Heavy task faces freshman Missouri men's basketball player

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Missouri's John Underwood drives past Texas-Pan American's Ben Smith in a November game at Mizzou Arena. Underwood, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, weighed just 198 pounds when he arrived at MU.

COLUMBIA — It’s nearly 5 p.m. when John Underwood walks into Dobbs Pavilion dining hall, the place where he does his most important work.

He walks through the sliding doors to the all-you-can-eat-buffet that has the equipment necessary for him to complete his task. Like a construction worker arriving at the job site, he proceeds to pick up his tool belt, a green cafeteria tray, and heads over to the register to punch-in for work.

Underwood’s job is one that most people would envy. A freshman forward on the Missouri men's basketball team, he has been charged with the task of gorging himself with as much food as possible every day to fill out his thin 6-foot-9 inch, 208-pound frame. Eating food and gaining weight sounds easy enough, but for Underwood, who has a metabolism so fast he said he has lost weight after a meal, it is a complicated, yet necessary task. He needs the weight to compete against bigger and stronger centers around the Big 12.

Once inside, Underwood puts on his hard hat and picks out his building materials for the night. He begins with a serving of steamed green beans and carrots to serve as a foundation. Then three slices of roast beef to add sturdiness like bricks in a wall. Next comes the insulation, a scoop of mash potatoes. He paints his meal with gravy. He then heads over to the grill, where the final pieces await. It is a process that Underwood goes through every night. He doesn't plan to be finished for four years.

Once at the grill, he pauses and notices a friendly face at his construction site.

“You work back here now? Do you know how to work the grill?” Underwood teases.

It’s no surprise Underwood sees a friend. He has been to the dining hall so much, he knows everyone that works there. He finishes teasing the worker and picks out a sturdy roof, a double cheeseburger, to top off his project.

Sitting down, Underwood looks at his plate and grimaces at the roast beef and burger that tonight actually resemble building materials. He rarely complains about his meals, but based on the look of today’s food, even he complains. He admits he doesn’t want to eat the food and that he is really craving the chicken dinner from his father’s restaurant, Soulicious, a soul food restaurant near his hometown in Phoenix.

“Man, I miss it every time,” Underwood said. “There isn’t anything better.”

This is his second meal in an hour. Before he arrived at the dining hall, he ate three double cheeseburgers, a large order of fries and two apple pies from McDonalds. He also drank two protein shakes earlier in the afternoon. Underwood admits he is full, but that doesn’t matter, hunger rarely plays a role in his work anyway. He picks up his fork and knife and starts hammering away at his job.

“It’s real hard,” Underwood said. “Honestly, you aren’t hungry because the protein and carbs and all that stuff fill you up. But I have to eat.”

Height has never been an issue for Underwood, who is the tallest player on the Tigers. He has always been the tallest player on his team, and for a long time that was good enough. Underwood averaged eight blocks and 11 rebounds a game for Princeton Day Academy, a prep school in Maryland, and was named a first team All-American by the National Private School Athletic Association. Underwood said he never thought about lifting weights or getting bigger because he was easily the best player on the team.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t think my weight was a factor because I was already good,” Underwood said. “People were telling me, ‘you need to put on some weight,’ but I was like yeah, yeah.”

However, during his first practice, Underwood saw first hand how instrumental gaining weight would be to his success. He was pushed around like a Raggedy Anne doll and was barely able to catch the ball during the weave drills that mixes running and passing a 15-pound medicine ball.

“I died my first practice. I was dying my first practice because I was obviously new to all that stuff,” Underwood said. “I was like, ‘damn, I’m going to be going through this for four years.’”

Sophomore forward Steve Moore said that Underwood was weak. Even though he was the tallest player, he said he just didn’t have the strength to compete.

“You can’t teach height. Being the tallest player on the team, he definitely has an advantage,” Moore said. “He just has to (increase) his experience and gain weight and get stronger.”

That is where strength and conditioning coach David Deets stepped in. Deets’ job is to get the incoming players in shape to play in coach Mike Anderson’s fast paced system. He usually has the summer to prepare the incoming freshmen for practices, but because Underwood didn’t arrive until August because of academics, Deets had to get Underwood in shape in just a couple months.

“Some guys take a little bit longer than others, but he is one of those guys who just embraced it,” Deets said. “He knew coming in he was kind of behind the eight ball, so he had to catch up to everybody else. So he did whatever it took.”

Deets started Underwood working out twice a day. In the morning he would work out his legs or upper body, and then in the afternoon he would work out his whole body with the rest of the team. Underwood said it was difficult at first, especially when he didn’t notice any weight gain.

“It was hard to adjust, but I just had to work through it,” Underwood said. “I was constantly losing weight. I would put three pounds on and in practice the next day all three pounds would be gone.”

That is what brings Underwood to the dining hall so often. Deets developed a meal plan that involves eating five meals a day and at least four protein shakes.  That is why he sits at the table with twice as much food as the students sitting around him despite eating an hour ago. Underwood said it was daunting when he first found out about his meal plan, but the only thought that crossed his mind was “time to get to work.”

“Stuff like that, I usually think positive,” Underwood said. “I’m going to get this done. I don’t think about the protein shakes I’ll be drinking.”

Deets said it is usually a difficult task to get a person to change their lifestyle, but not with Underwood. Every day Deets checks in on Underwood to make sure he is eating enough, but he has yet to catch him skipping meals.

“John, he is easy because he wants to be good, he wants to work hard,” Deets said. “He’s like a sponge, whatever you tell him to do, he soaks it in and he’ll do it.”

Underwood has gained 10 pounds since arriving on campus at a frail 198 pounds. Deets said he would like to see him gain about seven more pounds by the end of the season.  However, he admits gaining weight during the season is a difficult task.

“With the style we play, it is tough to put weight on,” Deets said. “So you’re thinking how many calories a guy like him needs to eat and it’s like 4,000-5,000, and when you think about the average person only eats like 2,000.”

His progress has become apparent. During a game against Fairleigh Dickinson, when a ball was tipped in the air by two defenders, Underwood had the strength to grab the rebound. It was something he wouldn’t have been able to do a month ago. Senior forward Keith Ramsey said the once weak freshman is now one of the most improved on the team.

“He’s progressed a lot. On a scale of one to 10 he came from a zero to a good strong six,” Ramsey said. “As the season progresses he’s going to be a good strong player for us.”

Underwood finishes as much of his dinner as he can. He leaves with pieces of his roof and walls untouched, highly unusual for this worker. However, Underwood, who said he was full, has already planned another project for the day.

“I think I’ll order Chinese food,” Underwood said as he is leaving. “Maybe around 8 p.m.”

The construction never ends.

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