by Marji Wisniewski

Abigail and I had been speaking for about an hour on a quiet spring day in May when a few Michigan football players started to gather outside, wondering what she was up to in her office with the door closed. That’s just the relationship she has with her athletes. Her door is, typically, always open. And she’s been told on more than one occasion that her office needs more couches and chairs. She’ll be the first to say she’s not the “team mom,” but she’s okay with being the “fun aunt” every now and then as long as they try the scary vegetables on their plates.

 

WOMEN BELONG IN FOOTBALL

I wish I had a more inspiring story about how to be a woman in football, but simply put, women belong in football. I truly believe that. Yes, I am one of few females in the sport, but I don’t like to say that it’s a “male-dominated” field. Instead, I choose to say “male-prevalent.” I’m super sassy and I’m not going to be dominated by anyone. And I don’t have to worry about that here. Our culture at Michigan Football is relationship-driven and our team environment is very cohesive. Even though there are very few women on staff, I have the same perks the men get. I have a nice locker room, and they order me kid-sized shoes so I can have the same shoes as the guys. It’s interesting how my gender plays a role, but it’s even more interesting how it does not in the ways that people would think it would. 

A bigger hurdle than my gender is that I work in a sport I’ve never played. I have to proactively find ways to connect with our players about the sport they live and breathe. I played softball in college, but my experience was far different from what these athletes are experiencing now. Their identity is tied to the sport. I’ve had to learn a lot of football! Now I’ll talk shop with them, and we’ll even watch films together. They teach me about football, and I teach them about broccoli. It’s been an interesting dynamic. 

I’d say the sleeper hit is how demanding working in football can be. You really have to love football. I miss Christmas with my family every year. I want to miss Christmas because that means I’m doing my job. But that’s a big sacrifice my family has to make. People see that sacrifice with the athletes and coaches, but don’t often think about all the support staff who are also making those same sacrifices for the team. We’ve all dedicated ourselves to the team. It can be incredibly demanding. If I only loved food, I think it would be difficult, but I also really love football now.

 

INFLUENCERS VERSUS EDUCATORS

I’m originally from the football-loving state of Texas. Growing up in San Antonio, nutrition wasn’t a focus for our family. My dad is white and my mom is Mexican, so food meant more to me culturally versus nutritionally. Having this foundation has influenced how I plan meals for our team. I recognize that so much of food is wrapped up with feelings of home, family, and tradition. I use food to connect our athletes that are not from Michigan through an inclusive, culturally cognizant menu. I try to offer things like shrimp and grits, or mumbo sauce (D.C.’s famous sweet & sour sauce). The athletes are also very involved in our menu planning process. They might tell the chef to have something three times a week that they loved or say that a frittata was a swing and a miss. My only request is that the players just try it once. 

One of the biggest challenges a dietitian faces is misinformation shared by influencers online. They are selling what works for them or showing before and after photos that don’t really translate to real life. Corporations producing our food also throw out all kinds of misinformation to the public. Messages about low-carb, low-fat, and calorie counting are just making eating healthy harder than it needs to be. The reality is you just need to focus on eating whole foods, fruits, and vegetables—just like they taught us in elementary health class. 

Your relationship to food is more important than your relationship with nutrition, your weight, or your performance. I hope to teach them that there’s no good or bad foods. A honey bun is just a source of carbohydrates, fat, and calories. You can work the honey bun into your diet, enjoy eating it, and also keep the goals you have for your diet. If I could change one thing about how we talk about food, it would be the demonization of different macronutrients, or food groups versus celebrating how good food really tastes. It can be really easy to get caught up in the good or bad, or if this or that will completely ruin your goals. It’s just food; let’s worry about the nutrition second.


CHANGING COURSE

My passion for food education and early prevention of disease is what led me to the field of nutrition. I didn’t realize I wanted to change course until late fall of my senior year of college. Until that point, I was majoring in biology and planning to be a doctor. I was shadowing an eye doctor and reviewing the case of a patient who had diabetic retinopathy. Their condition was really affecting their health downstream. We were getting this case late in the game. I felt disheartened by this as a student. I reflected on my own student athlete experience; when I had an injury I saw the team doctor only twice, but I saw the athletic trainer every day. I realized that’s not the relationship I wanted to have with my patients. I wanted to be able to catch them earlier in their health challenges so that we could work on nutrition to help prevent some of the downstream effects. 

In 2014, there was a boom in the field of sports nutrition as the NCAA deregulated some of the rules around feeding athletes. Before then, teams couldn’t feed meals to their athletes. They could feed them fruits, vegetables, and bagels. But as soon as cream cheese went on that bagel, it was classified as a meal. Today, food and nutrition play a role in the overall goals of the players and nutritional support is valued as a recruitment tool at the schools who are doing it right. 

