Ravens nutritionist helps players hungry for Super Bowl win

Here is what happened at lunch Tuesday when Sue James stood at the end of the Ravens' buffet line at training camp in Westminster. Players saw the team nutritionist and quickly checked their plates for fruits and vegetables.

"Stay away from the tater tots," wide receiver Justin Harper warned anyone in earshot.

"I don't feel lean today," linebacker Terrell Suggs declared, moving through the line. So he piled his plate with a broccoli/cauliflower medley, then turned to James and gave her two thumbs up.

Others, like long snapper Matt Katula, didn't seem cowed by the nutritionist's presence.

"Hey Sue, what's up?" Katula said, unabashedly digging into the baked ziti and tater tots.

James, 46, rolled her eyes and smiled.

"Matt eats what he eats," she said.

"They know I have a sense of humor," said James, of Annapolis, who has been the Ravens' nutritionist for 13 years. "I don't want to be a nag, but a positive part of their football performance. I don't want to chase these guys around. It wouldn't work anyway, because they run too fast."

Three weeks into training camp at McDaniel College, the Ravens are working to get ready for their first exhibition game Thursday. But they are also readying themselves with a proper diet and fitness regimen to help them get through the long season.

She's not there on food patrol, like a mom catching her 6-year-old with his hand in the cookie jar. These are grown men who make millions and know where their bread is buttered.

Generally, players follow the tenets proposed by James, a native of South Bend, Ind., who has a master's degree in sports nutrition from Georgia State.

"She knows the right ratio of carbohydrates to fats to proteins to get you to your maximum, so you feel good and you're burning calories throughtout the day," said linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, 33. "If you're eating right, your energy is going to be better."

Ayanbadejo called James "a supplement" to the Ravens' position coaches — one who will diagram players' meals and round up healthy recipes for them in a personal dietary playbook.

"She's going to help you follow the plan that she lays out for you," he said. "It's not so much what you're doing when you're at work, it's what you do when you go home and you've got to prepare your own meals, when nobody's watching. You have to stay on yourself, but [James] is going to give you the tools and the knowlege you need to be successful."

NFL teams began hiring nutritionists in the 1980s, having found that muscle mass and body fat are more important to sports achievement than a player simply "making weight" for Sunday's game.

"Nutrition impacts performance, and players today understand that," James said. "I don't get a lot of negative vibes from these guys. My job is to assist them in getting to their weight and body composition goals."

To that end, she huddles with Ravens and their wives or girlfriends, like a financial planner, and maps out their caloric futures in football. She has taken players grocery shopping, scouring the aisles for healthy choices. She has hosted cooking classes for rookies, teaching them how to make everything from fruit smoothies to simple tuna-and-noodle dishes. James has even e-mailed recipes to players' mothers, at the athlete's behest.

Some players need further tutoring, she said.

"Some years ago, a player came to me who thought he could lose weight by eating nothing but oatmeal," James said. "I told him he'd need a little more protein than that."

Others are better versed in nutrition. Trent Smith, a former tight end, once handed James a list with the precise number of grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates that he wanted to consume daily, requesting a menu to fit.

She's not alone in helping the Ravens shape up, said James, citing the team's strength and conditioning coaches and the catering staff, which color codes every food at training camp as red (high fat), yellow (moderate) or green (low).

Last week, as James circled the cafeteria, she ran into Terrence Cody, the 360-pound rookie defensive tackle who'd passed his team physical after failing it earlier.

"See?" said Cody, beaming and pointing to his plate. "I'm only eating green today."

Others aren't so mindful of their intake. Routinely, said James, some heavyset player will look up from his lavish meal, see her coming and try to push it aside.

"It's not my plate," he'll stammer.

Another player might beckon James to his table, where a teammate is doing his best to woof down the evidence.

"Hey, Sue, do you see what he's eating?" the informant will say. "I told him not to get that."

Devising personal menus for the Ravens' linemen is a treat, said James.

"They're uncomplicated, meat-and-potatoes guys who eat like everyday people," she said. "I don't have to go looking for recipes that include some special sauce. Linemen aren't finicky — all they want are a few ways to prepare chicken or steak, and a side dish that doesn't require a lot of work."

Said offensive tackle Michael Oher: "Sue does a great job of preparing us for a 16-game season. Put the right things in your body and you'll feel good, play good and be ready for anything."

Sometimes James helps players who need to gain weight, as did offensive lineman Marshal Yanda two years ago when coaches suggested he bulk up by 10 to 20 pounds.

"I had never played at [320 pounds] before, so I had to make sure I was putting the right foods into my body, so it would turn more to muscle than just adding on fat," Yanda said. "She [James] was great at giving me a diet to stick to, and also make sure that I was able to maintain the weight."

Routinely, during the season, Yanda pokes his head in James' office, which is next to the weight room at the Ravens complex in Owings Mills.

"Her door is always open," he said.

Players "like to give me a hard time," James said. "Terrell [Suggs] will walk past and say, 'Fried chicken is calling me, Sue!' "

Her response?

"Resist the temptation, Terrell — don't answer the phone!"

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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