A College Football Season as a Vegetarian

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“You can put a piece of lettuce in one of the buns.”

I nervously chuckled in response to the woman’s suggestion. I wasn’t certain if she was kidding; her furrowed brow told me she wasn’t, and she did not appreciate me laughing at her suggestion. She looked to be in her late 60s, and I can only assume answering questions about vegetarian options at the stadium press box buffet was not high on her list of priorities, even if she was paid to oversee the smooth flow of sportswriters snagging free hot dogs.

Looks like one of those nights having coffee for dinner.

The 2017 college football season was about a month old. National championship contenders were starting to emerge from the pack of 130 FBS programs, while pretenders fell by the wayside with each passing Saturday.

My own goal of eating vegan died on a September Saturday, two months after I began. Eating vegan while traversing California freeways, raising a toddler, juggling numerous projects and spending every week in a press box with free food — almost all of which came from an animal — requires the kind of discipline and preparation that if I had, I would be in a different line of work.

Despite giving in and eating a grilled veggie sandwich on cheese foccacia before the Sept. 9 USC-Stanford game, I was committed to not eating meat. In college football parlance, I may have missed the Playoff, but a conference championship and New Year’s Six bowl remained in reach.

Giving up meat was a goal of mine since college, which I did ever-so-briefly my junior year. But temptation (and more so convenience) crept in. No meat turned into Just Fish after a few weeks. Just Fish became Fish and Poultry, No Mammals some time after that.

Then, I graduated and began my first full-time job as sports editor for a small, daily newspaper (Cheap Plug Alert: You can read more about that experience on Patreon), and all limitations I set myself quickly went out the window. My pay was not particularly great, and in walking distance of the newspaper office sat a Wienerschnitzel — a Wienerschnitzel at which the franchise owner offered substantial discounts to our staff.

In those nine months at that job, I estimate I ate enough hot dogs to fill three of the steamer trays from my earlier anecdote.

My first full-time media job taught me myriad invaluable lessons about the industry. Two were to never pass on free or inexpensive food, and that maintaining a meatless diet is an unnecessary headache.

Sports in general isn’t really the most welcoming realm for vegetarians. Tailgates rich in pork and beef products are as entrenched in the culture as marching bands and cheerleaders. College Gameday dedicates time to spotlight local cuisine, and Bud Light recently poked fun at a pregame vegetarian meal.

I get a laugh out of this, even if I frequent two vegetarian fast food joints in my neighborhood that make damn fine quinoa burgers.

Sports Illustrated national college football writer Andy Staples covers pork products almost as thoroughly as pigskin — and I would be lying if I didn’t admit a few of his #FoodPorn posts didn’t make my decision to give up meat easier.

But being steadfastly committed and actually being able to follow through on that commitment are not always congruent. Navigating through the college football season proved challenging. While I have to give props to USC, which always had substantial vegetarian options in the press box, as well as the Rose Bowl, things got dicey in other locations.

The Pac-12 Championship Game offered up three different kinds of sausages, as well as macaroni-and-cheese — the latter of which had more bacon in it than pasta.

Plenty of Saturday nights ended with me driving home in the wee hours, well after my typical quick options of Plant Power and Veggie Grill closed. Quinoa burgers aren’t hot sellers at 2 a.m., apparently.

You haven’t lived until you cruise home on a Sunday morning before the sun rises, eating a bag of mixed nuts from an AM/PM for dinner, on those occasions I couldn’t get to a 24-hour joint for a bean burrito. In those moments I rolled up on one of those spots, it only further underscored how stupid that taco truck on every corner comment really was.

This week marks six months without meat, which may not be that long in normal time, but has to count for several years in College Football Time. It’s a small thing; a personal choice, albeit one I’m proud to have seen through challenges. And I did so without ever once eating a hot dog bun filled with a piece of iceberg lettuce for dinner.