“Y’all crazy with this vegan thing,” Woodyard said one Friday night early in training camp before a Tennessee Titans practice. “I’m from LaGrange, Georgia. I’m going to eat my pork.”
Before the end of August, Woodyard swallowed his pride and joined the Titans’ vegan movement. He wasn’t the only one. By the start of December, 11 Titans, mostly starters, were on the plant-based meal plan with varying levels of commitment.
It all started with the Morgan family — Derrick, who decided to slowly transition to a plant-based lifestyle 10 months ago, and his chef wife, Charity, who joined him and re-educated herself as a vegan chef to cook for him.
One by one, Titans players spotted Morgan’s lunches and asked to be put on the meal plan. A few, such as DeMarco Murray, enjoy the convenience of a ready-made, healthy and tasty post-practice meal delivered to the Titans’ facility. Many more, including Morgan, Woodyard and Casey, are all in.
“We all get around this table and have a feast,” said Brian Orakpo, who like Woodyard teased his teammates about their plant-based diet until he joined on about a month ago. “Everybody is making plays. Everybody is healthy. Everybody is eating right, and she’s been a big part.”
They believe there’s proof in the vegan mac and cheese that a plant-based diet helps them lose weight, recover faster and, believe it or not, play better.
Derrick Morgan leads the Titans with seven sacks. Woodyard has had somewhat of a revival going from a two-down linebacker in 2016 to a Pro Bowl-caliber player who ranks among the NFL’s leaders in tackles in 2017. Casey is the main cog in the Titans’ top-five ranked run defense. Jones, who also has a role in the stout run defense, had two sacks last Sunday against Indianapolis. Rishard Matthews leads the Titans in receiving yards.
“If you want them to play like warriors, we must feed them like it,” Charity said. “To hear Wesley tell me he feels like a 20-year-old on the field and he’s 30, it’s amazing.”
‘It’s got to be meat’
No holiday tests vegan discipline like Thanksgiving. Casey had been known to throw down on Turkey Day, but he initially didn’t know what to expect this year.
The Morgans hosted a holiday celebration with Casey, Jones, Woodyard, Austin Johnson and their wives and girlfriends.
The menu didn’t look too different than other southern and Cajun Thanksgivings: Cajun fried turkey, stuffing, collard greens, truffle mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, truffle cream corn, cider orange cranberry sauce, honey butter corn muffins, caramel apple crisp, and cookies-and-cream cheesecake. Charity just used tofurkey, and vegan butter and cheese as substitutes.
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“It was actually amazing, the food and bonding,” Casey said.
Derrick Morgan added, “It’s not a real sacrifice as far as flavor goes.”
In my journey talking to the Titans that dived into the plant-based diet, the taste was the most pleasant surprise for most of the players.
On this particular Thursday, there was a different exciting buzz from the vegan crew. Woodyard pointed out the day’s meals: seitan burgers and jackfruit cheesesteaks. They were among the group’s favorite dishes.
“It’s surprisingly good. Sometimes you look at it, especially the burgers, and say it’s got to be meat or dairy in it. But it’s not,” said Brice McCain, who did a three-week introduction to the plant-based lifestyle with his wife. “It just lets you know there’s a lot of ways to cook stuff to make it taste like meat and it’s really not.”
Jones added, “How Morgan’s wife prepares the food you really can’t tell it’s vegan. It tastes just like what you ate before.”
Murray craves the buffalo ranch potato salad. McCain said his favorite dish might be the mashed potatoes with asparagus and mushrooms.
Charity Morgan cooks lunches for the crew, and gives recipes and tips to the players and their significant others for dinner. She says she has had to turn away interested Titans’ newcomers to the meal plan because she has reached her limit on how much she can cook by herself.
The Titans’ vegan crew was the butt of jokes in training camp, but now more than a quarter of the roster is either on the plant-based meal plan or has shown interest in trying it out.
Protein and misconceptions
Where does a 300-pound defensive lineman get enough protein in a plant-based lifestyle to keep his strength? That was Casey’s biggest question before he jumped on the wagon.
“I thought I was going to get a little weaker. I thought I wasn’t going to sustain my blocks. I thought, will I waste all my training by doing this? But I was good,” Casey said. “The biggest thing is knowing what you’re substituting your protein for. My wife does a good job of that.”
Two documentaries, “What’s the Health” and “Forks over Knives,” were a common resource Titans players used in their choice to give up meat. They also leaned on the Morgan family and their own research to be informed about potential benefits of a plant-based lifestyle.
“There’s so many misconceptions. We were taught wrong as consumers of meat,” Charity said. “Plants have so much protein.”
Charity makes sure their lunches are stocked with high sources of protein such as kale, spinach, nuts, beans, lentils and seitan. All the salads are sprinkled with hemp seeds. It’s more of a holistic diet so very few processed meats, soy or corn crops are used, but she does use honey.
Casey says the vegan switch helped him go from 300 to 285 pounds while still being a force in the middle. Jones dropped from 325 to 309 initially, but he’s back up to 315 after adding one cheat meal of chicken per week into his diet.
Jones, like a few others on the team, will wait until the offseason to go 100 percent vegan. He says the weekly chicken dish is the only thing holding him back now. A few players went cold turkey, while most slowly transitioned, taking one element out of their diet at a time. A weekly taste of fish or chicken is typically the hardest to give up. Derrick Morgan, Woodyard and Casey are among the most disciplined in staying true to the lifestyle.
There’s a small group of players in the Titans’ locker room that Derrick and Charity call the “snitches,” who enjoy pointing out when one of the vegan group slips up.
Most of the plant-based crew didn’t necessarily make the switch because of a disdain for meat. They primarily enjoy how it makes them feel and how little inflammation they face due to the high levels of turmeric in the food.
“I saw how fluid my body was moving around; my body wasn’t aching anymore. I knew it was the right decision,” Casey said. “My body heals 10 times faster.”
Woodyard added, “I used to feel sluggish when I ate heavy. I don’t get tired like I used to and that’s definitely the food I eat.”
A quick look into the reason why the Titans are 7-4 will lead you to a stout front seven, which just so happens to be full of players on a primarily plant-based diet.