NFL defensive end James Smith-Williams says his typical pre-game meal includes everything from hash browns to spaghetti: 'You're trying to carb-load really heavy'

James Smith-Williams says his favorite thing to listen to while cooking is true crime podcasts. (Photo: Purina/RedRover; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
James Smith-Williams says his favorite thing to listen to while cooking is true crime podcasts. (Photo: Purina/RedRover; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Because food connects us all, Yahoo Life is serving up a heaping plateful of table talk with people who are passionate about what's on their menu in Deglazed, a series about food.

Fairly new to the National Football League (NFL), James Smith-Williams says he hasn't had as much time as he'd like to explore the food scene in Washington, D.C. since first arriving in town for the 2021 season.

While Smith-Williams, a defensive end for the Washington Commanders, has developed an appreciation for the iconic crab cakes served in Maryland, where the team plays, he says he's still a North Carolina boy at heart. "I'm an Eastern North Carolina guy,” Smith-Williams says of his favorite food. "I'm thinking pulled pork — that's where my thoughts go."

On game days, Smith-Williams eats with his team: A typical pre-game meal is scrambled eggs with mushrooms and cheese, bacon, hash browns, spaghetti with meat sauce and a baked potato ... eaten at around 8 a.m. "You're trying to carb-load really heavy just to have energy for the game," he says, "[but] because it's breakfast time, you kind of sneak in some breakfast stuff."

After his pre-game feast, the 25 year old doesn't eat a bite until the game is over. The team often orders catered barbecue or Italian for a post-game meal, and before bed, Smith-Williams turns to a comfort food he's loved since he played college football at North Carolina State University: A peanut butter and honey sandwich.

At home, Smith-Williams has a special hack he uses to decide what to cook: He types whatever ingredients he has lying around the house into a search engine and browses recipe suggestions. "You'd be surprised at what you can make that way," he says. "I have a bag of tricks now, and it's a big bag too."

In the offseason, he likes making meats in his smoker. "Ribs, pulled pork, reverse-seared steak — you name it, I probably tried it," he tells Yahoo Life. "I'm not saying it went well, but I definitely tried. If it's a meat, I've tried to smoke it."

Smoked pulled pork is Smith-Williams' specialty. "It's the North Carolinian in me," he says "I could eat pulled pork all day, every day."

While his parents used to buy restaurant-made pulled pork for the family when he was growing up, Smith-Williams now makes his own on a smoker, cooking a shoulder of pork for 12 hours or more, often starting at 5 a.m. so it will be ready to eat by dinner time. He also makes his own marinade and seasoning.

His go-to recipe, he admits, was developed through a bit of trial and error. "I have set things on fire," he says. But now that he's perfected his method, does Smith-Williams share his recipe with anyone? "Of course not," he says.

Smith-Williams knows he should eat his vegetables, too, but doesn't like them. "No vegetable makes it into the top 100," he says. "I eat them solely because I know I should." Brussels sprouts, asparagus and broccoli — cooked in air fryer to make them crispy and doused with balsamic vinegar – are the veggies he finds most tolerable.

Many football fans don't realize how much pro players like Smith-Williams eat during the season. "It's five to six meals a day, thousands of calories a day," he says. "That's just to maintain [our weight] given how active we are." He once gained 60 pounds in eight months during the season. "It's a lot of food," he says.

In the offseason Smith-Williams indulges in foods that are off limits during the season, like Cajun-style meals from fast food chain BoJangles and pulled pork. Still, he usually loses about 15-20 pounds during the break. "I just eat cheesecake and candy and [the weight] falls off," he shares.

Smith-Williams spoke with Yahoo Life in conjunction with his work as domestic and sexual violence advocate with Purina and RedRover's Purple Leash Project. The Purple Leash Project is a national initiative that works to increase the number of pet-friendly domestic abuse shelters in the U.S and provide resources to keep pets and survivors together.

Smith-Williams is a pet owner: He adopted his dog Luna from a shelter four years ago. Because she's a rescue, he isn't sure what breed she is, but he knows one thing. "She's really cute," he says, adding that Luna ate Purina dog food when she was a puppy, but spent the football season with Smith-William's mother in North Carolina where she became a little spoiled, eating only homemade chicken breast for months.

Smith-Williams says he'll cook for Luna "once in a while," but is trying to get her used to pre-made dog food again. As Luna's owner, Smith-Williams knows how important it is for owners and their pets to be together, even when times are tough. He plans on volunteering at an area shelter to help them upgrade and renovate their pet-friendly amenities so victims of domestic violence can stay with their pets while they seek safe and permanent housing.

In the meantime, Smith-Williams is looking forward to the offseason, when he can go back to making smoked pulled pork.

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