MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook had barely settled into his seat on the airplane ride back from the Cotton Bowl victory against Western Michigan on Jan. 2, when he pulled out his cell phone and fired off a text message.
The recipient was Shaun Snee, the Wisconsin football team’s sports nutrition consultant. Hornibrook knew Snee could devise specially formulated meal plans and was intent on finding any advantage as he prepared for the following season.
“Do you think I can get to 220 pounds and have 10 percent body fat?” Hornibrook asked.
“Yes,” Snee replied. “If you decide to go all in.”
Hornibrook’s response: “I’m in.”
“I chuckled a little bit,” Snee recalled. “Like, ‘All right, let’s go.’ ”
Thus began an offseason journey that would lead to a grueling 6,000-calorie, clean-eating diet that altered Hornibrook’s body and made him more durable and confident entering his redshirt sophomore season. Snee met with Hornibrook in Madison and laid out a detailed meal plan on what and when he should eat.
About a month before his team’s bowl game on Dec. 9, Hornibrook’s lean body mass registered at 162 pounds. On June 9, after following Snee’s strict guidelines, his lean body mass increased to 173.7 pounds. In the same span, he decreased his body fat percentage from 20.43 to 14.7, nearly a 6 percent drop. It wasn’t the 10 percent body fat Hornibrook had posited on the plane ride, but it marked exceptional progress for a young player who has only started his physical transformation.
“The goals that I set nutrition-wise, they were pretty lofty,” Hornibrook said. “I don’t know if they were unattainable, but they were pretty close to unattainable. Even though I didn’t get exactly what I wrote down, I still did a lot more than what I thought I would be able to.”
Hornibrook hopes his willingness to adhere to the demands required of maintaining a proper meal plan will translate to more success on the field. But his development represents only a small sample of the strides Wisconsin players have made in recent seasons under the school’s monitored nutrition program.
Snee, who arrived in Madison in March 2015, has attempted to change the way Wisconsin approaches nutrition by educating players on the benefits of eating smart and frequently enough to fuel their bodies and maximize performance. Every nuance is covered, from instructing players about eating steel cut oatmeal for breakfast to telling them what ingredients to include in a protein shake. And there is a greater sense of commitment on both sides now because the school has never been in better position to provide that assistance.
In 2014, the NCAA approved a rule for Division I student-athletes to receive unlimited meals and snacks in conjunction with their athletics participation. Many schools have stepped up financially to provide players with better nutrition and overall resources, including Wisconsin.
According to USA Today, Wisconsin’s nutrition budget in the first year of the new rule for 2014-15 was $1,232,404. Of that amount, $842,000 went for breakfast, $177,504 for training table meals and $177,504 for refueling stations.
“The athletic department buys into it, literally,” Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst said. “They believe in it. And our players, that’s what’s fun about the kids that we’ve got. They want to know. They don’t want to just be told, ‘Eat this. Eat that.’ People at the training table do a great job. You can take any phase of that, the off-field things and our guys do a really good job of teaching it.”
The process of beefing up college football players dates back decades. But modern training methods and a greater emphasis on nutrition has created fitter, healthier athletes.
At Wisconsin, players have everything at their disposal to succeed behind Snee’s guidance. And the gains made have been something to behold.
“I think it’s been huge,” Hornibrook said. “Every day we have the time we’re supposed to eat, we have the calories and the nutrition facts for the all the foods that are being given in here. So if you want to take it and run with it, you can do everything you want to do. The tools that this whole team has are pretty great.”
Snee’s passion for health and fitness is such that he reads biochemistry books in his spare time to gain a better understanding of how to instruct players. He compiled a 37-page nutrition guide upon arrival at Wisconsin and handled the nutrition talks for high school football recruits touring the facilities.
Snee already was a certified strength and conditioning specialist. But he worked to become a certified sports nutritionist through the International Society of Sports Nutrition. That designation allowed Snee to provide full, detailed meal plans for Wisconsin’s football players in January, just as the Badgers’ offseason began.
