As the white plastic spoon inched closer to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s lips, he paused.
“I’m scared to try this; I’m not gonna lie,” the freshman said of the Cajun stew with rice that he’d just helped prepare with a few of his new friends at Kentucky’s Nutrition Lab.
Maybe it was the cauliflower or the quarter cup of Cajun seasoning involved.
Or maybe it was just that the guard had seen the controlled chaos from which the stew was created.
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Some 25 new freshman athletes, including Gilgeous-Alexander, had been divided into small groups and handed a recipe with all necessary ingredients. They had 30 minutes to make a nutritious meal that would feed the group.
Disposable Gatorade cups sometimes were used as measuring cups, a bag of shrimp was tossed from one player to the next like a softball.
There was celery chopping in between smiling selfies.
It was all a part of a new program launched for freshman athletes on campus this summer called “My New Kentucky Home.”
The nutrition lab is one small part of the eight-week series designed to help UK’s newcomers get to know campus, each other, the athletics program and other things they didn’t even know they needed to know.
For Monica Fowler, UK Athletics’ registered dietician, the goal is to help freshmen learn that they can make a nutritious meal in less than 30 minutes.
“At most other schools, they just have somebody cater in a meal, have it brought in,” Fowler said. “So what we decided is this is part of your training. And we expect you to eat right, so we’re going to teach you how to make that happen.”
Regularly, Fowler hears athletes lament, “I don’t have time to cook.” That’s where these quick-hit meals come in.
“The idea is to show them that it takes them longer to drive somewhere and get something to eat than it does to cook something healthy at home,” she said.
A different Cajun dish — Cajun chicken pasta — is something freshman quarterback Walker Wood learned how to prepare recently.
“I will continue to make that one,” he smiled.
For freshman Dorie Harrison, it’s chicken lettuce wraps.
“I love to cook,” the women’s basketball player said. “But I’ve never cooked healthy stuff like this.”
And it’s not always just about supplementing the diets of these 66 incoming freshman athletes from every team on campus.
“Not only are we teaching the skill sets, but creating an environment where they’re forced to work with people that they normally wouldn’t,” said Stephanie Simmons, an associate athletics director who launched the program at Kentucky this summer. “You’re creating a relationship. Meals are where that tends to happen.”
‘It’s been really helpful’
Just down the long hall from the kitchen is a separate seminar with the same intent: bringing freshman athletes together and teaching them things they might not learn in the classroom or on the field.
On this day in early July, UK’s leadership guru, Jason Cummins, is giving a seminar on “owning your outcome.”
Cummins draws on his past military experience to tell stories about rising to the occasion and not just fumbling for excuses when adversity hits.
“We want to build a culture of leaders of leaders,” he says to open his segment.
“Every single one of you is a leader,” Cummins adds before showing them a series of short video clips that had 30 eyes wide by the end. “You always have the opportunity to influence someone in your life.”
UK Athletics administrators kept hearing from Cats coaches about freshmen lacking leadership skills, about them not being ready for the myriad challenges that come with being a student-athlete.
“I remember my own parents dropping me off at college for preseason and that elevator door shutting and me being like, ‘Now what?’” Simmons laughed.
That’s where the My New Kentucky Home project comes in. It’s a bridge that connects high school and college.
Later at his seminar, Cummins is joined by Mark Hill, Kentucky football’s head strength and conditioning coach.
But Hill isn’t there to discuss proper lifting technique in the weight room.
A former college wide receiver at Chattanooga, Hill wants to talk about financial accountability and social media responsibility.
“Ever had a friend that did something so stupid it made you smarter?” Hill asked the group as he tells the story of his own friend who spent all but $200 of his $1,306 Pell Grant check on a massive gold necklace and new television.
For his part, Hill cashed his check, asking for seven $100 bills and the rest in twenties.
“So I can look at it,” he smiled. “And I just sat there and looked at it. I didn’t put it in the bank, put it in my closet.”
Hill drew from his own experiences to discuss saving cost-of-attendance checks and developing a budget. It most likely was a familiar topic for the freshmen, who had a session two weeks before on saving and banking from an assistant business manager for athletics.
Those topics were especially interesting to Harrison, the women’s basketball player.
“A lot of us have never had that much money at one time,” she said, acknowledging that at first she worried this new program was just another in a long list of requirements forced on athletes.
“I thought it was just another responsibility I had to check off the list, something extra I had to do,” Harrison said, “but it’s been really helpful to me.”
There are seminars on personal branding, time management, academic integrity, social media, roommate etiquette, recovery methods for athletes and more. Almost all of them are run by a member of the UK Athletics staff from business managers to facilities and event managers.
Several of the seminars — like the ones in Fowler’s nutrition lab — are interactive and social. There was a recent scavenger hunt around campus where teams raced to checkpoints and took a group selfie there. It’s helped build connections.
“I’ve met volleyball players and swimmers and others here,” Harrison said. “This is our 2021 class and you start to recognize faces and you get to meet people, which makes it more like home.”
Their new Kentucky home.