“Very often when practice ends,” he said, “if I know this is going to be a really hard practice, they’re getting smoothies at the end of practice.”

The coaches’ gastronomic support and the players’ careful meal planning both offset the ability of hot summer training to tamper with athletes’ ideal weights. The summer training period, however, still poses a threat. So too do injuries and illnesses, where prolonged inactivity can strip away most, if not all, of the players’ pounds of muscle gain.

Wide receiver Andrew Griffin against Columbia. Photo Credit: Jack Graham / The Daily Princetonian

“I SLEEP BETTER”: DEFENSE AND DRAWBACKS OF WEIGHT GAIN

A comprehensive March 2019 Harvard University study revealed chilling truths about the long-term implications of weight gain. Every 10 pounds of weight gained between high school and college football, said the researchers, raises the risk of sleep apnea by 15 percent, heart disease by 14 percent, neurocognitive impairment by 13 percent, and cardiometabolic conditions by 11 percent.

Do the Princeton football players worry about sleep, heart health, joint health, or brain health? 

No. As Strain said, “I go to bed full so I don’t wake up starving.”

If anything, players worry more about their performance on the field than their middle-age quality of life.

Ndukwe said that upon his weight gain, he “definitely felt slower and lost some inches from my vertical. It definitely helps with weight lifting, tackling, and beating offensive linemen, but I am definitely not as quick as I would be if I was 40 pounds lighter.”

Griffin noted that while weight gain helps with power, it affects speed, particularly with “running and cutting” and other agility skills. Strain also cited decreases in speed, particularly if players are trying to gain too much weight too quickly.

Optimizing both speed and power can prove difficult for these players as they bulk up. Because this process is so based on performance, many players have to make adjustments to their weight based on how they are balancing all factors of their game. Ndukwe, Griffin and many other players have all hit peak weights over the course of their time at Princeton that are higher than where they sit now. Finding balance is more important than just being the biggest guy on the field.

And it seems that with every year and technological innovation, finding that balance gets easier. Although Coach Tufo already takes body weights four times a week, year-round, he plans to begin body composition analysis this off-season for the players. This will hopefully help them hit the body composition goals specific to their position and their roles on the team.

And in the end, most players’ period of intense weight gain lasts only four years.

“You’ll see actually a lot of guys,” said Adomitis, “when they’re done with football, they’ll drop weight as quick as possible because they’re tired of carrying it around.” This could mean a sudden weight drop of 40 pounds or more.

University Health Services did not respond to requests for comment.

IN CONCLUSION: “BUILDING MONSTERS”

In a sports world that often considers weight in the context of weight-limiting sports, such as wrestling and men’s and women’s lightweight crew, it can seem insensitive to draw attention to the challenges that football players face in eating so much. The players are acutely aware of this. When interviewed, they took measures to tread the thin line between discussing their struggles and offending people who don’t share their diets.

The players typically take one of two approaches: humor or placation.

Most tended to opt for the humor route and were quick to make fun of themselves.

Strain joked that he is used to being so full that, after “two or three classes in a row … you’re starving and feel like you haven’t eaten in three days.”

Griffin continued the trend, saying, “I make fun of some of the guys on my team for how much they eat just because when you sit down at dinner and you have four plates of food and you have to eat there for an hour, it can be kind of funny to watch.”

Adomitis neatly demonstrated the placating angle.

“Not that I want any sympathy for it or anything,” he said, “but from the outside people might think, ‘That’s so nice to be able to just eat a ton of food and whatever you want.’ But in reality, it is actually kind of a job and very challenging for many guys.”

Although it might seem “lucky” to eat so much, these players have to make the same healthy choices as other athletes, just on a larger scale. It takes a huge amount of time and thought to both plan and eat as many meals as they do. Moreover, they have to deal with the discomfort that comes from carrying around excess weight for peak performance on the football field.

Discipline, humor, and hunger — for food and for wins — all play key roles in their ultimate goal.

Coach Tufo summarized it best: “Our goal is to build monsters and pack on muscle mass to produce the most dominant force the Ivy league has ever seen!”

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