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A Pro Athlete’s Nutrition On & Off The Field – Interview With Vance Johnson

Last spring, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people transitioned to much more sedentary work-from-home jobs, and with that, there has been an increase in the attention many are now paying to their diet. It’s no secret that work-from-home jobs bring new challenges such as overeating, constant snacking, and a more lax workout routine. However, with many starting to transition back to in-office jobs, it can be challenging to fall back into more normal, active lifestyles and improving unhealthy eating habits.

While it may seem unlikely, the situation that many are facing right now is not unlike that of former National Football League wide receiver, Vance Johnson. Vance played in the NFL from 1985 to 1995, where he played alongside legendary quarterback John Elway and assisted the Denver Broncos in three Super Bowl appearances in the 80s. Vance played alongside fellow Broncos wide receivers Ricky Nattiel and Mark Jackson earning the nickname “The Three Amigos.” In his 11 seasons, Vance recorded 415 receptions for 5,695 yards and 37 touchdowns.

Vance Johnson Recovery CenterVance’s story mimics much of the ongoing struggle many have with diet and nutrition. Shortly after leaving the league in 1995, Vance stopped working out and dieting altogether, causing his health to take a turn for the worst. Vance began to gain weight, causing him to have numerous hospital visits; and after battling with serious alcohol and pill addiction, has since reclaimed his mental, and physical health, and has transitioned to a healthy diet and lifestyle. Vance currently serves as a rehabilitation ambassador with Oglethorpe INC, where he uses his past experiences to help others at facilities like the Vance Johnson Recovery Center.

Vance sat down with Pain Resource in a recent interview to talk specifically about his diet and how it has changed over the years from a professional athlete to where he is today.

Pain Resource: So first and foremost, I’d love to hear about your diet when you were in the NFL. What was a typical day for you in regards to what you ate?

Vance Johnson: Well, interesting enough, in the NFL and especially in training camp, they had a specific [food] line that they would allow certain athletes on the team to get into. This is because there was a certain type of food and a certain calorie count that they wanted them to intake. They also went as far as to provide a certain type of sugar that they wanted them to have in their system. And while they didn’t show us’ how to do that necessarily, we got used to it pretty quickly because [food] was something that we had to focus on as players. So my diet was a lot of red meat and foods that were rich in vitamin C and vitamin D. For guys like me who played out wide, it was my job to be fast and get open, so those types of food helped ensure I would have more energy. So that was important for our diet. Then there were bigger guys like the offensive or defensive linemen that played positions that required a diet that would help keep them at a certain weight. However, some of the guys who were more ‘overweight’ offensive or defensive lineman had to get in the lines with the smaller guys like myself because they wanted them to lose weight. And then off the field, sometimes we would just splurge because that’s how we were in our twenties. And so I can tell now, looking back, that was a huge thing for the NFL to be able to gauge how these young athletes were eating their foods, but during the offseason, they made sure we came back early enough to get us back in the same routine we needed to get in. And that was also included with our diet. So that we’d be ready for the season because that was a big thing during your career, how you took care of yourself when it came to eating.

Pain Resource: You spoke to your diet as more like a wideout player. So that seems to me like, um, players are encouraged to kind of tailor those diets towards their specific need and use on the field. Correct?

Vance Johnson: Correct. When we would hit the weight room, we knew that there were certain exercises they would want us to do. It was as specific as knowing the number of reps you need to do for each one as well, along with a certain amount of time needed to do that throughout the week. So if they could get you to build a certain muscle; it was the same thing with your diet. And so when that becomes a habit, you carry that habit off the field too.

Pain Resource: A lot of NFL teams now have dieticians and nutritionists on staff. During your time with the Broncos, did you ever see a nutritionist or dietician, and if so, what was your experience with that?

Vance Johnson: That’s very interesting. That’s one thing that we did during some of the classes that we took. It wasn’t always just learning what play we were going to run, it was also learning about things that we needed to do in our lives off the field to increase our success on the field. So, yes, they had dieticians and doctors and different clinicians that spent time with us to talk about certain things like diet and nutrition. I don’t remember those because it was over 30 years ago for me. But I do remember being in those sessions and how they affected us. I always wanted to be the best athlete, so I always took advice from those kinds of people. A big factor in how I was able to maintain myself physically and mentally was because of that advice.

Pain Resource: You had mentioned earlier about players in the off-season “splurging”. That’s always something that seems to baffle people time and time again; ‘crazy’ professional athletes’ meals. For instance, Chad Johnson’s infamous love for McDonald’s, and Michael Phelps’s 12,000 calories a day Olympic diet. Was there a certain ‘cheat meal’ that you remember, or was there something that you couldn’t seem to shake out of your NFL diet?

