HOUSTON – Over the past month, Arian Foster has met more nutritionists than you'll see at the Olympics. Foster, the Houston Texans running back and avant-garde thinker, has been getting advice and disagreement from seemingly everyone he encounters, all because he has become a vegan.
If it wasn't bad enough that a Pro Bowl player is going meatless in the ultimate carnivore sport, there's an associated problem with Foster's diet. This is Texas, the land of beef and barbeque. Not eating meat in this state is about as close as it gets to original sin. Put that together with the team's Super Bowl aspirations and you have some strong feelings.
"I had a long conversation with him about that. I told him, 'If this doesn't work, I'm going to kick your ass,' " teammate Brian Cushing said. "I told him that because he's going too far. He thinks he knows more than me, but he doesn't, especially about nutrition. We have a good relationship, but I told him this better be right. We have a lot riding this year."
Foster hears that comment, nods slowly and smiles. He also has had a detailed discussion with general manager Rick Smith about the dietary choice. In the one month since he announced his departure from an appetite for flesh, he has seen an absurd amount of interest.
"Everybody cares what I eat now," Foster said. "They didn't care before, but they do now. Everybody is a nutritionist now and they're an expert on protein. Every day, every single day somebody knows something new to do. I just smile and say, 'OK.' "
Adding to the fear is that Foster has some strong similarities with the likes of Ricky Williams, from his NFL counterculture diet (Williams became a vegetarian in 2005) to his deep thinking. Even the cadence of Foster's speech is reminiscent of Williams. More important than any of that is Foster, like Williams, is supremely talented. Between his hard-running style (he has back-to-back 1,000-yard years) to his receiving ability, Foster is one of the best all-around backs in the league – and he's paid that way, too.
Despite a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the better part of the first three games, Foster ended up with 1,224 yards rushing, 53 receptions and 12 total touchdowns. Foster helped Houston get to the second round of the playoffs, even though the team was down to then-No. 3 quarterback T.J. Yates by the end of the season.
Now, Foster has people worried that he's messing with a good thing. Foster believes he's creating a healthier, stronger body that will make him a better player. He consulted doctors before choosing this path, which is more restrictive than a vegetarian diet. As it was, he had gotten down to eating red meat roughly once every six months. His logic was simple: He didn't feel that good when he ate a big meal that featured meat.
"I didn't just blindly stop eating meat. I know what I'm doing," Foster said.
"I saw a documentary in high school that really turned me on to getting aware of it. It didn't change my diet then, but it made me think about the myths about protein. I said a while ago that when I quit playing football, I would probably become a vegetarian and I thought I needed the protein. Then I did some research with doctors who in their world are considered kind of radical. To me, it's radical we have heart disease and 12-year-old kids with diabetes. "
That's typical Foster. As a child, his parents pushed him to think deeply about subjects."Question everything. Don't take anything at face value. Find your own path and come to your own conclusions," Foster said, mimicking his parents.
That sense of curiosity got Foster into trouble. At the University of Tennessee, Foster admitted that he butted heads with the coaching staff when he was required to go to every class, even sending monitors to make sure he went.
"I'm 19 years old, I can get myself to class," Foster said of that time. To him, as long as he did the work and got the class notes, he felt he should be afforded the same freedom as other students.
"The professors would tell the students that they didn't have to go to every lecture, but not the football players. We had to go to every class," Foster said. As a result, Tennessee coaches ripped Foster to NFL coaches and personnel men, helping him go undrafted.
Fast forward to this season and you have greater concern about what's at stake. That's why Smith, who has also given up eating red meat on a regular basis, had the meeting with Foster.
"We want to support him and make sure that he has the guidance and help to get through the things he has to deal with in the season," said Smith, who negotiated a five-year, $43.5 million extension with Foster this offseason.
Foster appears to have plenty of that. He also has history on his side. Williams, for instance, had five relatively successful seasons, including 1,121 yards in 2009, after becoming a vegetarian.
A better example is Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez, a likely Hall of Fame player, who became a vegetarian earlier in his career when he played for Kansas City. Although Gonzalez returned to eating chicken and fish, he has every major receiving record for tight ends.
Houston trainer Cedric Smith also worked with Gonzalez when they were with the Chiefs, giving him experience on that front.
"The one thing that I remember is that [Gonzalez] did lose weight at first, but it came back pretty quick," Cedric Smith said. "He worked his way around it; he worked with the nutritionist there, Mitzi Dulan, and they came up with a plan. He had a plan to do what he needed to do. I think he bent in some areas to form the diet that he needed and he wanted, but he is mostly vegetarian. What I saw out of him is that he was the same player that he was before he did it."
Foster appears to have a strong plan in place. Now, it's a matter of dealing with the reaction. Foster's curious nature has helped him intellectualize the issue.
"You start to understand why people are like that. We're emotionally attached to food, bad food. Think about every big event in America, it's attached to food. Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, holidays … it's with food. That's why people feel so strongly about it; they're emotionally attached to it.
"I know that's why so many people are interested. They're speaking from their heart … [but] I'm concerned with what I'm putting in my body. That bad stuff we eat, it goes into your body and it stays there. It stays in your heart. Trust me, I love that kind of food. I see a hamburger and I know it's delicious. But now I can think it through and know that hamburger is not necessarily good for me."
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