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October 4, 2013

Weighing their options

This story appears in our latest edition of Blue White Illustrated magazine.

To order a subscription, click here.

By Nate Bauer
Blue White Illustrated

Before his first spring practice at Penn State, Bill O'Brien watched as wideout Brandon Felder walked into the Lasch Building while hurriedly downing a Snickers bar and a bottle of Coke.

O'Brien was perplexed. Practice was about to begin, and the coaches needed everyone to be at their best physically.

"What are you doing, Feldy?!" O'Brien asked.

"I didn't have time to eat lunch," Felder replied. "This my lunch."

Realizing how many demands there are on his players' time, O'Brien didn't chastise Felder. Instead, he began to think about how nutrition would figure into his efforts to revamp the Penn State football program. Coming from the ranks of the NFL, where a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner are all provided by the organization and made available to players at their training facility, O'Brien understood he would need to frequently emphasize the benefits of healthy living.

"I think it's amazing what some of these kids do. They get up at 5:30, lift weights, go to class," O'Brien said. "I always ask our kids if they got eight to 10 hours of sleep last night. I think that's really important. But it's impossible. If you keep reminding them and educating them, maybe they will. We talk to them all the time about what they're eating."

O'Brien's efforts are making a difference, as Nittany Lion players say they have been paying closer attention to their diets, sleeping habits and general health. For example, senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones lost 20 pounds in the off-season, while wideout Matt Zanellato gained 10 pounds and tackle Garry Gilliam gained 30 to aid his transition from tight end to the offensive line.

In a college town where the home-delivery options are seemingly endless - free fries and extra-large soda included - it's easy to succumb to temptation. Said Zanellato, "Sometimes it's hard to turn away from the cheaper menu. There are some times where it's hard trying to maintain that nutrition, but it's just an overall commitment."

For some players, committing to the team's nutrition program has meant breaking up with State College's cheap-eats favorite, Wings Over Happy Valley. Often referred to simply as Wings Over, the local eatery has, apparently, seen a sharp decrease in patronage by the Nittany Lions in the past few years. Jones said recently that he reluctantly gave it up, and he hasn't been the only one.

"I'm not gonna lie, there was a connection for me, too, especially when I first got up here," safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said, his words tinged with melancholy. "Wings Over is real good."

Dr. Kristine Clark, Penn State's director of sports nutrition, has helped educate players about making healthy decisions. She has been meeting with them on an individual basis to ensure that they know what they should be eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In addition to improving players' dietary choices, the coaches and support staff have worked to make sure they are getting enough sleep. Eight to 10 hours is optimum, given the physical and mental demands that players face during the typical day.

Offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach and punt returner Jesse Della Valle said they get between eight and 10 hours of sleep per night, like many of their teammates.

Said Dieffenbach, "I definitely love to sleep. I'm usually getting anywhere from nine to 10 hours a night, and then if it's a good day, I'll get an hour nap before practice."

The overall approach has proven successful in many ways, especially for the veteran Nittany Lion players who have made the biggest weight gains and losses. Reinforced by the likes of O'Brien, strength trainer Craig Fitzgerald and team trainer Tim Bream, the message has seemingly sunk in.

"When you get up in front of that team," O'Brien said, "you're talking to them about, a lot of times, everything but football: 'This is what's important: Breakfast. Lunch. Having a good dinner. Getting enough sleep. Budgeting your time.' But, you know, it's hard for college kids."

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