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On the Nebraska football team’s Fan Day, which was preceded by a practice, Dave Ellis gave the players Popeye’s Fried Chicken.
That’s right, fried chicken. What’s the deal?
“It’s not the end of the world,” said Ellis, Nebraska’s Director of Performance Nutrition. “It’s not like we’re dealing with a low-calorie population here.”
But there are good calories and bad calories, with fried foods in the latter category, which is why there’s no fryer at the Lewis Training Table. Even so, if he didn’t include something on the training table menu that at least looked fried, “there’d be a revolt,” Ellis said.
Bread crumbs on chicken strips or fish “sells better.”
It works because of “wonderful ovens now where you can crisp a breading up in the oven without it just turning to a dried piece of pancake-looking material,” he said.
“The good news is you don’t have to drop it in a fryer.”
Before going further, it should be noted that steak remains a food of choice at the training table, so when steaks go on the training table smoker, or he brings in a “barbeque outfit, there’s a bunch of smiling faces,” said Ellis. “We’re in the right state for that.”
Despite his title, Ellis might best be described as Coach Ellis. He and the team of nutritionists he oversees coach student-athletes about the relationship between “fueling” and performance, with a Scott Frost attention to detail. Ellis works daily with the football team.
His office looks out on the north stadium weight room.
His play sheet, #Fuelingtactics, is a 12-inch by 18-inch chart, encouraging athletes to “Outwork The Competition! Select Something From Each Step When Building Meals.”
The three steps listed involve fresh produce and healthy oils, fiber-rich carbs and reducing fast-digesting sugars when inactive, and diverse protein sources and lower-fat choices when inactive. The steps are broken down extensively on the chart.
Each step should be included at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with snacks in between.
Ellis also has added a snack before bedtime. “We call it the ‘p.m. recovery parfait buffet’ at the training table,” he said, though it’s located just outside the training table.
A student-intern dietician sets up glasses of Greek yogurt, with gelatin added. Athletes can add fruit and cereal, put a lid on the glass and take it with them. “We just started it for football during camp, with some uncertainty as to how that would go,” said Ellis. “They love it.”
Now the buffet is set up for athletes in other sports as well.
“That’s been a big hit,” Ellis said.
It should be noted here that when he refers to cereal “if you’re still eating cereal with a cartoon character on the box, we’ve got room for improvement,” Ellis said.
“We still have plenty of kids that show up here that are in that mode. And I will tell you from consulting, that some pro athletes are in that mode, so you can’t freak out about that. But usually you can put a healthier alternative in their hands that they’ll like just as much. They just haven’t tried it.
Spend some time talking with Ellis and Tom Osborne’s name almost certainly will come up. From the beginning, “Tom was the wind in my sails,” said Ellis.
In the beginning, Ellis was a freshman at Nebraska, studying nutrition and waiting tables at now-gone Reubens Restaurant. He wrote strength and conditioning coach Boyd Epley about the relationship between lifting and “fueling.” Epley went to Reubens and invited him to the university to talk.
“That’s how I got in the door,” Ellis said. “And then, of course, Coach Osborne was such a fan of the nutrition piece. He was very supportive, all the way, and way ahead of his time.”
Ellis became a certified strength and conditioning coach, but his position on Epley’s staff wasn’t full-time, so he went to Wisconsin to work for Barry Alvarez. In 1994, he returned to Nebraska, playing a role in Osborne’s national championship run. Osborne “got the value” of nutrition as it related to athletic performance, as well as classroom performance, Ellis said. “Most coaches would just think of food as something that would just fall out of the sky and appear at the buffet table.”
In 2001, Ellis left Nebraska and started Sports Alliance, Inc., consulting with athletic teams at all levels. In 2016, he accepted a consulting position with Major League Baseball and the MLBPA.
Ellis worked with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Belichick was “another Tom-like figure,” said Ellis, “very different human beings but very similar when it came to progressives on all of the support services that impact performance. He (Belichick) was really into the details.”
Such coaches are “really comfortable in their own skin” and “capable of worrying about the little differentiators that in a big game might end up being just that little bit of an edge.”
Ellis returned to Nebraska because Frost fits in that category, as does strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval. Both re-enforce “the value of fueling,” Ellis said.
By his own admission, Mohamed Barry is probably the exception rather than the rule. The Huskers’ junior linebacker was a willing learner of the Ellis lessons.
