'Top Chef' meets 'Chopped' for Jacksonville rookies

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The first two months of an NFL rookie's life can be ridiculously hectic.

Getting back into a regular workout routine. Learning their team's schemes and calls. Getting on the field for organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. Finding a place to live (for the higher picks who know they'll make the team).

That's why Mindy Black decided three years ago that adding another meeting to that schedule wouldn't be the best thing for the Jacksonville Jaguars' rookies. So the team's director of performance nutrition came up with what is essentially "Top Chef" meets "Chopped" -- a cooking competition in which the rookies would come up with a healthy entrée to show off what they learned from Black about how and why they should upgrade their diet.

"The other option is just sitting in a room and kind of doing lectures, and they tend to have a much shorter attention span that way," Black said. "So this way they actually do learn things and it's more of a fun thing incorporating real-life situations for them.

"Football players are going to be competitive, so anytime you get them to compete, it gets to be challenging but fun."

The rookies broke up into five-man teams, chose their ingredients, and had 10 minutes to come up with a dish that would be judged on taste, presentation, nutritional content and teamwork. The winning dish was a Cajun shrimp pasta with feta cheese and red peppers, prepared by punter Logan Cooke, quarterback Tanner Lee, defensive end Darius Jackson, linebacker Reggie Hunter and cornerback Quenton Meeks.

"Tanner's from New Orleans and I'm from South Mississippi, so we added a little Cajun spice in there, and the shrimp really brought the taste out," said Cooke, one of the team's seventh-round draft picks. "I think that's what won it."

The cooking competition -- which followed a brief lesson from team dining manager Christine Blank about cooking baked potatoes and eggs in the microwave -- was the second part of a program for the rookies that Black instituted in 2016. She also takes them to a local grocery store to show them how to read food labels, choose healthy items, and learn how to shop.

Black said she's trying to help the rookies realize that eating better is just as important as practice, meetings and working out for professional athletes. It fuels everything else they do.

Receiver D.J. Chark, the Jaguars' second-round pick, got the message. He said he's going to have to completely overhaul his eating habits, but that doesn't seem as daunting after the grocery store trip and cooking class.

"It was a lot of fast food," Chark said of his diet. "Just fast food, Pizza Hut, all kind of stuff. Now every once in a while I still eat it, but I'm trying to get into eating more healthy, be a professional, so it's definitely helped me a lot.

"... Now I know how to cut vegetables and things like that. A lot of useful things came out of it. All the things she taught us and showed us, actually being able to demonstrate it and seeing other people demonstrate it and seeing how easy it is, it's not as hard as you think it is."

Chark's group, by the way, put together a chicken pesto pasta dish. It finished last in the competition, which was judged by Black, Blank and Marcus Pollard, the team's director of player development and youth football.

"It wasn't good," Chark admitted. "It wasn't bad. I would eat it. I actually enjoyed it, but when I started tasting the other stuff, then I realized ours wasn't as good as I thought it was."

Black said this group of rookies was better than the first two when it came to preparing and cooking their entrees.

"They actually had more skills than I anticipated," Black said. "I mean, some of them did not, but some of them did a lot better with chopping than I thought they would.

"[Cooke's team] had every element [in their entrée]. They used actual spices that went with the meats instead of just putting random things together. Their presentation was very nice. They made the plate look good. The actual taste was wonderful."

The highlight of the grocery store trip, as it was the past two years, was the cereal aisle. Black turned that into a competition, too.

Each player grabbed their favorite cereal and read the nutrition label. They had to put their cereal back if it didn't meet the nutritional requirements -- such as the fiber content, sugar content, and whole grains -- that Black listed.

Frosted Flakes. Cocoa Puffs. Cap'n Crunch. Honey Bunches of Oats. Corn Pops. All back on the shelves. The winner was Special K Red Berries.

"My girlfriend started eating this a while back, so I just started piggybacking off her," undrafted defensive back C.J. Reavis said. "I'm trying to eat healthy and she even gets on my case about eating bad food all the time, so this is what I'm eating now."

Cooke said he learned more than just how to read a food label and make healthier choices. He also got a lesson in product marketing and placement, and how to avoid getting caught up in that.

"One of the biggest things I learned that I didn't know was stay on the outside of the store," Cooke said. "The inside is kind of where it gets more unhealthy. And also the more unhealthy stuff is placed on a child's-level view, especially in the cereal aisle, candy and stuff like that.

"That's something I didn't know and it makes sense. Little kids walk by and see it eye level and that's what they want."

Black made sure the rookies understood that it's fine to have an occasional treat, but fast food, junk food, and some of the things they ate in college need to be eliminated from their diets as much as possible. In Reavis' case, that means giving up one of his favorite snacks.

"Late at night, I like snacks. I like chips," Reavis said. "So I think I'll just cut out all the chips, pretty much. I love chips, though, so that's going to be hard for me, but I've got to break it off with you.

"I'm sorry, but I've got to break it off with you."