'Mama Fowler' enters UK football players' hearts through their stomachs

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 10, 2014 

Fearful Kentucky football players grasp tiny, plastic shot glasses in their oversized hands.

They lean in hesitantly to smell the chunky contents, swish them around like they're taking part in a bad wine tasting contest.

"Just try it," the shot glass distributor urges.

"It's called lentil soup?" a skeptical player asks. "Is that because it tastes like the lint between your toes?"

Monica Fowler tries hard to hide her amusement and stick to the serious task at hand: Getting young men, many twice her size, to drink the lentil soup in their shot glasses.

All of the players comply.

Not listening to Fowler would be like not listening to their own moms at this point.

She's a sort of surrogate mom for a lot of Kentucky football players, sometimes the only woman in a room full of players, listening to their problems, soothing hurt hearts on the road after a loss.

Some call her "Mama Fowler," others use "Miss Monica."

"I pretty much answer to everything," says the petite, laid-back woman who has found her way into players' hearts via their stomachs.

Fowler, 51, is the team's dietitian, brought on full time to be on Coach Mark Stoops' High Performance staff. She works with other sports on campus as a dietitian, but a large part of her day is spent trying to upgrade the diets and change the bodies of Kentucky football players.

A recent exchange on Twitter illustrates her job perfectly.

Running back Jojo Kemp boasted via tweet a familiar college freshman exclamation: "I swear I can live off Ramen Noodles."

A few hours later, Fowler tweeted back this gentle reminder: "Only 20% of the time! The other 80% of the time you have to eat for football!"

Kemp's sheepish reply? "Of course, Ms. Monica."

If players need to lose weight, she helps them with illustrations of how their plates should look. She sits down with a player and his schedule and makes lists of food options on campus near his classes.

Sometimes she tweaks a bad habit to get a player back on track.

One player told her that he eats a 12-piece nugget and two orders of fries from the campus Chik-Fil-A daily for lunch, so she encouraged him to order two grilled chicken sandwiches instead to cut back on the fried food and the added calories.

When the players are going to eat bad things — and she knows they're going to eat bad things — she encourages them not to "go ham" on it.

That useful slang terminology came to her from a UK defensive tackle.

"Donte Rumph taught me about going 'ham' on something, which I thought meant he ate a lot of ham, but it's not what that means at all," she laughed, noting that it means to over indulge.

Fowler provides gentle nudges.

"If you know you're going to go out and have wings, then breakfast and lunch need to be top notch," she tells the players.

Her special ability to work with the players has been a big key to their bodies changing for the better, UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.

"Once the guys are educated, most of them want to do right, want to take care of their bodies," Brown said. "So once she educates them and helps guide them and helps them make the decision, then they start seeing the positive results."

UK offensive line coach John Schlarman put Fowler right up there with UK strength and conditioning coach Corey Edmond and UK high performance guru Erik Korem in her import to the players, especially his players.

"Her getting these guys to eat correctly — gain weight if they need to gain or lose weight if they need to lose — that's a huge, huge task for dealing with my group because they like to eat," he said of UK's offensive linemen.

"She does such a great job with it, those guys don't complain."

If individual players need to gain weight, she's the one making their morning shakes and packing their sacked snacks to take to classes.

Fowler, along with a small army of dietetic interns, gets up before the sun to prepare snacks for the UK players to pick up before they start their school day.

She has binders full of player likes and dislikes near lists of foods she's allowed to serve them according to lengthy NCAA mandates.

Most mornings groups of players sit around tables in her kitchen area of the Nutter Training Center, televisions in the background watching SportsCenter's Top 10 plays.

"It's like I have a big house full of sons I'm taking care of," said Fowler, who has two grown children of her own. "It's actually really, really fun. ... When they're all in here, it's a nice place to be.

"These are great guys. I'd take any of them home and adopt any of them, even the worst ones," she joked.

Sometimes they help her out, too. Recently quarterback Maxwell Smith helped her figure out how to fix her phones so the apps wouldn't keep draining her battery so fast.

Players leave for class, but her day is usually just beginning.

Most players have her cell phone number and use it regularly.

There are frantic texts from in front of vending machines. Players take a picture to ask: "Is there anything I'm allowed to eat in here?"

She's memorized the menus of most restaurants in town so she can advise when she gets the inevitable text about what's a good choice.

"I get a lot of texts," Fowler said. "Sometimes they forget that I actually go to bed at a reasonable hour and sometimes I'll wake up and have missed four or five texts from somebody saying: 'What can I do here?' and 'What can I do there?'"

She walks groups of players through Kroger, teaching how to read food labels, talking about foods that fuel them, protect them and build them.

This summer, she learned that most players didn't know there was a difference between ground beef that was 75 percent lean and 95 percent lean.

"They always just bought the cheapest ground beef," she explained. "They were all just so shocked."

Fowler is always around the various campus training tables, where the athletes eat their meals. Often a work day starts before 6 a.m. and ends after dinner, where she'll walk through lines with players talking about building a better plate.

Then she'll sit around a table with groups of players and hear about their days.

"She probably works more than anyone in the whole athletic department," said Korem, the High Performance coach. "And that's not an exaggeration. ... She's been a huge part of what we're doing."

It's not always easy convincing a 320-pound player to eat lima beans instead of tater tots.

"The hardest part is when somebody eats broccoli tonight, they're not going to be a super hero on the field tomorrow," Fowler said. "Nutrition changes happen slowly over time and when you're 19 or 20 years old, you're really impatient."

But as players' bodies have changed in the past year because of the work of people like Fowler, they've been more receptive to change.

They've even been willing to try foods they were skeptical of before. Sometimes it takes a few test shots of it to sway them.

"If they will eat this, they will like it," she told herself of the lentil soup.

Thus Fowler and her tiny, plastic shot glasses placed into oversized hands.

She couldn't help but smile a few weeks ago when she was standing in line at the dining area and heard a football player proclaim: "Yay, it's lentil soup day!"

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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