Vance Johnson: You just reminded me of Kentucky fried chicken. My biggest habits were Kentucky Fried Chicken and also lots of sweets and pizza. So I would literally eat a whole pizza by myself. I wouldn’t share it with anybody. If I had anybody else that was going to eat pizza with me, I made sure I had a box of my own, and then I would go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. So those are the types of things that I remember splurging on when I was playing ball.

Pain Resource: Now, how would you offset such a heavy meal like that with such a regimented diet as you had in the NFL? Would you have to work extra hard the next day knowing that you’re gonna eat an entire pizza and KFC, or were you one of those athletes that would say, “Hey, eat what you want, as long as you work hard the next day?”

Vance Johnson ExerciseVance Johnson: Oh yeah. And so, so to me it’s like I mentioned when you work out, you’re working out so you can get a certain result. So, what I had to do was work out harder whenever I knew I was going to eat more than I should have been eating. And so that made me add an extra two or three hours onto my workout for the day. So I only usually have a two or three-hour workout, but when I ate like I ended up working out two or three hours in the morning and two or three hours at night. And I noticed how I burned all that off by doing that.

Pain Resource: Those days that you would have to work extra hard, would you say that it was worth it being able to eat what you wanted to eat? Or was that more of a strain on you having to work it off?

Vance Johnson: No, actually it was. It was worth it to me because then I felt like I was accomplishing something by working out harder than my other teammates. After all, I want to be better than them.

Pain Resource: I can imagine it was a sense of accomplishment knowing that you were still able to see those results and do what you wanted to do in your offtime. Do you remember yourself or any of your teammates that would adhere to a strict calorie count or was that not something that was necessarily worried about back then?

Vance Johnson: You know, interesting enough [diet] was something that was talked about whenever we met with different specialists that would come and talk to the athletes. And that’s how they gaged what they would allow us to eat during the season because they would manage what we ate during the season. So to answer that question, I do think certain guys played either wide receiver or running back who was specifically targeted on how many calories they were allowed to put into their body. They focused us on that so that we would remember just like we remembered a play; that way we would adhere to it.

Pain Resource: Switching gears to when you were getting out of the league, can you speak to your dietary needs as a pro athlete versus a more ‘normalized’ lifestyle?. Was there a major difference that you saw in transitioning from your NFL diet to a more ‘civilian’ diet

Vance Johnson: It was horrible. It was hard because I walked away from the game. I didn’t get cut, I didn’t get traded, I quit the NFL. My only coping was eating, and I gained a lot of weight. I went from 186 to 228 pounds in less than a year.

Pain Resource: You mentioned that was mostly due to eating but was there a lack of working out that contributed to that as well?

Vance Johnson: I didn’t work out at all. I stopped working out when I left the NFL and all I did was eat and drink. So now I ate sweets and drank all day, every day. And so I gained like 50 pounds because of that.

Pain Resource: So it sounds like you had a really hard time adjusting to a new diet and lifestyle then?

Vance Johnson: It was, it was almost impossible. I ended up in the hospital a couple of different times because of my health.

Pain Resource: Really. Can you speak to that? What were those instances?

Vance Johnson: There would be things happening inside of my stomach and inside of my lungs that forced me to go into the hospital several different times. Now, the doctors wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell me exactly what was happening some of those times. What they did, was they started putting me on pills, and those pills would take away my appetite. I didn’t even realize that that’s the reason why my diet changed is that they were putting me on pills that affected my eating habits.

Pain Resource: You would say then, in a sense that it was, the shock that your body went through of being so regimented in the NFL and, having to watch what you ate and work out so much to all of a sudden stopping was, almost unbearable?

“And for the last seven years, I’ve focused on, my body and my health…”

Vance Johnson: Yes. Because see, during my career, I worked out seven days a week, and then when I quit football, I hadn’t been working out at all. I gained so much weight. It was unbelievable.

Pain Resource: Wow. I’m sure a lot of people have probably been where you’ve been, or are trying to get to where you are now. And so maybe we could speak more to how you began to get out of that ‘rut’ so to speak, and how you transitioned into a healthier diet, and a better workout regimen?

Vance Johnson: Absolutely. It wasn’t until I had a chance to go back to go to treatment after I surrendered myself over to, and I have to be honest with you man, I’m a man of God. So when I, went back to my faith and I went to treatment, I started to go back to think about the things that I missed, and while being in treatment and talking to therapists and talking to doctors, they started to encourage me to go back to doing the things that I did when I wanted to be successful. So, for me, that was working out and taking care of my body and taking care of my mental health. That’s when it first started. This was only about seven years ago, by the way. So that’s when I went back to working out and it was the thing I missed most because I love being in shape.

