I'm not sure if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it's 4:30 a.m., and I am in a dark Tampa hotel room, choking down cupcakes. Normally, I love cupcakes. Who doesn't? But now, breaking them into tiny bites, I'm trying not to vomit.
Let me explain. There's a junior at the University of South Florida named George Selvie. He's one of the nation's best pass-rushers. But hovering around 245 pounds, he's undersized. And while all football players have to eat more than the average person, Selvie's coaches want him to eat more than the average platoon, insisting he scarf down three or four calorie-packed meals a day, plus several protein shakes. "As much as you can, as often as you can," Selvie says. In a lot of ways, he symbolizes the 13th-ranked South Florida football team: talented but struggling to grow, perhaps beyond the natural order of things. This is where I come in.
I have something of a reputation for gluttony among my friends and colleagues, so telling Selvie's story by going bite-for-bite with him for one day seemed like a great idea. Standing by the front door of an International House of Pancakes at 9:30 on a warm September Sunday morning, waiting for Selvie to drive there from his apartment near campus, I'm feeling good. He arrives, sore from last night's game, a 31-24 overtime win against Central Florida. We sit down, and the waitress comes over. "Let me get the breakfast sampler," he says. Two eggs. Hash browns. Some buttermilk pancakes with butter and syrup, plus the Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance of pork: bacon and sausage and ham. I grow confident: He's not going to beat me on this triple-team. I own the pig. One of my best friends makes his own bacon and sausage and has a swine tattoo on his arm. Pig? Come into my kitchen, George. "I'll have what he's having," I say.
The plates arrive. We begin. Soon Selvie's mother, Twana, in town from Pensacola for the game, joins us. She looks at his plate, then mine. I'm a little ahead, but she doesn't see it that way. "He's trying to eat what you eat?" she asks her son. He nods. She looks at me with a twinkle in her eye, then tells George, "He's in trouble."
The Selvies are originally from Mississippi, where I grew up. He often goes back and eats up a storm at his grandparents. I know those meals. Even the vegetables have meat in them. Plus, his dad was a Navy man and his mom is a minister, so George is disciplined. Used to cleaning plates. Since arriving at South Florida three years ago, he's put about 30 pounds on his 6'4", small forward's body. "When we first got him," USF strength coach Ron McKeefery says, "we'd force-feed him ice cream sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly in the back room."
Bite by bite, we finish our plates. Well, I do. Selvie leaves two sausages. He says he doesn't like sausage. I gloat: "This is what a clean plate looks like." The Selvies seem amused. Then they start talking about last night's action. It appears that, after Selvie picked up 11.5 sacks in the Bulls' first six games last season, opposing teams started game-planning for him. He had only three sacks in his next nine games, a stat this eating is designed to fix. "I was this close to my sack," he says about the night before. Mom needles him a bit. "And you missed one," she says. "You knew I was gonna remind you of that."
I'm listening but starting to worry. They haven't noticed the sweat stain in the middle of my shirt. Time for the Imodium pills I bought in the hotel gift shop. I try to take them discreetly. No such luck. "Why you gotta take those?" Twana asks. I mumble something. George seems fine. I seem … not. Just 52 minutes into the day, a familiar feeling hits. Well, two feelings. First: This might not be easy. Then: Oh, god. I'm about to soil my pants.
After the shortest hour and a half ever, Selvie and I are standing in line at the Argos Food Court on campus. He doesn't lumber like a lineman; he's smooth, often confused on campus for a basketball player. Until people see his plate. For starters, a heaping helping of potatoes, with peppers and onions (me too). Then a second heaping helping of potatoes (me too). Then a chicken ranch wrap (me too).
When we get to the pasta station, the cook recognizes him. Selvie spends a lot of time here. "You ready for that big game?" the guy asks. Selvie nods, moving on to pick up some cantaloupe (me too), before we finally set our trays down at the table. Because of his lightning-fast metabolism, plus all those workouts, practices and games, Selvie needs about 6,200-6,700 calories a day during the season just to maintain weight—triple the average joe's intake. He needs an extra 7,000 a week during the off-season to gain about 20 pounds. That's three square meals plus the equivalent of 23 cheeseburgers or, since the coaches want him eating healthy now, 10 pounds of rice.
When last year's training camp began, Selvie had worked his way up to 237 pounds, 20 more than when he arrived as a freshman. But the pounds bled away during summer workouts. Even so, as a 230-pound defensive end, he became a surprise star that September, setting the school record for sacks by the fifth game. He'd finish the season with 31.5 tackles for loss—most in the nation and just an assisted tackle shy of the NCAA single-season record—including 14.5 sacks, second-most in the country. All this despite dwindling to 219 pounds during the season and going sackless his final three games. McKeefery did everything he could to keep Selvie's weight up, even slipping him extra plates of spaghetti during pregame meals and switching out water for lemonade. Every calorie counts.
