Going Vegan in the NFL
Credit: Illustration by Eddie Guy
Montell Owens, a Jacksonville Jaguars running back, has a similar story. Owens, 28, went vegan at the end of his 2010 season after his wife read The Thrive Diet, by vegan triathlete Brendan Brazier. "I was looking for a change, for an advantage on the field and off," says Owens. As a vegan, he lost 15 pounds and, like Gonzalez, felt great – lighter, faster, "cleaner." But when he returned to camp, a strength coach took one look at him and said, "You're too small. You look like a wide receiver," meaning he might be able to run the ball, but he couldn't block the Big Boys.

Owens considered tweaking his diet to get more vegan protein, but the team didn't want to wait while he experimented. "It was pretty much, 'We can't wait on you, we'll replace you,'" says Owens. So he started eating fish. "It's more calorie-dense," he says. "You're eating the same size of salmon or shrimp as you would vegetables, but you're getting twice the calories and protein."

In the past few years, teams have added salad bars, juicers, and plant-based superfoods like kale, quinoa, almond butter, and whole-wheat pasta to their cafeterias, alongside the bacon cheeseburgers and meatball subs. While this makes eating healthy easier at home, it's still difficult on the road, where players spend half the season. Before travel days, Gonzalez and Owens plan ahead, asking for specific foods and packing vegan bars and powders. "It's 365 days a year to be a pro football player," says Sue A. James, a nutritionist for the Ravens who worked with Williams. "Whether they're training or it's the off-season, they know they have to take care of their bodies and their health. The career doesn't last forever, and [eating right] is healthier over the long term."

Evan Marcus, a former NFL strength and conditioning trainer, says coaches always get worried when an athlete goes vegan or vegetarian. "You can only show your concern by saying, 'Make sure you get enough protein. Make sure your muscles get fed and that you get complete proteins with amino acids.'" Those who are vegan or vegetarian – Williams, Gonzalez, Foster – are "very special athletes," he adds. "They seek out every advantage. They've researched this, read about it, thought about it." The bigger problem for trainers, he says, is junk-food eaters. "I've seen guys with boxes of Count Chocula in their lockers. How do you reach these fast-food junkies?"

Yet fast food and meat are so ingrained in NFL culture that players and fans can get hostile when athletes change diets. "My teammates said things like, 'You're gonna get your ass kicked,'" says Gonzalez. After Tennessee Titans guard Deuce Lutui went vegan last spring to lose weight – he dropped from 400 pounds to 340 – Ryan Kalil, a center for the Carolina Panthers, texted him pictures of cheeseburgers and roast pig. Williams says teammates would pass him sticking plates of wings under his nose, asking if he wanted "just a taste."

A big reason for the hazing is that there's a lot at stake when a player begins to tinker with his diet: his performance, and consequently, his entire team's season. But NFL contracts say nothing about diet, and Gonzalez says he and other plant-fueled players are only acting responsibly. "I feel more of an obligation to eat this way because of the money they've invested in us. The evidence is there that this is healthy – I have more energy right through the fourth. It can be a matter of seconds if you catch the ball or miss it. The guy who's eating the steak is sluggish in the fourth quarter. I want to be 100 percent. That's what puts more money in your pocket."