BULGER, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers get their edge by diving into the playbook and playing physical football.
Turns out they get their fuel from a Hollywood power player and cow-milking robots.
"He's gone from Batman to farming," linebacker Ryan Shazier said.
He is Thomas Tull, the man who financed the "Dark Knight" trilogy and built Legendary Pictures into a $13-billion-dollar cinema powerhouse. He also serves as minority owner of the Steelers.
In 2016, fresh off the sale of Legendary, he decided to marry pro football and farmland with Rivendale Farms, a lush 150-plus-acre estate just outside of Pittsburgh that ships chocolate milk, eggs and vegetables straight to the Steelers’ cafeteria. Steelers players consume about 60 dozen eggs, four gallons of maple syrup and 200 pints of milk a week from the Rivendale barn.
Farming is a childhood dream for Tull, a dedicated tech investor whose farm follows that rep. Chicken sheds are solar-powered and more plush than a downtown flat. Cow eating patterns are closely tracked with data analysis, ensuring the top-shelf, New Jersey-bred cows are happy and relaxed when feeding. Navigating these Western Pennsylvania hills requires high-powered ATVs.
Only the best for the black and gold.
"I've always been enamored with the idea of having a farm," said Tull, who grew up modestly in Endwell, New York. "Getting yield from the land, knowing exactly where your food comes from. Everything we do here is all natural."
The cafeteria might be the most important operation in the Steelers’ headquarters. During the season, players arrive as early as 7 a.m. and sometimes stay until 5 p.m. Coaches grind till dark. Three meals a day are readily available. Smuckers' packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the go-to snack before practice.
Rivendale, the official sponsor of the Steelers’ practice jerseys, has become a go-to supplier over the past year, especially for breakfast with organic maple syrup and eggs. Rivendale's whole chocolate milk includes Swedish chocolate.
The stuff is so good that Ben Roethlisberger, a close friend of Tull’s, has a personal stock.
"Nutrition is what so many people are doing nowadays -- whether all natural, organic, grass-fed," Roethlisberger said. "It's good for all of us. It's making all of us better."
Buzz words for Tull: processed foods. He wants to make sure his players don’t get them. Tull can "absolutely taste the difference" when food is pure, he says, and high-end athletes should have the same experience.
Rivendale's data analysis can track when cows are most relaxed, which yields the best milk. That milk is robotically sanitized after every feeding. Rivendale has partnered with Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture out of New York to ensure the best farming tools are supplied.
"I’m pretty focused on what we’re doing on the field, trying to use everything off the field to get the best results possible," said Tull, who sold Legendary to China's Dalian Wanda Group for a reported $3.5 billion. "Any little advantage you can have, you try to make happen."
As a player who has suffered injuries early in his career, Shazier appreciates those efforts.
He can’t enjoy the milk. He’s lactose intolerant. But he knows a good diet can prevent muscle inflammation.
And he trusts Tull to show him a good time.
"I was able to take my son [to the farm] and show him the sheep," Shazier said.
The farm also serves as a weekend destination for players who can visit at any time. Steelers great Franco Harris stopped by the other day. Former Steelers lineman Chris Hoke is on the Rivendale staff. Roethlisberger has taken his family for trout fishing and up-close views of Scottish cows and goats.
Fresh out of the tunnel, before every pregame throwing session, Roethlisberger makes sure to find Tull, a fixture at Heinz Field games, for a bear hug. Conversations with Tull invariably veer to his movie credits, which include "Jurassic World," "Interstellar" and "Kong: Skull Island."
"I love movies. I kind of collect DVDs and stuff," Roethlisberger said. "I know it's non-existent anymore to do DVDs, but I collect them. I enjoy watching them, so it's fun to talk to him about the movies he's done and things like that."
Tull sees Rivendale as an extension of Pittsburgh, which he says is experiencing an "absolute boom time" in the tech industry.
But he can’t do anything about the Tom Brady-approved barn colors, which are traditionally red.
"The farm bleeds black and gold," Tull said.