As the Lions' executive chef, Mark Skamiera may be as valuable to the team as the coaches.
By Jeffri Chadiha, SI.com
Mark Skamiera doesn't diagram plays or organize weightlifting routines. But his presence is critical to the hopes of the Detroit Lions.
That's because, as the team's executive chef, he's in charge of the grub. He decides what the players eat, why they should be eating it and, in some cases, how much they should be gobbling of each portion. If he does his job effectively, the Lions leave his cafeteria with a far better understanding of how proper nutrition can enhance their careers.
Not that most players don't get this part of the business; even the rookies know a few things about what they should and shouldn't be putting into their bodies. But when it comes to educating players on good eating habits, Skamiera tries to take things to another level. That's been his goal since the team hired him and his staff -- which includes operations manager Denise Sweet and chef Wendell Williams -- in 2002.
Of course, Skamiera's biggest responsibility is making sure players are meeting the weights designated by their coaches. Every offseason he'll work with roughly 20 percent of the roster on either weight-loss or weight-gain, a process that involves putting each of those players' ages, heights and weights into a computer program that determines their diets. Once a player's daily food consumption formula is established, either Skamiera or Sweet will accompany each player through the training-camp food line for about a week, pointing out the options that should be emphasized or avoided. They keep it simple, too.
Though every item on the buffet comes with a menu that lists its carbohydrates, fat grams and saturated-fat contents, Skamiera only cares that the players focus on calories. For example, if a player needs to consume 3,000 calories a day, Skamiera advises him to eat a light breakfast (roughly 600 calories), a heavier lunch (900 to 1,100) and a big dinner (1,500). That player also will be encouraged to maintain that same ratio throughout the regular season.
"I don't want to tell these guys how many fat grams or carbs they need every day," Skamiera says. "That's too much of a scientific approach for people who have to spend their entire day preparing to play football."
As much as Skamiera focuses on those players with weight concerns, he also doesn't cheat those who have no problems with their diets. He'll still offer items that would make Oprah cringe -- such as pizza and apple cobbler -- but he'll also find ways to lower the calories in traditionally popular foods. If macaroni and cheese is on the menu, it will be made with skim milk. If it's lasagna, ground turkey will be substituted for ground beef. And never will you see Skamiera's staff cooking with butter or margarine. They prefer using olive oil.
It might sound like Skamiera would have a hard time selling his food philosophies, but the players buy into it. Quarterback Joey Harrington often has Skamiera's staff make special salads for him before every lunch period during the season. Defensive end Cory Redding worries so much about his offseason diet when he's out of town that he regularly calls the kitchen for advice.
Then there's Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who, at 6-foot-4 and 345 pounds, always is trying to control his weight. He's learned a few tricks from Skamiera's staff as well, including the importance of avoiding all those empty calories Rogers used to consume by drinking soda constantly. These days, he's a big fan of bottled water.
This isn't to say Skamiera is a taskmaster. He understands there is only so much pushing he can do before players start pushing back. He encourages even the heaviest players to have an occasional bite of apple pie or a candy bar from the secret stash in his office. Skamiera realizes most players want to do the right thing, especially if they're concerned about extending their careers.
"You're talking about a profession where the average player is lucky to last three years," Skamiera says. "If they can get any advantage from [nutrition], most are smart enough to take it."