OXNARD — "I eat what I feel like," boomed Henry Lawrence in his resonant bass voice when the Los Angeles Raiders' giant offensive lineman was queried about his food choices. "And I do eat a big meal--once in a while."
The 270-pound, broad-shouldered tackle, who's a 12-year veteran of the National Football League, spoke about food while rambling off the team's practice field here with his distinctive regal gait.
Although food seemed to be an enjoyable subject for the popular, 6-foot, 4-inch Lawrence, he was somewhat reluctant to confirm the myth that football players have notoriously large appetites.
Before assuming that the Raiders, with their tough, street-fighter image, are laden with voracious eaters, it's worth noting that Lawrence's free-wheeling attitude about consumption is tempered by a strong aversion to pork because "it doesn't have a great deal of nutritional value."
Known to be the first to arrive and the last to leave the players' dinning room, Lawrence further reveals that occasionally he piles his plate with much more food than he actually eats.
"Sometimes my eyes are just bigger than my stomach," he said, after, in part, denying that he was the team chow hound. Instead, Lawrence nominated the 170-pound wide receiver, Cliff Branch, as a one-time human garbage disposal who "ate like he had tapeworms, but slowed down in recent years."
Lawrence's thoughts on food, along with those of a dozen of his teammates, were collected during the Raiders' recently completed training camp here at the Oxnard Hilton. The comments provide a unique insight into what some of professional sports' largest and most powerful athletes think about food and diet today.
Many of these players, who make a living tossing similarly oversized individuals around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, have altered their eating habits during the past several years more toward moderation than excess.
In particular, the common trait among a large number of players is the decision to cut down or eliminate red meats from their diets. Consequently, the days when some were known to eat "whole animals" have gone the way of the leather helmet.
However, someone weighing close to 300 pounds builds an appetite throughout the course of the average practice day, when the daily morning and afternoon workouts total about five hours of strenuous activity, including physical contact.
So, when the Raiders are ready for lunch, lunch had better be ready for the Raiders.
Unmistakably, the sight of several dozen players descending upon the buffet line is impressive. Oddly enough, the seven weeks of pre-season training camp are virtually the only time during the football season when the team eats as a group.
The scene is not one of a feeding frenzy with chicken bones, corn cobs or apple cores flying across the room. In fact, the atmosphere in the hotel banquet room, which serves as the dining area for the team, is subdued. Hotel employees state that the only incidents approaching unruliness were occasional outbursts of good-natured yelling and the few times Lawrence entered the room singing a few bars from his nightclub repertoire.
Nevertheless, the businesslike atmosphere is noticeably divorced from most other buffets prepared here by the fact that the portions are immense, many of the players are even larger and some of the plates strain under the load.
A typical afternoon or evening meal will feature two entrees, two hot vegetable side dishes, tossed greens, whole fruit, chopped fruit, soup, rolls, dessert and beverages. The meals are thus standard in appearance. It's the amounts that indicate the special nature of the dinner patrons.
The quantities for a single meal feeding the 60 to 70 players, coaches and support personnel on hand at one point during training camp might include 100 steaks, 200 chickens, 50 pounds of potatoes, 70 pounds of fruit, 15 gallons of cola, 20 gallons of punch, 5 gallons of soup, 24 heads of lettuce and 15 gallons of ice cream, according to members of the Hilton's kitchen staff.
The quantities are more than three times what would be served to the same number of nearby Port Hueneme Kiwanis Club members.
"This is the most unusual group we've ever had," said Sarah Wasylewski, the Hilton banquet room manager in charge of the Raiders' training table. Wasylewski said the amounts of food consumed by some players is amazing, despite some team members' tendency to downplay the issue.
"They're big people and giants in the regular world," said Larry Kennan, a Raiders assistant coach. "They eat more than me, and I consider myself an average guy. There are some people who might be in awe of their consumption. But the players burn off a lot of energy."
Running back Cle Montgomery speculates that the number of big eaters has not necessarily declined. The players that inhale food tend to hide it by "sneaking it in with seconds and thirds and don't make a big deal of it," he said.