Pain Resource: So that’s quite recently then?

Vance Johnson: Yes, very recently, and so now that’s all I do. And for the last seven years, I’ve focused on, my body and my health. I went back to eating, right as well. As far as the calories, what I’ve done is instead of eating the same foods and places I used to, I did Chick-fil-A Chick-fil-A once a day last year. Now it’s Canes, which has also taken the place of my meal because I only eat once a day now. I think vitamins as well, I take vitamins E, D3, Fish Oil and I take Iron every day.

Pain Resource: You said you did Chick Fil A every day last year? Now that’s been taken over by Canes once a day?

Vance Johnson: Yeah so in 2019 and 2020 I was at Chick-fil-A once a day. But now I only eat once a day. So I don’t eat breakfast and I don’t eat dinner. I eat one time between 11 and noon every day.

Pain Resource: What does that meal look like then? I know you mentioned you’ll do Canes quite often, but what might a meal consist of? Is there a structure to it? Maybe some staples that you stick to?

Vance Johnson: I’ll eat chicken and french fries, or some type of potato, then I’ll take my vitamins. I’ll splurge once in a while and eat some M&M’s.

Pain Resource: Were there any other supplements or foods that you’ve tried over the years that maybe didn’t work out necessarily or ones that you wouldn’t recommend?

Vance Johnson: Yeah. Oh, interesting you said that. I’ve cut out bread completely.

Pain Resource: Is that due to some kind of gluten intolerance?

Vance Johnson: I couldn’t speak to that side of it, but all I knew was that it worked. I don’t know why or what the benefits exactly are, but all I knew was it started to benefit me.

Pain Resource: So you’re still not doing bread to this day?

Vance Johnson: To this day no, I haven’t eaten bread for the last seven years. And, oh man I almost lied to myself just now, I just now started eating candy again. I didn’t eat candy for about five or six years, but this was my first year that I went back to eating M&Ms. I also just started to include peanut butter and honey back into my diet, because I haven’t had those in the last seven years or so either.

Pain Resource: In a sense, it almost sounds like you might be a bit more regimented now than you were in the league. Do you think that’s true or do you feel about the same as you did back then?

Vance Johnson: Yes, absolutely yes that’s true, because my mental health is coming back, and your diet affects your mental health.

Pain Resource: A lot of people may not link those two together, but trying to focus on what you put into your body can be tough when you’re not in good mental health; especially for a person who may not be as active as they should.

Vance Johnson: You’re right. That was something they [NFL] told us also is in the off-season. If you’re not going to be working out, you need to focus more on what you eat.

Pain Resource: Is there any advice you could give to someone who may be looking to change their diet or anything that has just been a real help for you in your journey over the last seven years?

Vance Johnson: I think I would just tell people that they need to focus on their [mental] health. That’s probably the most important thing. And for any athlete, especially when you’re young, the most important thing is to focus on your health, because when you’re healthy you’re not only healthy physically, but you’re healthy mentally. When we lean on different types of food and we don’t focus on the types of things we’re eating, it leads more to the trauma that can happen to us physically and mentally when we get older; especially if you don’t focus on the things that you eat of course. It’s just like they would tell me when I was an athlete, “if you want to be successful, then you need to listen to and focus on the things we tell you to do like working out and getting on a regimen and stick to it.” That’s how you’re going to reach those goals, and it’s the same when it comes to our eating habits course.

Pain Resource: Lastly, we love what you’re doing out in Vegas with the Vance Johnson Recovery Center; you all are doing some incredible work over there. Do diet and nutrition play a factor in what you do there or any of the facilities that you’re an ambassador for

Vance Johnson: Interestingly enough, it’s a really important thing for us because we only do certain types of meals for people when they come into the center of treatment. At Vance Johnson Recovery Center we cater the food and we don’t cater foods that we know aren’t healthy for our patients. I’m glad you brought this up because I know how important that is, and I work out with patients sometimes.

Pain Resource: And do you notice that it makes a big impact on your patients?

Vance Johnson: It makes a huge impact. Especially for guys who come in who used to be athletes who want to be encouraged to go back to taking care of themselves the way they used to because it’s harder to recover. It’s not just learning how to stop drinking, but it’s about learning how to get back on track to goals that you had when you were younger and a lot of that has to do with your body and how you take care of it.

For a full list of diets and food choices for people struggling with chronic pain, search our website to read more.

In our last interview with Vance, he discussed his fight with addiction and mental health.

If you are a loved one needs help with behavioral health or drug & alcohol addiction, please find a facility that can can help as soon as possible.

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