His instructions are meticulous. Snee sends out a weekly “football nutrition newsletter” through the Teamworks communication platform, which shows up on each player’s phone. Those newsletters include information about muscle cramping, tips for quality sleep, foods that increase muscle inflammation and why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In total, Snee has 28 newsletters that he will email players.
For a recent fall camp practice, held on a Friday night, Snee sent a detailed time frame for when each player should wake up, eat and sleep. It looked like this:
- Wake-up: 9:30-10:30 a.m.
- Breakfast: 10 a.m.-Noon
- Snack: Noon-1:45 p.m.
- Lunch: 3:30-5 p.m.
- Rapid whey and Clif bar: 5-6 p.m.
- Beet Elite and dextrose: 6:50 p.m.
- Post-practice shake and Gatorade: 9:25 p.m.
- Dinner: 9:30-11 p.m.
- In bed: Before midnight
Snee meets individually with players to determine how much they should eat. For example, Snee said, a snack for an offensive lineman might be a bagel with peanut butter and an 11-ounce milk. For a smaller skill position player, that calorie intake would count for an entire meal.
Players also are instructed to download the My Fitness Pal app on their phone, which allows them to track how many grams of each macronutrient — proteins, fats and carbohydrates — they eat per day.
“Snee is doing a great job,” Wisconsin defensive end Alec James said. “If I have any questions, I know I can ask him and he’ll have the answer for me. And if he doesn’t, he’ll go and find it. It’s just real good to have him here.”
Snee said nutrition for college players has come a long way in a short period of time. He worked under Chryst at Pittsburgh in 2012 and 2013 as a strength and conditioning graduate assistant before moving on to UMass in 2014. While at UMass, he said, the most significant nutrition provided to players was one small Muscle Milk, which contained 22 grams of protein. When he came to Wisconsin, Snee noted players were stuffing themselves with protein shakes that made them gain fat and lose lean muscle mass.
But Wisconsin has boosted its resources to offer players more options. During fall camp, nearly every meal and snack is provided for the players in the meal room. That includes snacks such as hard-boiled eggs, jerky, bagels, cottage cheese and parfaits. Players can make whey protein shakes and pick from cherries, berries, pineapples, peaches, mangos, kale, spinach, beets, natural peanut butter or Skippy peanut butter, chia seeds, flaxseed, cinnamon and cocoa.
“I think all of them have bought into at least being conscious of what they eat,” Snee said. “For the most part, they are staying away from fried foods. And it’s about trying to get better carb sources instead of just going out and getting a sub or two subs for the big dogs.”
Snee works as part of a team with strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej and director of performance nutrition Nick Aures. Graduate assistant Kyle Costigan, who helps with the strength and conditioning program, also assists Snee. The coordinated effort between nutrition and weight lifting helped Wisconsin players set more than 400 personal records in the weight room this offseason.
Not every player has demonstrated an immediate willingness to embrace all of Snee’s teachings. But he has slowly changed the way players think. He noted running back Taiwan Deal finally ate steel cut oatmeal for breakfast during fall camp at Snee’s urging and discovered he had more energy during practice.
“You can give them all the information you want, but if they’re not going to do it, or they’re not going to follow it, it doesn’t do any good,” Snee said.
Wisconsin nose guard Olive Sagapolu is listed as the heaviest player on the team at 346 pounds. Sagapolu said his favorite go-to snack before he met with Snee were Oreos: He would visit the store for Double Stuf Oreos, Mega Stuf Oreos and any new flavor that had recently been released. Then, he would return home and eat the entire pack.
But when Sagapolu visited with Snee this offseason, he drastically altered his diet to contain more nuts, fruits, eggs, sweet potatoes, pasta, chicken, salmon and steak. And fewer Oreos.