Selvie worked and ate hard all summer, as McKeefery and USF nutritionists monitored his health. But while he started the season at 245, he says he's slipped since games started and is stuffing his face to keep up. It's not easy. As Selvie explains what it takes to play at this level, I look down at my potatoes. It looks like I've eaten nothing. I feel sick. Selvie does not look much better. "I'm struggling too," he says.
He finally finishes and begins a photo shoot for this story a few feet away. I beat on, a glutton against the current. The camera flashes, and a crowd gathers. One pretty coed says, "Awesome job last night!" The attention makes Selvie uncomfortable; he's more laugher than joke-teller. He's also merciless. As the photographer packs his gear, Selvie looks right at me and says, "Ice cream."
Selvie powers his soft-serve vanilla cone on the spot. I struggle a bit, eating it in my rental car as I follow him and his mom to the next photo location, the mass communications building. I'm a wreck. Once we all arrive he drops this bombshell: "I'm starting to get hungry."
"I'll go get you a burger," Twana offers, smiling. Then she corrects herself. "I'll go get y'all burgers." Oh, that ain't right. Sweating again, I burp, bend over and cough. "You all right?" Selvie asks. I make a noise of affirmation. He's not so sure. "You look like one of those offensive linemen right before they throw up."
If I had to do this day after day, I'd be looking for anything to give me my life back, a shortcut around eating oodles of food. So on the way to dinner at Selvie's godparents' home early that evening, I touch the third rail. "Why not just do steroids?" I ask him.
"You get tested for it," he answers matter-of-factly, seemingly not insulted by the question. "You got to do everything the right way."
One time, as a joke, he called Twana and told her that the eating was too much and he was thinking about starting 'roids. "She went on a whole tangent," he recalls. "Then she said, 'Just pray.' "
And eat. When he's too full, he thinks of his teammates. He's really bought into the growth at South Florida, which mirrors his own. Just seven years after the Bulls made their FBS debut (a 20-17 loss at Northern Illinois) they've risen to the top of the Big East. Last October they were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation. Selvie is the school's first consensus All-America. "Means everything to me," he says. "I've been through so much with this team. You know how other schools have traditions? We're building ours right now. I want to be part of that history."
That means going to meetings, working at practice, competing in games—and tackling the spread of food that his godparents, Tony and Carmen Kimpson, have prepared. Here's where I lose the battle and the war: Country-baked chicken. Barbecue chicken. Ham. Mac and cheese. Black-eyed peas. Beans. Corn. Collard greens. Bread. All manner of desserts.
We put our plates on TV trays and turn toward the NFL game on the flat screen. The plates are buried. Like, you can't see any plate. You can't even see some of the food. I forget the black-eyed peas are even down there. I'm eating almost nonstop. I love this kind of food. Greens are my favorite vegetable. I take a second to check the damage. My plate is still covered. Selvie's is half clean. The protein shake and energy bar we each had in the afternoon—after the ice cream—filled me up more than I thought. "You're slowing down," Selvie says. It's true—championships are won in the fourth quarter. Each bite is a mental exercise now. I offer to write his papers for him if he'll help me out.
After 30 minutes, Selvie's plate is clean, save some bones and a naked corncob. I still have a huge chicken breast, thick ham slices, black-eyed peas and a hulking pile of greens. And then, have mercy, Selvie stands up. "You getting more?" I ask.
"I gotta get me some more greens," he says.
"I'm running out of gas," I say.
He gives me a look. "I'm making up for the sausages you got on me this morning," he says.
Oh, so it's like that? I try to chew a bite of greens. I feel like everyone is looking at me. My mouth waters. I surreptitiously spit the greens into my napkin and seek the garbage can, breathing deeply, like I had one shot of tequila too many. Meanwhile, Selvie eats more corn, more greens and more mac and cheese. I stand, grab the counter. Keep it down.
I walk it off, then finish the greens and most of the chicken. It takes me another 30 minutes. Eating the succulent ham is like eating leather, but I finish that, too. I try one bite of black-eyed peas and quit. I can't do it. He beats me by a serving of peas, half an ear of corn, a big block of mac and cheese and a pile of leafy greens. I'm totally wiped out, but at least I'm done. Well, almost.
As we leave, Selvie puts cupcakes in two separate baggies. "This one's yours," he says. Then he makes two big plates to go, both for him, with another serving of everything. "When you gonna eat that?" I ask. "Breakfast," he says, charitably.
"Tonight," Carmen says.
He smiles. Busted. "Probably. Depends on how I feel when I get home. I'll probably get hungry watching TV. I'll be 245 in no time."
We drive back to campus. It's nearly 9 p.m. Before I can get out of the car, Selvie reminds me that we're not finished. "I'll hit you up around 10:30 about the cupcakes," he says.
Great. I limp into my hotel and immediately pass out on the couch, only to wake up disoriented. It's still dark out. It takes me a few moments to get my bearings. The red light blinks on my phone. A text message from Selvie.
u can eat 2 of those cup cakes. Enjoy!