Traveling overseas is never an easy feat, especially when you’re flying with a team of over one hundred players and staff for an international football game.
The University of Nebraska football team did just that when they kicked off the 2022 season of college football by taking on the Northwestern Wildcats in the Aer Lingus Classic in Dublin, Ireland. Getting to Ireland was a monumental task with lots of logistics involved in making sure the team was fully prepared to play. How does a team this large prepare for a trip like this?
There are obvious complications with a trip like this: accommodating all of the players, staff, band, etc., and the necessary equipment for the duration of the trip overseas was certainly no easy task. This covered getting everybody to the game, but the preparation needed to fuel the players and allow them to perform at their best ability is often forgotten about or overlooked.
Dave Ellis is the former Director of Performance Nutrition for the Athletic Department at the University of Nebraska. Ellis was tasked with leading his staff at the Training Table to prepare the athletes with the proper fuel and nutrition so that they could be at their best for kickoff.
“This had a lot of unique twists and turns to it,” said Ellis. “We were on a wonderful property out there in Ireland. I could’ve easily taken three of our culinary staff over there and kept them busy just stink-proofing what came out of the kitchen to get a better interpretation of what we attempted to verbalize.”
Behind the scenes, there were many complications with setting up a feeding regimen for the athletes in Ireland. Ellis wasn’t able to travel with his whole staff, so he had to assemble a crew of local chefs in Dublin and coordinate a plan to feed the players and staff for almost every meal while the team was in Ireland.
“I was there two days before the team. We had a couple trips out there before, but execution is another deal,” Ellis said. “No matter how many times you walk through a stadium, or walk through a hotel, or go to different destinations and talk to people, until it’s showtime and the food is actually coming out, there’s only so much problem solving you can do.”
Ireland doesn’t offer all of the American cuisine that we have come to know and become accustomed to in the states. Ellis and his team had to ship a lot of supplies to Dublin in the weeks leading up to the game.
“The couple days prior to the team getting there was chaos. The supply chain over there is dramatically different,” said Ellis. “Things like bottled Gatorade are almost nonexistent, so just having something as simple as securing bottled water and bottled Gatorade, or some surrogate form of sports drink, was a major undertaking.”
The commitment taken on by the performance nutrition staff proved to have some hidden obstacles as well.
“What was supposed to be there, when we got there, wasn’t there. Immediately, we were in problem-solving mode trying to find solutions,” said Ellis. “The wheels kind of wobbled a bit on a number of fronts.”
Training Table Executive Sports Chef Mike Steele wasn’t able to travel with the Huskers to Ireland to help oversee the team’s meal preparation, but that doesn’t mean he was off-the-hook in terms of making sure the food was prepared to the high standards expected by the University of Nebraska athletes and staff.
“I had to put a video together on how to cook grits,” said Steele. “Essentially, what we came to find out with the Irish chefs is that little things like grits, either they don’t have it or they have something similar and they call it something different. Even though we speak English, there was almost a kind of a language barrier.”
The meals prepared for the team in Ireland were coordinated to get the athletes fueled up to perform at the highest level of their athletic ability, but that wasn’t the only factor involved in making meal choices for the team. Flying internationally puts a tremendous strain on one’s immune system.
“Compressing the entire team in a plane for any duration of time is a risk. It was a long exposure on the way over and on the way back,” said Ellis. “The fact that we flew out the night of the game made for a very long transition period from the start of that day, lifting off at midnight after the game, to pulling up to [Memorial] stadium at five in the morning where upper respiratory vulnerability started to manifest over the next week. We had our hands full when it came back to reacclimating time-wise, screwed up appetites, and some upper respiratory junk that was going around.”
Many Nebraska fans who traveled to Dublin for the game will tell you that the strain on their immune systems was significant and is not something to ignore. Several members of the team had a hard time transitioning back to the United States and fell ill upon arrival back in Lincoln.
This was a factor that was not overlooked by the performance nutrition staff. While it is near impossible to keep that many players and staff completely healthy for a trip overseas like this, Ellis and his staff prepared the athletes as best as they could by incorporating immune system boosters into their diets before, during, and after their trip.
“We were certainly supplying our athletes with all of the more bioactive compounds that are good for immune health while we were over there and on the flight home. You don’t always bat a thousand when it comes to immunity, some people are always going to be more vulnerable,” said Ellis.
The Training Table feeds all athletes, including Husker Scarlet Skylar Hoxie. Athletes are able to prepare their own meals at the Training Table so they can learn about the fuel they are putting in their bodies.
Ellis and his staff were forced to learn a lot of lessons the hard way on the trip. Despite all of the experience and preparation, there were still plenty of lessons to take away from the journey.
“I told Mike as soon as I got back that it was a mistake to not take his staff over there and have them in the kitchen. I probably would’ve had one over at Aviva Stadium and two of them at the hotel just making sure what was coming out of those kitchens was closer to what we asked for,” said Ellis.
The performance nutrition staff at Nebraska conquered a huge undertaking with this trip to Ireland. Supplying food for the team and staff for five days is a difficult task by itself, let alone having to deal with supply chain issues and language barriers along the way.
The Husker community of athletes can be a challenge; however, it is not without reward both on campus and beyond. Many of Ellis and Steele’s proteges have gone on to successful careers in the field of nutrition at the highest levels of athletics.
“We have a lot of young dietitians and culinarians that go on to work in college and pro teams and do quite well because of their time here. There’s really no school for becoming a sports dietician or a sports chef other than working in an environment like this,” said Ellis.
The Training Table at the Performance and Nutrition Center here at the UNL is a storied program that has innovated the world of athletic nutrition for universities around the country. It has led the way in terms of fueling athletes of all sports for decades now, but none of that could be done without the help of their staff and students.