Every time Prairie Ridge quarterback Luke Annen drops back, he has an internal clock ticking inside his head to let him know when to dump the ball off. … When to throw it out of bounds. … When to take the garlic off the stove.
Oh, shoot. The garlic!
Annen, who was discussing the intricacies of the quarterback position while chopping potatoes in the Prairie Ridge foods classroom, spun around to the stove where smoke billowed from his saucepan. The junior quarterback’s sautéed garlic had turned into a hard, black pile of crust.
The burned garlic was one of only two minor hiccups when Prairie Ridge foods teacher Erika Jones helped the football team prepare healthy meals Tuesday and Wednesday – linebacker Manny Ebirim had a similar experience when he neglected to flip his kielbasa – but by the end of the afternoon, the Wolves had turned their linemen into line cooks, and their triple-option offense now was equipped with six healthy dinner options.
“I think it will help us once the season starts,” junior offensive lineman Luke Ponga said. “We’ll know what to eat and what to get in our bodies that will make us perform better.”
At the beginning of each class, Jones distributed a packet of recipes – a playbook of sorts for the kitchen. She selected simple meals the players could learn quickly, but altered them slightly to make them healthier. For example, instead of ground beef in the tacos, the football players used turkey. In another recipe, the pizza crust was made from chopped cauliflower to make it gluten free.
And chocolate chip cookies for desert? Jones replaced one of the sticks of butter with an avocado, a healthier fat. None of the players seemed to notice the difference, as they quickly were gobbled up almost before the dinners were even done cooking.
“I didn’t want to make it too over-the-top healthy because they still need to think it tastes good,” said Jones, a certified personal trainer who encourages her clients to adopt clean eating principles. “You can’t outrun or outlift a doughnut for breakfast."
The push to educate athletes about proper nutrition was sparked a few months ago when the McHenry County Health Department invited Prairie Ridge and a couple of nearby schools to a presentation by John Underwood, a former NCAA All-America distance runner who has advised more than two dozen Olympians and world champions.
Underwood preaches that athletes need to do much more than work hard on the field to be successful. He insists that they lead drug-free and alcohol-free lives. And he stresses the importance of fueling the body before and after workouts with a clean diet.
“I thought it was so valuable, I went back to two other talks in the area,” Prairie Ridge football coach Chris Schremp said. “I’ve been communicating with him, and we’re going to bring him into school in the fall to talk to everyone at PR.”
Barrington, one of the other nearby schools at the seminar, implemented the program, calling it “Broncos Committed.” Prairie Ridge athletes from a variety of sports saw this and decided to adopt a program called the “Wolf Way.”
“It doesn’t just have to be athletes,” Annen said. “It can be students just wanting to live the Wolf Way – drug-free; alcohol-free. Trying to do what’s best for their body.”
At the end of his talk, Underwood distributed meal recommendations for what he calls his “Power Back Diet.”
Rather than just handing the information to his team, Schremp recruited Jones to get his athletes in the kitchen and teach them how to make the meals hands-on.
Many of the players said they had little cooking experience before this week.
"Some cookies or eggs. Nothing much," Annen said.
But by the end of the classes, the Wolves were confident they could turn out a healthy, great-tasting meal.
On his second effort, Annen sautéed the garlic to perfection. He used it to season Jones’ chicken recipe, a dish many of the players agreed was their favorite.
Then, with full bellies, the Wolves went off to practice, with the hope their new-found cooking skills can help them enjoy the sweet taste of victory.
Said Annen, “Both taste good.”