It's clear from spending even a few minutes with the University of Wisconsin football team's strength and conditioning coach, Ben Herbert, that while he's a prodigious talker, he also loves to communicate visually.
A couple of years ago, he bought two plants for the McClain Center weight room. He fed one, which he named the Governor, plenty of water and Miracle-Gro and it predictably flourished. The second, known as the Deacon, instead received Doritos, Oreos, frozen pizza, whiskey and beer. When players asked Herbert about the plants, he pointed them to descriptions he had written for each. The Deacon soon started to emit such a foul odor they had to evict it from the facility.
"Training isn't just about benching and squatting and working on flexibility," Herbert says. "It starts with how well [players] take care of themselves. Whether it's Johnny off the street or a high-end Division I athlete, I can change the way he feels and performs whatever duty he has with how well he hydrates, the types of foods he puts into his system and the amount of sleep he gets."
Herbert's name has come up quite a bit during the last few weeks due to the physical transformation some players achieved with an 88-day summer training period. Receiver Nick Toon put on 11 pounds of lean muscle. Tailback Montee Ball dropped 25 pounds and says he's faster and making quicker cuts. And guard Travis Frederick squatted 730 pounds, a feat that led head coach Bret Bielema to call him a "freak of nature."
But trying to talk with Herbert about feats of strength in the weight room is fruitless. He'll inevitably bring the conversation back to his main challenge: getting a bunch of college guys ready to compete at a high level not just by getting stronger, but by eating right and getting enough sleep.
"People have a lot of different images of college football and what the environment is all about," Herbert says. "It's not this meathead mentality. It's about balance. It's not protein, protein, protein, creatine [an energy supplement]." He sees his job as "managing the college lifestyle, because that's the biggest difference from any other environment."
Herbert, who played defensive end for the Badgers from 1998 to 2001 and looks like he could still menace a quarterback, has a job that is equal parts strength coach, motivational speaker, psychologist and nutritionist. He uses a variety of tools to connect with the players: a replica wrestling championship belt, slogans like "every day, every detail" and using the Deacon to address one of his nemeses: the frozen pizza. Herbert tells his players that there's nothing wrong with frozen pizza, just not twice a day, five days a week. Instead he preaches a natural approach, pointing to an array of ingredients arranged on the floor of his office.
"Good food takes time to prepare. It takes money, and you have to be consistent because it doesn't have a shelf life," he says. "We make a lot of ground up with shakes, but it's not this miracle protein powder that you're going to go buy at a health foods store."
Herbert's shake is simple to shop for and simple to make, and the players actually enjoy it. The same goes for a box full of snack packets he keeps in the corner of his office. They contain what appears to be gummy-style candy; he hands one over.
"We also use these Berry Bites, which contain extracts from elderberry, chokeberry, black raspberry and blueberry," he says. "I like things that become self-administering. Tell me you wouldn't eat these every day. They have the antioxidant equivalent of two cups of fresh elderberry. And they remind you of when you were a kid."
When discussing long-term goals for the players, Herbert obviously stresses preparing them for making football a career. But he's almost an evangelist for healthy living, aside from football.
"I just try to take baby steps. I'll really feel successful when I walk up to the Farmers' Market and see a dozen of our guys walking around taking advantage of how special that is. We're not there yet, but we're getting there."
Ingredients can include:
- frozen berry blend
- peanut butter
- chocolate or skim milk
- tart cherry juice
- applesauce that contains the peel ("One also has peach, mango, pumpkin and carrot and one has four different berry extracts. We always look for color spectrum.")
- organic and local kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, garlic