How NFL Stars Are Made

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

A.J. Green possesses explosive speed, cunning route-running ability, and spectacular hand-eye coordination, all of which made him a very rich man when the Bengals selected him fourth overall in last year’s NFL Draft and guaranteed him a cool $19.6 million.

But perhaps his paycheck wouldn’t have carried as many zeroes—and his record-setting rookie season wouldn’t have been so impressive—had he not cut out burgers from his diet.

Never underestimate the burgers.

At the University of Georgia, Green subsisted on the classic college diet: “McDonald's, burgers, and ramen noodles,” the 23-year-old says. He was a busy undergrad who didn’t have the time—or frankly, the desire—to cook for himself. Thus, the wide receiver rendered his nutrition moot.

But last year, shortly after he declared for the NFL Draft, Green ventured to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI), the beverage titan’s research facility, where he discovered the not-so-secret benefits of properly fueling your body.

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After undergoing tests that measured how hydration and nutrition affect on-field performance, Green saw results that soon transformed his attitude toward eating. “They really showed me the ropes,” he says of Gatorade’s crack team of scientists. “And ever since, I’ve stuck with a nutrition plan.” Sayonara, fried foods.

In addition to formulating a game-altering diet regimen for Green, Gatorade’s team also set out to maximize his skills through a series of physical tests measuring endurance, power, strength, body composition, and reaction time, among other key performance components. (Are you Men's Health Fit? Take these musclemorphosis.com.)

Every year, GSSI sets up shop at the Super Bowl and recruits incoming NFL rookies to undergo tests designed to assess their strengths and weaknesses, says Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D., GSSI's Global Senior Director.

“It’s like bringing a high-end racing car into a garage,” he says. “You basically want to know if you can make that car better. You measure the car’s top speed and find that it’s quite good, but its handling can be improved. We do the same thing with athletes: An athlete’s power might be great, but if his body composition can be improved, we’ll sit down with him and come up with a strategy to do it.”

When Green completed GSSI’s de facto boot camp, he emerged as a stronger, more-educated athlete armed with the resources to excel at the next level. Green wowed evaluators at NFL’s annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, a weeklong showcase in which NFL prospects flaunt their skills for coaches and scouts in hopes of being selected in April’s draft.

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The rest was history: In his rookie campaign with the upstart Bengals, Green posted 65 catches, 1,057 yards, and 7 touchdowns en route to the playoffs and the Pro Bowl. And though beastly natural skills no doubt contributed to his sensational debut season, Green also gives major props to the nutrition and fitness knowledge he acquired at GSSI. “I learned how to push my body to the limit. Anyone who hasn’t been through this whole process is really at a disadvantage,” says Green.

This year, NFL prospects like Justin Blackmon, LaMichael James, and Jared Crick are hoping that’s true. The three elite players—all of whom are projected by analysts to land in the first or second rounds in the draft—were among the incoming rookies who tested at GSSI during Super Bowl week in Indianapolis.

And as all three head back to Indy this week for the Combine (which starts today and concludes next Tuesday), each one is ready to demonstrate that they’ve now got the physical and mental makeup needed to light up the NFL in 2012.

The Specimen: Justin Blackmon

Draft gurus expect the electrifying receiver from Oklahoma State to be one of the first five players chosen in the draft, regardless of how he performs at the Combine. But even though he might be close to a finished package physically, Blackmon knows he still has work to do when it comes to fueling up.

His biggest surprise from GSSI: “I didn’t know that you could drink too many fluids before you play a game. I’m one that pushes fluids, and I learned that you can over-push, which I didn’t think was possible,” Blackmon says.

“There are quite a few areas where athletes can improve, and the first step is realizing how important nutrition really is,” says Jeukendrup. “A lot of athletes don’t understand it, so once they’re over that hurdle, we can develop strategies [for the athletes to use] before, during, and after their performance.”

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Researchers broke down Blackmon’s sports drink consumption into exact sodium and potassium levels, and handed the 22-year-old a binder’s worth of nutritional recommendations specifically meant to boost his game. “Learning what to put in my body, and when to put it in, plays a big part in how I perform.” (Learn how to musclemorphosis.com.)

As for Blackmon’s NFL aspirations, he looks to Green, who acted as his mentor during the GSSI testing. “Just from watching him and seeing how he made that transition, I know I can step right in and make an immediate impact on my team, and be one of the top guys in the league.” (Says Green about Blackmon: “The guy is an absolute freak—the best receiver in college last year. He’s going to tear it up.”)

The Specimen: LaMichael James

Speedy Oregon running back LaMichael James came to GSSI to gain a better edge on his competitors. “Anyone can wear football pads, strap on a helmet, and run down the field, but what really matters is treating your body right,” says James.

One of the tests James underwent measured his body composition, which indicates your amounts of fat mass and fat-free mass. In order to determine his precise composition—and to arrive at a desired fat to fat-free mass ratio for peak performance—James stripped down to this underwear and sat in a large, person-sized chamber called the “BOD POD.” Through subtle changes in pressure inside the chamber—think of an airplane on take-off and landing—researchers arrived at exact levels. “That had never happened to me before,” James says of the futuristic test.

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The running back walked away from the lab with plenty of material to kick-start a proper nutrition plan. “I’m gonna have to implement that stuff that I learned into my daily routine if I’m gonna be successful at all in this league,” he admits. “And when I go out there and have a successful season, I’m gonna give Gatorade a real nice bonus,” he says, laughing.

The Specimen: Jared Crick

Crick, the husky defensive tackle from Nebraska, missed most of his senior season due to a torn pectoral muscle, which may have damaged his draft stock.

Not that he pays any attention to that kind of chatter. “I figure as long as I go into the Combine and test well, and prove that I’m 100 percent healthy now, my stock will rise,” Crick says. “During my rehab, I watched a lot of NFL film to keep my football mind sharp. The physical aspect will come as long as I keep working and training hard.” (Learn how to musclemorphosis.com.)

Crick’s favorite assignment at GSSI: The VO2 Max (aerobic capacity) test, which measures the energy system in your muscles that uses oxygen to convert fuel to energy. Crick ran on a treadmill at increasing intensity until fatigue, all while breathing into a mask connected to a metabolic cart. The takeaway: What you eat and drink plays a big part in maximizing that energy system.

“Athletes are all the same—you’ve gotta get your hydration and calories in,” Crick says. “But the amount of calories for a big guy like myself differs when compared to, say, a running back, so I learned that I have to take care of what goes into my body as a defensive tackle differently than other players.”

It’s a learning process, to be sure. But that’s the way Crick likes it—and the quest to get better just might help him stand out at the Combine this week. “I can never be a complete player, because I can always improve at something. If it’s a huge gain, awesome. And if it’s just a minimal gain, well, at least I’m better than I was the day before.”

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