AUBURN — Getting to Texas for Auburn’s season-opening game against Oregon two weeks ago was an adventure unlike Gus Malzahn had ever experienced before as a head coach.
Weather in Dallas shut down the runways, which confined the team to its chartered plane for two hours. And by the time the storm finally relented, the pilots had timed out, which meant the airline needed to find new ones before the flight could take off. The Tigers did the walk-through they were supposed to do at AT&T Stadium in the waiting area at Montgomery Regional Airport.
Lauren Silvio was already at the hotel in Dallas as all this was going on. She arrived with the advance team on Thursday. And her phone was getting flooded with text messages from the players still stranded in Alabama.
“Hey,” many of them read, “are we still going to have chicken wings?”
You may not have heard Silvio’s name before, but she’s a crucial part of Auburn’s football support staff the same way strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell and head athletic trainer Robbie Stewart are. Silvio is the director of sports nutrition for the university’s athletic department and the registered dietitian in charge of overseeing what football players eat, a role she’s held since the summer before the 2016 season.
The Birmingham native earned her bachelor’s degree from Alabama in 2013 and master’s from LSU in 2015, but don’t hold any of that against her — she already gets a “good amount” of flak about that from everybody inside the Auburn Athletics Complex.
“I try to make fun of myself for it, as well,” she said last week. “I never knew I’d work at Auburn, but I do love it here.”
Silvio’s job responsibilities can be boiled down to two primary functions. One, educating players about nutrition and what certain foods do for their body and performance; and two, providing players with meals that fit those guidelines, whether that be at the Wellness Kitchen on campus or at team meals before and after games.
The education process starts soon after players arrive on campus as true freshman, in the form of a summer class that Silvio teaches. The purpose of that class is to go over the basics, such as what proteins and carbohydrates are and what they do, the value of vitamins and minerals, what proper hydration looks like and anything harmful they should avoid.
Those are things “you don’t really learn unless your parents are really into nutrition or you had a class in high school,” Silvio said, and they matter a ton, especially for a student-athlete playing football in the SEC.
The days are long and exhausting between classes, tutoring, assignments, treatments, workouts and practices, and not eating the right way will leave a player even more exhausted at the end of it.
“For example, if you have a fried meal from McDonald’s or Zaxby’s, then you kind of want to go take a nap, that’s because it’s so high in fat,” Silvio said. “It just kind of makes your body tired. So it’s not necessarily benefiting your performance. It is calories, but it’s not necessarily the proper calories to help fuel a great practice or a game or something like that.”
What Silvio and the four other dietitians in Auburn’s athletics department preach is putting a plate together the right way. That plate should include three elements: Proteins (chicken, fish, turkey or leaner cuts of red meat), carbohydrates (things like brown rice or potatoes) and colors (fruits and vegetables).
There is, of course, science behind all this. Protein is key in building muscle and repairing body tissue — two things obviously significant to a football player — and lower-fat options provide those benefits without the sluggishness that higher-fat options cause. Brown rice and potatoes are complex carbohydrates that digest in the body slower and provide steady energy longer, as opposed to a caffeinated energy drink that causes a spike in energy then subsequent crash. Different fruits and vegetables provide different vitamins and minerals.
Which foods work best for which athletes is all individualized. Players are split into three categories: Those wanting to gain weight, those wanting to maintain weight and those wanting to lose weight.
During fall camp, when school is not in session and the team eats three meals a day together in the Wellness Kitchen from a menu decided by Silvio, she is there to help players put together their plates. When school is in session and players are eating on their own schedules, Silvio provides them with a copy of each day’s menu (which the Wellness Kitchen chefs write and she reviews) that is color-coded: Green for foods that would be good for them to eat, yellow for foods that are OK in moderation, and orange for foods that will not benefit them.
Silvio also does individual consultations with players. Sometimes, the strength and conditioning coach will mention to her that they have a weight goal in mind for a certain player, or she’ll pull aside a position coach to ask what weight they want a freshman to play at. Other times, players will come to her because they have their own goals in mind or just simply felt better playing at a different weight than they are now.