Sagapolu followed Snee’s 5,000-plus calorie plan closely this offseason and increased his lean body mass 14 pounds. On December 8, he had 214 pounds of lean muscle mass. When he weighed in again on June 5, the number came in at 228 pounds. Sagapolu also dropped his body fat percentage from 33.75 percent to 31.5 percent.
“Now, I go get a box of Oreos, but I try to be smart with it,” Sagapolu said. “I don’t eat the whole pack. I eat about three or four at a time. I try not to be too bad with my meal planning.”
David Edwards was like a blank canvas when he arrived as a freshman tight end at Wisconsin in 2015. He stood 6-foot-7, yet weighed 239 pounds and didn’t fill out his frame. Over the next two years, his transformation into a hulking 315-pound offensive lineman would become one of the most impressive feats pulled off in the Badgers’ nutrition program.
Edwards tells the story that he never lifted weights or bothered to eat breakfast in high school. One day during a position group meeting in Wisconsin’s tight end room, the players began discussing what each of them had eaten for breakfast. When it was Edwards’ turn, he casually informed them that he hadn’t eaten a thing. His teammates were stunned. So was the nutrition staff.
“After that, I started eating breakfast,” Edwards said. “And I just kind of gained a ton of weight.”
But there was far more value in Edwards gaining the right type of weight so he would be fit enough to play. Snee estimated that Edwards initially ate a jar of peanut butter every day, which wasn’t exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Snee convinced Edwards to change his diet and put him on a plan eating five or six meals a day in moderation.
Edwards worked his way up to around 260 pounds, and Wisconsin’s coaches realized he might be able to contribute as an offensive lineman instead of as a tight end. Once they made the position switch, Edwards’ new diet kicked into high gear.
Snee’s daily goal for Edwards was 5,300 calories. Included was a recommendation to eat 277-319 grams of protein per day and a whopping 693-901 grams of carbohydrates per day.
In order to achieve those numbers, Edwards ate three big meals. For breakfast, Snee recommended five or six eggs and a cup of steel cut oatmeal. Edwards also ate plenty of sweet potatoes, brown rice or quinoa. He would eat two full bags of quinoa for dinner — or about four normal serving sizes — along with 12 ounces of a protein source such as fish or chicken breast. He ate red meat twice a week, and his late-night snack generally required two yogurts and two scoops of peanut butter.
Edwards was particularly fond of Qdoba and would order two massive burrito bowls, each with brown rice, double meat, double beans, vegetables and guacamole. Sometimes, it wasn’t enough for him to fulfill his calorie goal.
“It was a legitimate plan,” Edwards said. “Monday and Wednesday, I ate chicken, salad, a peanut butter sandwich, an egg sandwich for breakfast. Wednesday was my cheat day. We’d go to Red Robin as an O-line. Tuesday, Thursday was a steak, another salad, and any type of nut. It was really detailed and thought out.”
Snee allowed Edwards two “morale boosters,” also known as cheat meals, per week (Snee prefers the positivity associated with his term). The Red Robin morale booster day became the stuff of legends among the offensive line. While Edwards’ teammates ate a burger and a shake, Edwards was allowed to consume two burgers, two shakes and seemingly whatever else was on the menu.
“He would get two burgers and eat like 10 racks of French fries,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “He said he always was on a huge calorie diet, and I believed him. I saw him do it.”
Edwards started seven games last season at right tackle while still playing below 300 pounds. He finally eclipsed the 300-pound plateau this winter and capped out at 315 pounds — a 78-pound weight gain since he stepped foot on campus. Now, even Edwards is amazed at his progression.
“Oh yeah,” Edwards said. “My dad and my mom kind of joke around with me and tell me that I’m fat now. It’s kind of crazy. I look back at my senior high school pictures, and I look like a ghost. I think it’s kind of weird looking back on it now.”
When Edwards reached his playing weight for the season, he and Snee scaled back the meal plan to maintain the weight and let his body regulate itself. That meant kicking up Edwards’ lean body mass and lowering his fat mass by eliminating peanut butter from his diet, having him eat smaller meals every 90 minutes and including more leafy vegetables and fruit.
