Fueling the Bears’ fire: Meet nutrition guru Jennifer Gibson

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Bears nutritionist and sports-science coordinator Jenn Gibson. (Bears)

The “Kyle Long special” includes chocolate protein, oatmeal and either almond butter or peanut butter. The ingredients make up his go-to shake that he takes home after long days at Halas Hall.

“It is like my favorite thing in the world,” Long said. “So when I get that pre-dinner hunger, I crush that. It’s awesome.”

The shake is part of Long’s personal plan with Jennifer Gibson, the Bears’ dietician and sports-science coordinator.

In just over a year on the job, Gibson has become an integral part of the Bears’ behind-the-scenes efforts to get the best and most from Bears players under general manager Ryan Pace. She’s first full-time dietician hired by the team, but also much more: the first woman to work in the Bears’ football operations.

* * *

Positioned a row higher and just two staff members over from coach John Fox, Gibson smiled with the rest of the team in front of Halas Hall.

Afterward, when told that she was the first woman to appear in the official team picture, she didn’t believe it. But a look at every team picture on the walls of Halas Hall confirmed it.

“It was a pretty unique moment to realize that,” Gibson said in an interview with the Sun-Times.

Women have made significant strides in the NFL recently, and Gibson is part of them.

Jen Welter became the NFL’s first female coach when she hired by the Cardinals as an intern for their 2015 training camp and preseason. Last August, the Jets promoted Jacqueline Davidson to director of football administration. In January, the Bills named Kathryn Smith a quality-control coach for special teams, making her the NFL’s first full-time female coach.

“Every time there’s a female hired, you’re kind of like ‘Yeah!’ ” Gibson said. “But it definitely takes a certain personality to want to do this.”

Pace wasn’t thinking about making history when he and Fox decided to recruit her away last year from the U.S. Olympic team, where she was a senior sport dietitian and applied physiologist.

A fitness freak who competes in triathlons, he wanted to overhaul and modernize the Bears’ health, fitness and training programs, and he remembered what Gibson did for the New Orleans Saints while he was in their front office.

“I knew how good she is,” Pace said. “She’s intelligent. She’s driven. She’s really passionate about what she does.”

Pace first learned about Gibson in an article he randomly came across while researching ways to revamp the Saints’ methods. He was so impressed by what he read that he fired off a blind email, as he called it, to Gibson. It turned into dinner meeting that included Saints coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis.

Halfway through dinner, discussions became less about picking Gibson’s brain, but more about how they could hire her.

For the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Gibson served as a consultant, overhauling the Saints’ cafeteria, building a recovery shake area and creating a nutrition plan where there wasn’t one before.

“As time has gone on, the whole sports-science, nutrition, dietician aspect of what we do has become more and more important,” Pace said.

As the Bears’ sports-science coordinator, Gibson monitors new developments in the health and fitness world that can benefit players. But she also is an essential part of a major collaborative effort under Pace.

When new players arrive, Gibson receives briefings from the scouting department before meeting with them, then communicates often with coaches about players’ needs and goals.

“It’s definitely a collaboration with our young rookies because [the coaches are] still trying to feel them out and see where they want to go,” Gibson said.

Gibson works closely with head trainer Nate Breske and strength coach Jason George on nearly everything.

“We are all building the Bears program together,” she said.

* * *

Gibson can’t take credit for quarterback Jay Cutler’s improved health and fitness. That began years ago with his wife, former reality TV star Kristin Cavallari.

“Kristin has been the catalyst,” Cutler said. “It starts at home. If you’re not eating well at home, then you really don’t have a chance here [at Halas Hall].”

But Cutler, Long and many other players consult with Gibson on what they’re putting in their bodies.

“We more went into the science of things,” Cutler said. “It’s how my body reacts during practice, during games. That’s where our focus is.”

Gibson, who’s from Toronto, brings a world of experiences to the Bears after working with Olympic medalists on the U.S. and Canadian teams from 2006 to 2015. She designed nutrition plans for U.S. athletes in boxing, wrestling, judo, tae kwon do, diving, gymnastics and synchronized swimming, and she worked for Canada during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Her high-profile clients include former NBA star Kobe Bryant.

Working in different sports prepared her for the NFL. Position groups have different needs, and players vary within those groups. Gibson maintains a long-term vision instead of just a performance-based outlook.

“Injury prevention is the name of our game,” Gibson said. “It’s basically looking at the small little edges we can incorporate to get the little extra bits of performance out of our guys that is going to keep them on the field longer, keep them out of the training room, keep them healthy.”

Gibson won’t divulge state secrets, but in general, she said it’s important for players who run more to eat more carbohydrates and to stay hydrated. For linemen, the goal is to keep mass and protein levels high because of the constant contact.

“You want to keep that muscle repaired and their armor more dense,” she said.

The biggest benefit is how Gibson individualizes plans. Long, one of about 20 players with custom shakes, said Gibson has provided him with structure. He was missing too many meals.

“I’d eat huge dinners and it would just sit in my belly, and I would have a little pooch in the morning,” Long said. “She’s made it easy, and I know of guys who work with her in that regard.

Cutler said he spends most of his time with Gibson going over green juices, vegetables and immune boosters.

“We’re just trying to really zero my sugars in during game time and make sure they’re at a prime number for me to be able to perform,” said Cutler, who has Type-1 diabetes. “She did an unbelievable job of doing that and making sure that each and every game, we’re right where we want it to be.”

Over the years, Gibson has seen athletes become more knowledgeable about their nutrition and eating habits, which makes pushback from players minimal.

Pace said players trust her.

“There are some guys that I work with [where] we work through every single gram of everything,” Gibson said. “And then there’s guys you’re just saying to them, ‘Have you ever tried pistachios before?’ Can we incorporate a little bit more healthy fat into your diet for anti-inflammatory purposes?’ If they just try something new, that could be a dramatic change.”

* * *

Long said he connects with Gibson because she’s a fighter. Before becoming a dietician for Olympians, Gibson competed in an amateur North American kickboxing league.

What began as workouts with a cousin when she was 17 turned into five fights — and she won them all.

“I was just doing it for just doing it,” she said. “It was fun.”

Gibson attributes her love of food to her Italian heritage and her love of sports to her upbringing, with parents who “never ever told me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.” In school, she played volleyball and softball and ran cross country. She’s an avid cyclist and has a competitive side.

“She shares mentality that a lot of us have,” Long said.

It shows up differently now. Gibson fuels the players. At Halas Hall, she’s in charge of breakfast, lunch, snacks and shakes. There are pre- and post-game meals to arrange and menus to plan for training camp.

During practices, Gibson has various nutritional drinks ready. Before and during games, she monitors players’ hydration and energy levels.

The days of post-game team pizza have ended. Anything players put in their bodies can become an advantage.

“That post-game meal can be a weapon for us in terms of recovery,” Gibson said. “For me, I know the science behind that moment, and I’m like, ‘We can’t let this opportunity go to waste.’ ”

If players want to have “fun foods,” Gibson said it must come on their own dime.

“It’s important that we get it right because we’re fueling our assets,” Gibson said. “Sixty to 75 percent of their body is being fueled by us [in the season], especially performance-wise.”

Gibson knows what the end results can be.

“What happens on the field,” Gibson said, “is the most important thing.”

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