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Georgia’s Donnell Gresham Jr. (0) makes a shot. The University of Georgia men’s basketball team hosted Georgia Tech to win by a score of 82-78 on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

Graduate transfer Donnell Gresham Jr. spoke to University of Georgia Athletic Association Director of Sports Nutrition Jana Heitmeyer prior to coming to campus in summer 2019. Heitmeyer doesn’t usually speak to new athletes before their arrival, but Gresham’s nutrition situation is rare for a college basketball player. He’s vegan.

“[Veganism] is not usually something people stick with, so when I talked to him, it was like ‘Why are you doing this?’” Heitmeyer said. “[I] was just trying to get a feel for how committed he was.”

Gresham made the transition to a strictly plant-based diet before joining the Georgia men’s basketball team for his final year of eligibility. When head coach Tom Crean heard about Gresham’s veganism, he said he didn’t mind, as he’s had vegan players in the past.

Crean was more focused on the type of basketball player he was getting. When bringing in a class of nine freshmen, Gresham’s experience was needed.

“We needed maturity, and he was a winner,” Crean said. “He fit what we wanted, character-wise.”

Gresham’s character and maturity has played out on the court and off, especially with the changes in his diet — which he takes seriously.

Making the switch

After researching on the internet and consulting with friends, Gresham bought into a vegan diet. It was difficult finding options he could eat, but he found himself more comfortable as he became educated about the particulars surrounding veganism.

The main reason Gresham decided to switch his diet was to make the recovery process easier on his body.

He has had problems with aching bones and joints, as well as upset stomachs. He wanted his body to feel better and be able to last longer in practice and games.

Although a season-ending injury to his hand forced him to redshirt in his sophomore year at Northeastern, Gresham said no major injuries played into his decision to go vegan.

“I just wanted to try something different,” Gresham said. “[Veganism] has helped me so far, so I can’t complain.”

Gresham still had to let his family know about the decision to change his diet. When he told them, they didn’t quite understand why. Gresham said eating meat is so normalized that anything that diverges from that was questioned.

It took some convincing.

“The more I showed them what I’m eating and telling them that I’m feeling better, they’re kind of trying some of the things I eat and seeing it’s not that bad,” Gresham said.

Being accommodated for when he’s home for the holidays is one thing, but balancing a proper diet with practice, weightlifting and the game schedule is a different case. Heitmeyer and her nutrition staff have been a valuable asset for Gresham.

Searching for protein

The typical calorie count for players on the men’s basketball team is close to 4,000 calories per day. Gresham makes that mark but does it by eating more food because he isn’t able to eat the calorie-dense foods that the rest of the Bulldogs do. Meeting the protein goal is the most difficult task for Heitmeyer and her five-person staff.

To start his day, Gresham has oatmeal, fruit and a vegan protein shake for breakfast. For lunch, he goes to the Georgia Center, where he’s served a personal meal. His lunch could span from a stir fry with beans to a pasta dish. It depends on what’s made for him. He repeats the same process as lunch for dinner.

For snacks, Heitmeyer and her staff will make sure Gresham has options in the locker room and in his room that are easily accessible. Their diet plan for Gresham seems to be paying off.

From the beginning to the end of the summer, Gresham added nine pounds of muscle mass. Heitmeyer said that was a positive start for Gresham, and it showed that on top of the weightlifting he was doing, he was also getting the nutrients he needed. That all started with Gresham and Heitmeyer’s phone call.

Heitmeyer started by taking Gresham to lunch in dining halls to find the various dietary possibilities. They would also go to the grocery store Earth Fare to look at potential alternatives for when Gresham needs a snack or wishes to cook.

More problems begin to crop up when Georgia goes to a road game. Heitmeyer said the options when traveling to SEC cities would be different than the foods one would find in places like California. 

Heitmeyer tries to stay extra prepared to combat the change in location. When the Bulldogs traveled to Starkville, Mississippi, for a matchup with Mississippi State on Jan. 18, they went to eat at a barbeque restaurant. For Gresham to get his fill, they needed to find a place that could offer him something he could eat, whether it’s tofu, beans, vegetables or all of the above.

“When I’m trying to accomodate all of the specific preferences on the team, [vegan] is not necessarily an option [at most restaurants],” Heitmeyer said. “Really it’s just a matter of us planning ahead. It requires us to sometimes take extra trips and go to the store.”

Luckily for Heitmeyer, Gresham isn’t picky and has been easy to work with.

Not the only transition

Besides changing his diet, Gresham moved more than 1,000 miles from Boston to Athens to join the rebuilding Georgia basketball program. Playing in the SEC is just another life change Gresham has gone through over the past year.

Gresham spent the first seasons of his career in the Colonial Athletic Association conference with Northeastern. Gresham finished ranked No. 2 all-time in 3-point percentage at Northeastern, shooting 43.6% from behind the arc.

3-pointers are not hard to find in the SEC, but Gresham said the biggest difference for him is the speed.

“The SEC has a lot of better athletes,” Gresham said. “There’s a quicker pace getting up and down the floor, high scoring. Everyone’s an athlete. Everyone can run and jump at a higher level.”

With the speed and the athleticism on display in the SEC, recovery and proper nutrition are supremely important. Gresham has felt improved recovery from his decision, and it will help with the grind of bi-weekly SEC games.

After having her reservations about his dedication to veganism before he stepped onto campus, Heitmeyer is fully convinced.

“He’s by far the most committed to it I’ve ever seen,” she said.

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