After graduating from Texas A&M Graduate School in 2015, I went to work in sports nutrition at the University of Houston. I supported many sports, including volleyball, baseball, and swimming. My boss always thought that I had a hidden talent for connecting to the football players. So, when she personally turned down an offer from University of Minnesota’s football team, she told them I was the right person for the job. She said if I was willing to go to the cold weather, this was the kind of opportunity that I needed to take. 

I was with Minnesota football for one season. They were just in the middle of opening their athlete village when I got a cold call from the head strength and conditioning coach at Michigan. He had heard about my work ethic and nutrition philosophies and thought we’d work well together. Before I knew it, I was moving to Ann Arbor. 

A PARTY EVERY DAY

I’m heading into my fifth season overseeing the daily fueling and nutritional needs for the Michigan football program. With over 130 players on the roster, it’s like I’m throwing a wedding every day. At the bare minimum, we serve a meal before and after practice. It’s my job to make sure whatever we’re eating fits the intensity of the practice they’re having. You won’t find sloppy joes on the menu before they run—that’s going to end up on the turf. 

There’s a bit of a food service component to my job as well, in terms of making sure the food shows up on time. Someone has to plan the meals and make sure they get to the team, even if that includes chasing down orders of Chick-fil-A. I once had a police escort for a post-game meal because the food was so late.

The job definitely has its funny moments. It’s a huge endeavor to feed these athletes after the regulations were dropped in 2014. These nutrition departments are growing very quickly throughout the NCAA. While I’m focused on the football team, my colleague Caroline Mandel supports all the other Michigan athletic teams. She does a wonderful job meeting the demands of having eight hundred athletes to feed and mentoring dietitians along the way. 

When I first came on board in 2018, I was operating off a single table next to the locker room with some snacks and drinks. That following May, we opened our brand new performance nutrition center and fueling station, a new weight room, and an updated athletic training and equipment space. 

My favorite addition has been the fueling station. Picture it as a performance driven 7-11. It’s a giant walk-in refrigerator. Before or after lifting, the entire offense or defense (about sixty players) walk in, grab a snack, drink, and flow through this space seamlessly. I love seeing our guys all in there enjoying the food. Sometimes they’ll even pull chairs in there and hang out. Just like at home, people always gather where there’s food. 

SMALL CHANGES FOR BIG WINS

I also work side by side with our training team to get the players’ body composition where it needs to be to perform best on the field. Most of our athletes come into the program very close to where we want them to be. Some of the biggest transformations come out of very small changes. We had a player whose only goal was to hydrate more. He was only drinking two bottles of water a day. Through better hydration, he was able to support a gain in muscle mass and maintain it. He can also go through an entire demanding practice now without cramping. 

We have another player with type 1 diabetes that I monitor closely. I’m alerted, along with his mom, when his blood sugar dips low in the night. We’ve set up a program that informs him when to eat based on when his class and practice times are. Being proactive with his meal planning has made a dramatic difference in his overall health as a student and an athlete. 

We use body composition scans to analyze muscle and fat to determine the overall health of an athlete. Instead of telling a tackle that we need him to be three hundred pounds, we’re able to look at lean muscle and adjust his plan for the weight room and the dining room. With this tool, we’ve moved beyond just telling them to gain ten pounds. Instead, we’re able to tell the athletes where on their body we’d like them to gain muscle mass—in their legs, arms, trunk, chest, etc. Being able to connect that muscle gain to improved protection and performance on the field makes sense to our athletes, and they are more motivated to adapt the plan. 

Our players do amazing athletic feats on the field each season. But for me, it’s the little things I celebrate along the way, like someone gaining eight pounds of muscle or staying in practice longer because the sugar levels are good. These are the quiet victories that no one knows are happening behind the scenes. These are the high-five moments between me and my team. 

TEAM 143

My family is coming up this summer to explore Ann Arbor and Michigan. I’m really excited to show them where I live and work. My nieces are finally getting to see the Big House. I’m helping plan our team trip around Michigan so my family can scope some of that out with me.

In the past we’ve done team trips to Rome, Paris, and South Africa. With Covid we haven’t done a trip in two years, so this year we’re slowly reintegrating that experience. We’re showing our players around the lovely state of Michigan. We’ll be taking in the sights and doing different sports activities. I’m looking forward to the Taste of the Town events with cherries and other local fare. 

Right now, I’m focused on Team 143, including our summer workouts and August camp. I’m living and breathing football alongside them now and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the team gets a menu from me this season, it’ll include a countdown to the Ohio State game. 

Go Blue, and go eat your vegetables. 

Bio:

With a passion for marketing that started as a young girl, Marji Wisniewski created her own marketing and communications organization in 2017. As owner of Blue Zebra Marketing Solutions, she helps local and regional businesses and nonprofits tell their story through branding, graphic design, content creation, and PR. She focuses on customized solutions for each client that are more unique than a zebra’s stripes. Marji is enjoying her new role as Managing Editor of The Brick Magazine. 

Marji has a love for gardening, all things Lake Michigan, Pilates, her family, and dogs