“I’ve always been real strict about my diet, from the last staff,” Barry said. “What Dave (Ellis) has done is just give me more information to better my diet. Everything he tells me to do, I do.”
Like Frost and Duval, Ellis gets to know every player on the roster, scholarship and walk-on, starter and scout-team. Near the end of fall camp, he met with the projected walk-ons to set up individualized nutrition programs to coincide with Duval’s lifting and prepare them for the spring.
When he first met with the team, Ellis presented the “schematic of the training table,” represented by the #Fuelingtactics chart and its three steps, selecting foods from each area.
“We try to coach them,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to eat foods for their immune system, their energy to train and for recovery from their training.”
He’ll personally monitor athletes at the training table, encouraging them to make good choices for their needs. “You have to make food coachable,” said Ellis. “If you put a bunch of food out and you don’t make it coachable, you don’t segment it by its value in some way . . . where they can rationalize whether they’ve satisfied these three criteria, most will just go in and ‘buy’ food with their eyes.
“They’ll zero in on the entrée and they may come up short on the second step and miss the first step completely. A lot of kids didn’t grow up eating fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, olives and avocadoes. That’s kind of the Mediterranean stuff so valuable for your health.”
Barry is coachable, off the field as well as on.
“I was always intrigued with nutrition and how that could help my performance. Every question, any instruction he gives me, I listen and follow,” Barry said. “When he told me to do something, I was like, ‘Oh yeh, I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me to do that.’ I was happy.”
Barry is from Grayson, Georgia, part of a roster with student-athletes from all over the country and tastes just as diverse. Ellis was born in Louisiana and understands “Southern eatin’.”
“If you don’t know how to cook grits and you don’t know how to cook good collard greens and you don’t know how to cook good corn bread, you’re going to lose those kids,” said Ellis. “So we’ve got to be good about keeping them engaged with our food supply.”
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially for the football team with its morning practices. Yet some athletes who come to Nebraska aren’t used to eating breakfast, much less something healthy, something that includes the three steps.
When athletes aren’t comfortable eating solid food first thing in the day, the nutrition interns use blenders to make smoothies from fresh fruit and greens from the training table salad bar. Others might grab a banana or create a “to-go” breakfast, including a breakfast burrito.
Breakfast “is a very high-carb meal,” Ellis said. So there’s cereal, toastables, bread, bagels, hot muffins and breakfast potatoes. “I mean, carbs are everywhere.”
High-water foods are too, cut melon, strawberries and blueberries.
The protein sources include Greek yogurt, eggs, smoked breakfast meat and diced chicken breast, which some sprinkle on scrambled eggs. But please, no bacon.
Senior running back Devine Ozigbo, who’s from Sachse, Texas, has been engaged, despite not giving up everything he enjoys, as he has made changes in the weight room under Duval, with the assist from Ellis, who began consulting at Nebraska in January before being hired in late July.
Nutrition was a consideration in Ozigbo’s physical transformation. “I love food; food tastes great, so I’m not going to stop eating the things I like,” Ozigbo said. “But one thing I definitely started to do is portion control. So if I eat something, I just eat less of it instead of eating until I’m stuffed.”
Stuffed also is what happens when an athlete ignores breakfast and gets behind.
“If you get behind in the first half of the day, you’re not going to make it all up in the second half,” said Ellis. “You’ll just be behind, and you’ll be very reckless in what you do in the second half of the day, too, if you screw up the first half. You’ll become a binge eater.”
Nebraska lays claim to being among the first universities with a training table, which was originally located in the Selleck Quadrangle dorm complex. What is now the Lewis Training Table was established in 1985, with money earned from participating in the first Kickoff Classic.
Nebraska also was among the first universities to employ a full-time sports nutritionist, according to the football media guide, and one of only three with three full-time sports dieticians on staff.
“We were ahead of the game with nutrition when I was here,” said inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud, a Husker from 2001 to 2004 and the career-tackles leader.
“I don’t think as players we realized what an edge it can give you. And I don’t think we probably emphasized it as much as a program as we do now. Obviously, we had the training table, and we love it. But shoot, I wasn’t always eating the best stuff there, either. Now guys understand that it can be a weapon for you. If you eat the right way that gives you that little edge over your opponent.”
Ellis tries to teach players the importance of nutrition.
“It’s an art and it’s a science, right? The art is applying the science. And sometimes the art is ahead of the science, quite frankly.”
So says “Coach” Ellis . . .
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.