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Meet the woman fueling Tennessee football

By Rhiannon Potkey • Updated Jul 1, 2017 at 11:15 AM

KNOXVILLE (TNS) – Stephanie Horvath’s eyes lit up when freshman Trey Smith walked into her office for the first time.

It wasn’t just the size of the 6-foot-6, 313-pound Tennessee offensive lineman that impressed Horvath. It was Smith’s hunger to learn everything possible about how his diet could maximize his performance on the football field.

“He wanted all the secrets, tips and information he could possibly receive. I was like, ‘Yes, you are exactly the athlete I want. You are excited about this and want to know how it impacts you,’” Horvath said. “You don’t have a lot of athletes who connect those dots, especially that young.”

As the director of sports nutrition at Tennessee, Horvath is the person in charge of fueling the football team. From meal planning to grocery shopping to handing out water at practice, Horvath tries to have every detail covered.

Horvath works in close collaboration with Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson to devise individualized plans for players to reach their performance goals.

The two are spending the summer helping Tennessee’s returning players build for the upcoming season and educating the incoming freshmen about the program’s expectations.

“I talk to Rock every day and he is incredibly supportive because he knows nutrition is a big part of what he is trying to accomplish,” Horvath said. “You can do all the hard work on the field and in the weight room, but unless you put the right foods into your body you are not going to achieve what you want to achieve.”

Alongside lavish facilities and academic enticements, nutrition has become another tool coaches use in recruiting. Having Horvath explain how her staff can help players perform better and possibly extend their careers beyond college is an attractive selling point.

“The nutritional component is absolutely critical for our football program. Our goal is for everyone to meet their potential and that part is essential,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “From the sleep requirement to the hydration requirements, there is so much that goes into fueling their bodies for success.”

Horvath, 30, arrived at Tennessee last August after serving as the Director of Sports Nutrition at Illinois for one year. The South Bend, Ind., native is a former collegiate athlete, having rowed at Indiana from 2005-09.

Horvath and her assistant Elise Ramirez oversee all sports at Tennessee, with Horvath devoting much of her time to football.

She travels with the team to away games and creates the menu for every team meal throughout the entire year.

Horvath’s office in the Anderson Training Facility is located behind the fueling station in the weight room. A snack bar open to all athletes, the fueling station is stocked with a wide array of items Horvath purchases like protein bars, fruit, yogurt, peanut butter, shakes, vitamin packs and beef jerky.

Nearly 25 graduate assistants help keep the station running daily as athletes grab snacks between classes or recovery drinks after workouts. Horvath also creates the menus for the food served to athletes at Smokey’s Sports Grill on campus.

The NCAA’s rule change in 2014 that allowed Division I athletes to receive unlimited meals and snacks was a significant milestone for nutrition staffs across the country.

“It not only brought our profession into light and recognition for what we do for athletes, but it just allowed us to build our programs better,” Horvath said. “That is my favorite part of my job. I am building a program and I am an integral part of the sports performance team now. I just want to feed my athletes and this allowed us to do that.”

Horvath has an open-door policy and encourages athletes to visit. She educates them on how to create their plates at each meal and accompanies them to the grocery store to show them how to shop if needed.

Tennessee offensive lineman Jack Jones has revamped his diet over the last few months with Horvath’s guidance.

“She has done a really good job of helping me. My biggest thing was I wasn’t eating the right stuff. I was so hungry all day that I ended up eating something bad,” the 6-4, 307-pound junior from Murfreesboro said. “She’s given me ideas for stuff I really like that is a lot better for me. I feel so much better overall and I recover way faster.”

Horvath’s assessment of players begins by putting them in the Bod Pod to determine their body composition and resting metabolic weight.

After getting input from Gullickson and the Tennessee coaches about a player’s positional workload, Horvath uses the numbers as a baseline to design a nutritional plan.

“Have the resources like we have here at Tennessee is huge because it allows you to be able to build your program and facilitate what you want to accomplish,” Horvath said. “Coach Jones is very passionate about nutrition and has been on board from the beginning. When you have that, then you have the keys because he allows you to be able to make it important for the team.”

In changing a player’s diet and weight, Horvath needs him to “buy in completely” and realize she has his best interest at heart.

“I’ve heard people say the strength coach is like the father figure and disciplinarian and the nutritionist is like the mother figure. You feed them and are at every meal,” Horvath said. “The players start to trust me to tell me things that may not just pertain to nutrition, like if they are stressed out or have a lot going on with family. I really try to build that relationship so they feel comfortable coming into my office about anything.”

Although she wants the players to eat healthy, Horvath isn’t the food police. She doesn’t want eating to become drudgery and have players rebel against the plan.

Throughout the year, Horvath will include what Butch Jones calls “morale-boosting foods” at team meals like a macaroni and cheese bar, turkey legs and cookies.

“It’s a give and take. All foods can fit into a performance diet. It’s the amount of foods that becomes important,” Horvath said. “I want them to have lot of vegetables and fruits and things from the earth, but there is also the comfort component of what they really love. You have to make food enjoyable.”

Horvath celebrates even the smallest weight gains or losses with Tennessee athletes to keep them inspired. She answers every phone call or text message from them asking about certain food choices.

As the summer football conditioning period reaches a midpoint, Horvath has been eagerly indoctrinating the new freshmen on the importance of eating right.

“This is the first class that doesn’t know anybody but me or my way of doing things. It’s the first time many of them have been exposed to nutrition,” she said. “They are like a blank slate, which is nice because they are fresh and open minded and don’t know what they don’t know yet.”

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