Then , an Olympic swimmer turned holistic specialist, began to police the players’ diets when her husband, Luke, was hired last season as the Jaguars’ strength and conditioning coach.
Many factors are feeding into the resurgence of the Jaguars, who host the (6-6) on Sunday. They are 7-5 and lead the A.F.C. South nearly a year after losing their last four games by an average of 10 ½ points to finish 7-9, the division’s worst record.
The team has been infused with young blood — 24 of the Jaguars were not in the league in 2008. It has also benefited from the unexpected mediocrity of its division, epitomized by the , who are 7-6 after reaching the last season.
Quarterback David Garrard and running back Maurice Jones-Drew are having marvelous seasons. Garrard is tied with New England’s for the conference lead with a 66.8 percent completion rate, and Jones-Drew has strung together five 100-yard rushing games, including one for 186 yards on 31 carries last Sunday at Tennessee.
Players like tight end and defensive tackle changed their diets and helped alter the team’s chemistry. Under Nall Richesson’s supervision, Lewis lost his taste for pineapple upside-down cake and soda, and started craving salads and feasting on red-zone defenses. He has a career-high 8 touchdown catches and 41 receptions.
“I would credit at least half my production to the work I’ve done with Anita on nutrition and Luke in the weight room,” Lewis said.
Jack Del Rio, who is in his eighth season as the Jaguars’ coach, said: “Luke and his wife have done a great job helping our guys fuel themselves. What our guys are putting in their system is giving them more energy.”
Nall Richesson, a breaststroker, won gold, silver and bronze medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in Spain at age 16. She then endured several years of poor health that compromised her performance in the pool. Her search for answers for the illnesses that stumped her doctors sent her down the path of examining food as not only fuel, but also medicine and led to her business, .
One day last week, the 5-foot-5 Nall Richesson, who is as slender as a carrot stick, bounded into the cafeteria to examine the lunch fare, including gluten-free pasta and a red sauce with no artificial preservatives. The cookie buffet is gone, and in its place are fruit and gluten-free snack bars.
At the smoothie bar, which has fresh fruit and honey but no sugar or dairy, a player was reading the ingredients on the cartons of coconut milk and almond milk. He is trying to gain weight and was looking to see which option contained more calories.
“When I see a guy reading a label, I get so excited,” Nall Richesson said.
“In football I don’t think there’s been a light shone on nutrition,” she added. “There’s a huge focus on weight, but the traditional thought process has been how big can you get in any way, shape or form.
“The challenge with these players is how can they fuel their bodies so they’re energetic and exuberant on the field without inviting the potential health hazards of what being big can bring.”
Lewis, 26, had never given much thought to what he ate. He was, in his words, a reckless eater, until he had a food sensitivity test and discovered his body has an intolerance to many of his favorite foods, including pineapple.
Dining out one night last week at a steakhouse near his downtown apartment, Lewis was careful about his order. He passed up steak for roasted chicken and asked for a side of green beans served dry, without butter. Lewis also ordered a shrimp appetizer and a sweet potato dish but passed on desert, eschewed soda for a glass of water with a slice of lemon, and limited himself to one piece of French bread instead of devouring the whole loaf, as he said he used to do.
“I recover faster,” said Lewis, who is carrying 254 pounds on his 6-6 frame, down from 275 at the start of the season. “I’m running better. I have more energy. And I’m still strong. This is Week 14 of the season and I feel good. That is ridiculous.”
Lewis, a former star from Southern California, did more than change his diet to improve his performance. He used to escape to Los Angeles immediately after the season to be near his mother, stepfather and three younger siblings, with whom he is close. The last two off-seasons, Lewis rededicated himself to football by remaining here so he could work out regularly with Garrard, a sacrifice far harder than forsaking sweets.