NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Something about the word "vegan" scares many athletes away. Doubts about protein, taste and fulfillment immediately arise. Some never can get past that point.
Then there's the 15-and-growing number of Tennessee Titans players who set aside those doubts and jumped on a plant-based meal plan, which is a phrase that is a little easier to swallow. Still, it's a bit of a surprise to catch 250-pound NFL players scavenging through large black bags for extra vegan lunch meals after practice.
Yes, beware of the meal thiefs.
What started as a couple's personal undertaking has become a full-fledged Titans plant-based meal movement that is entering Year 2 of the program. It began when Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan decided to try a plant-based diet nearly a year-and-a-half ago, enlisting the help of his wife, Charity, to join him and re-educate herself to cook vegan. Morgan's teammates saw, smelled and tasted the food that his wife made during the 2017 season. One-by-one, players asked to join the vegan meal plan, and they were sold.
"Overcoming the preconceived notions is the biggest part. I was a part of it. I used to believe athletes had to eat meat to maintain play, then I educated myself." Titans LB Derrick Morgan, whose diet is 100-percent plant-based
"When they realized that their production didn't go down, their stats didn't go down, they didn't die on the field, they were like 'sign me up' because the food already looks and smells good," said Charity, who has been a Le Cordon Bleu-educated professional chef for 15 years. "Last year was a test run for a lot of the guys to realize you can be plant-based and successful."
It all starts in the Morgan home, where Charity often begins at 6 or 7 a.m. making lunches from scratch for the guys. This year, it takes an average of four hours to make all the food she needs for those on the meal plan. It took much longer in 2017 before she added two assistants.
During training camp, the players get two meals plus a snack every day. Some players request another meal so they can eat it for dinner when they get home.
On this particular morning, it's "chik'n taco" day. The order calls for 16 meals, three tacos per meal along with a container of rice, a container of beans and a side of guacamole.
Primary ingredients consist of five pounds of soy curls (used as meat substitute), five pounds of uncooked sofrito rice, five pounds of Puerto Rican beans, 15 avocados to make homemade guacamole, and a variety of seasoning, spices and sauces. The soy curls, rice and beans make 10 pounds each when cooked and rehydrated.
Lunch is ready at 11:30 a.m., but the team's lunch time was moved back to 1 p.m. Charity and her assistant for the day, Jessica, must decide whether to prep the tacos ready-made with toppings and fillings inside and risk letting the tacos get soggy. They decide against it, leaving the tortillas wrapped in foil and allowing the players to prep the tacos themselves. Presentation is important, but quality and taste of the food is even more essential.
The food is put into separate containers with the players' numbers written on top, placed in a black bag and delivered to the Titans facility. Right after practice ends, the Titans' vegan crew digs in.
"In the beginning, I didn't number because I thought everybody knew who was on chef Charity Morgan's meal plan," Morgan said. "But no, we have to number. I'll call them toddlers. They don't grab just one bowl of rice, one bowl of beans and one set of tacos."
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has a wide smile when you ask about his plant-based lifestyle. He was originally one of the biggest skeptics, questioning how it would affect his strength, then he saw how it changed him as a player.
Casey and several other Titans raved about how it helps speed up recovery, decreases inflammation and increases their energy.
The Titans' vegan group grew from one to 11 members, mostly starters, by the end of last season. They lost a handful of players to free agency and injuries. But the current crew of 15 represents a diverse mix from linemen to receivers to specialists.
Some players from the original plant-based crew kept their eating pattern even while away from the team in the offseason.
"I didn't really change much to it," said Casey, who admits he still eats fish from time to time. "It's been good. I still love it. I feel great. It helps me keep my weight down, too, because it can get too high in offseason as I eat a little bit more."
Casey got down to his ideal weight of 285-290 pounds by the start of training camp. He's still a handful for nearly every guard or center that tries to block him, shown by his six sacks, prowess against the run and a third consecutive Pro Bowl in 2017.
'It's my heart, soul and culture in the food'
Sauces are Charity's specialties. Every day the guys get a different sauce, all homemade, including sour cream, pesto, chimichurri and chipotle sauces.
"It's my heart, soul and culture in the food," Charity said. "I make sure it's layered with flavors."
TURF (anti-inflammatory) 🏈 ••• Thank god it doesn't taste like Turf 😂 this smoothie is sweet due to the mango and banana. With added turmeric, ginger, matcha blend. @slendishorganics carries a delicious performance mix with these in it. ••• When your beating your body up all day, recovery starts with your FOOD! That's your supplement. If you're eating properly you shouldn't need to "supplement". A good way of getting nutrients down is delicious smoothies. This smoothie highlights the importance of Chlorophyll. ••• CHLOROPHYLL- the pigment in plants. Plants can't live without it and neither can we. It's brings oxygen to the blood/builds red blood cells, repairs DNA damage, cleanses the liver, speeds up wound healing and so much more. #plantpoweredathletes
She regularly sprinkles hemp seeds on dishes. She uses pink Himalayan salt and maple syrup/brown sugar instead of refined salt and sugar. She also makes recovery smoothies with 20 grams of protein. She prefers a holistic cooking style, so there are very few processed items, like soy or corn, used.
The first step was getting players to trust that going plant-based wouldn't hurt their football livelihood. Many players saw the evidence of that in Year 1.
"Overcoming the preconceived notions is the biggest part," said Derrick, whose diet is 100 percent plant-based and who led the Titans in sacks last season. "I was a part of it. I used to believe athletes had to eat meat to maintain play, then I educated myself."
Charity added: "A lot of stereotypes are being debunked with the Titans."
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, the Titans' leading tackler in 2017, often talks about how he used to feel sluggish after heavy-meat meals, but he hasn't had that experience once since switching to a plant-based diet.
It's a Vegan Thanksgiving for @WoodDro52 and the #Titans defense.— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) November 24, 2017
Go inside team dinner by adding our Snapchat 👻: https://t.co/EPR6zrqoQm pic.twitter.com/Itn1G96TSh
The lifestyle change has helped many on the team grow closer, and they hold each other accountable.
Last season, seitan burgers and jackfruit cheesesteaks were locker-room favorites. They were often the Friday "reward" meals.
This year, Charity started a group text with the vegan crew, often asking if there are any preferences for meals. They rarely respond, trusting her to surprise them with a new cooked meal.
Meals are often based on traditional meat dishes, with a meat or dairy substitute swapped in. Charity has a garden in her backyard where she grows many of the vegetables that go into her food, such as okra, curled kale, lilac bell peppers and collard greens.
"There's no such thing as a go-to meal in my kitchen. Since April 9, we haven't repeated one meal," she said. "My favorite meal is the meal I haven't made. I don't want it to be boring. I want to create every day."
Many elite athletes such as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, tennis star Serena Williams and Germany's strongest man Patrik Baboumian have embraced a vegan lifestyle, but the Titans are at the forefront with their large plant-based movement. And it's flourishing heading into Year 2.