“He’s still got his morale booster, though,” Snee said. “He’s still got his Red Robin with the line. You can’t take away everything, otherwise they’ll be miserable.”
And then there is Hornibrook, whose self-imposed offseason nutrition regimen was so strict and strenuous that other players may have given up months ago. Hornibrook refused Snee’s advice to eat morale booster meals so he could make the greatest fitness gains possible.
“The morale boosters, you kind of eat whatever you want just to get away,” Hornibrook said. “But I just didn’t want to stray off of what I’d been doing since the winter. It was probably a few times that I ate something. But I don’t think I had ice cream. I never really had dessert or anything like that.”
During the offseason, Hornibrook sent Snee links to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s diet. Brady’s eating habits are meticulous to stay in peak condition. Brady does not eat white sugar, white flour or MSG. Nor does he eat tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms or eggplants because they aren’t anti-inflammatory. He also doesn’t consume coffee, caffeine or dairy.
Brady’s chef, Allen Campbell, told Boston.com that 80 percent of what Brady eats is fresh, organic vegetables, as well as whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, millet and beans. The rest of his food source comes from lean meats such as grass-fed organic steak, duck, chicken and fish.
“He’s on a different planet,” Hornibrook said. “So I didn’t really imitate all of the foods that he was eating. But it was more just the fact that I saw other people doing that. And if he’s one of the best quarterbacks, arguably the best quarterback of all time and he’s making that much of an emphasis on nutrition, then why shouldn’t I?”
Snee made sure Hornibrook ate fruit such as blackberries, cherries and watermelon, which contains citrulline, an antioxidant that aids in recovery, three times a day. He told Hornibrook to stay away from bananas because of the sugar intake unless he consumed one immediately before or after a workout. Hornibrook eliminated fried foods completely, and Snee tried to mirror Brady’s diet as much as possible, maintaining a veggie-based plan and incorporating more meat for his protein sources.
Hornibrook’s initial diet consisted of roughly 3,500 calories. He quickly realized that wouldn’t be enough food, and Snee adjusted to 4,200 calories. But Hornibrook ate so clean that Snee had no choice but to increase his calorie output to prevent hunger. By the summer, Hornibrook was eating 6,000 calories — an astounding number considering that was 700 more calories than the 315-pound Edwards was consuming
“Some of the guys would mess around with me because I’d be eating more than some of the linemen,” Hornibrook said. “Obviously some of their calories are different than what I was eating because I was trying to be clean. Sometimes I’d be eating a lot more than them, so they’d be laughing at me.”
Hornibrook said he ate the same thing for lunch and dinner every day through the winter and spring: brown rice, broccoli, sweet potato and chicken or steak. Despite the mundaneness of it all, Hornibrook said he enjoyed the process and often listened to country music while grilling out at his apartment. Ultimately, the 6-foot-4 Hornibrook weighed in before the season at 215 pounds — 4 pounds fewer than last season but with a 6 percent body fat loss and more determination to continue his clean-eating approach.
“I feel a lot better because it was a big change in fat percentage and muscle and all that,” Hornibrook said. “Just when I was doing the winter workouts running around, I felt a lot better. I felt more in shape, I felt faster, I felt stronger. It all just feels better.”
Ninth-ranked Wisconsin will take the field for its season opener Friday night against Utah State harboring realistic visions of completing a perfect regular season and making a run at a College Football Playoff spot. The talent on this year’s team is obvious to many.
But players like Hornibrook, Edwards and Sagapolu recognize one of the most substantial improvements has taken place in the kitchen. And the Badgers are ready to showcase all they have worked on behind the scenes.
“It makes a huge difference,” Snee said. “Everything tied together is going to optimize their performance. We want to make sure we’re giving these guys every advantage possible so we’re ready to go on game day. That’s what it all comes down to is how you perform on game days.”
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