PHOENIX -- Ted Harper did his best to hide in plain sight. Standing in a sea of people next to Tom Brady's podium at Media Day, he wore nothing that identified him as a member of the Patriots staff except for the credential dangling from around his neck.
The protein shakes he held -- one in each hand -- gave him away, though.
For three seasons, Harper has been New England's team nutritionist. He works long hours to craft unique meal plans for each player, determining what they need to eat and drink at different points during the day in order to help them maximize their potential on the field.
"It's like taking care of 53 guys, 53 large men, as if you had a family," Harper said. "They're my family. Not only do you have to keep them fueled, but it's giving them specific things, and making sure it's food to get them football ready."
Harper likes to keep the details of his job under wraps, as does his employer, but he is revered inside the Patriots locker room as a significant cog in the machine that has found its way to Super Bowl XLIX.
After working with the U.S. Olympic Speedskating Team in preparation for the 2010 Winter Games, Harper landed a job supporting elite special-operations soldiers in the Army's branch of Special Operations Command. He was later hired by the Patriots in 2012 and since then has helped them stay on the cutting edge of performance nutrition as the amount of information coming from that field has continued to change how teams operate.
When Patriots coach Bill Belichick worked for the Giants in the 1980s and into 1990, the team had a nutritionist available to help players with any questions they had. And in 1996, when Belichick served as an assistant under Bill Parcells, the Patriots employed a nutritionist as well.
But the way in which nutrition and diet was treated 20 years ago can't compare to the scrutiny it's under on a daily basis now, Belichick said in a conversation earlier this season.
"A lot of it was just more one-on-one," he explained. "It was a service the team provided, but they would talk to you and say, 'What do you like to eat?' Then the next guy might come up and say 'I'm trying to lose weight.' And the nutritionist would say 'OK, do this or do that.'
"Now it's, 'Look here's the buffet. This is high protein. This is high carbohydrate. This is high recovery. This is for hydration. Whatever. And then there are complex things like caffeine, just to pick one, that has some performance-enhancing qualities and it limits performance in certain ways. Stuff like that, depending on what you hear, 'I should be doing it,' 'I shouldn't be doing it.' Then you have an expert that defines it and says, 'Here's what you can do. Here's what you shouldn't do.' There's been nutritionists, but the value, and the number of players, and the volume of information that they give players has increased exponentially."
As the focus on player health and nutrition has intensified over the years, with more and more people like Harper employed around the NFL, it's a very different league from the one Belichick encountered as a first-year coach 40 years ago.
LIGHTING UP IN THE LOCKER ROOM
In his first NFL job, serving as a low-level assistant for the Baltimore Colts and coach Ted Marchibroda, Belichick was served a wake-up call.
To that point, Belichick had spent most of his life around the clean-cut football program at the Naval Academy, where his father served as a longtime assistant and a scout. He was floored when he arrived in Baltimore and saw players puffing on cigarettes in the locker room -- during the game.
The scene reminded him of old war movies where generals would meet in smoke-filled rooms to go over strategy.
"They would come in at halftime and light up," Belichick said. "Hit two or three quick ones. Before the game, too. You obviously don't see that anymore. I'd say it's come really a long way."
Belichick has watched over the years as alcohol has been phased out of team settings as well.
"The days of the game being over and there being two beers on everybody's seat when they got on the plane," he said, "that's gone."
Back in the 1970s, it wasn't uncommon for players to get off of a two-hour flight and guzzle a dozen team-provided beers before turning in for the night, Belichick remembered.
Even before Saturday afternoon flights to away games, back when teams went through airport gates and didn't drive straight onto tarmacs as they do now, players would sit at an airport bar for a drink or two and then board.
When Belichick was an assistant with the Broncos in 1978, he remembered the Saturday night spread before home games at the team hotel: Burgers and beers.
"That was their tradition," Belichick said. "Saturday night, the players would come in, and there'd be beer on ice and burgers and fries and stuff like that."
Suffice it to say, it was a bit of a change from the days when Belichick saw Navy players get roast beef sandwiches, milk and an apple for their team postgame meals.
These days the Patriots provide players with three meals a day -- all near-gourmet quality, according to the players -- as well as healthy snacks and drinks that are readily available throughout the day.
Hydration, in particular, has become a more significant focal point for the Patriots in recent years. A large poster board was hung from a wall in the middle of the team's locker room this season that clearly spells out how different levels of dehydration can impact performance. Above the urinals in the team's bathrooms, there hang a color-coded charts so that players can check the color of their urine to see if they're starting to get dehydrated.
Belichick said the change to having more nutritionally-minded NFL clubs was bound to happen. There's a reason players can now pull into the Patriots facility before their morning meetings and have their choice of breakfast foods -- bacon, eggs, omelets, fruit, french toast, pancakes, oatmeal, grits and more -- versus stopping at Dunkin' Donuts in the morning as many did back in 1996.
It's the nature of competition.
"I think it's like everything else," Belichick said. "As everybody gets more competitive, you're always trying to get a little bit of an edge. It's no different than the video equipment or the training. You're always trying to train better. You know, if somebody has a new training program or something, you're going to take a look at it and say, 'OK, what advantages does that have? Are they doing something that we could do that we're not doing that would make us better?'
"It's like everything that you use," Belichick added, making a comparison to a reporter's tools, "whether it's a recorder or an iPhone or whatever. If everybody else has one and you don't, then maybe you're coming up a little bit short on something -- how quickly you get the information out, how clear the picture is, whatever. I'd say it's kind of the same thing. It's kind of an incremental moving up."
'ALWAYS GONNA HAVE A BELLY'
Continuing that incremental advance means trying things that haven't been tried before. To keep with Belichick's analogy, it's about finding a way to get your hands on the latest iPhone and putting it to good use.
For Vince Wilfork, he found something this offseason that has him feeling better than he's felt in his 11 seasons in the NFL.
After years of dieting on his own and eating foods that books or websites suggested, Wilfork took a blood test that told him -- with Harper's help -- what he really needed.
Harper's goal is to get an individualized plan that works for each of his players, and Wilfork said this test helped them determine his.
"You hear a lot of people talk about eating healthy stuff like nuts and almonds," Wilfork said. "Well, I'm actually high on that end. I'm actually a little allergic to nuts and almonds and avocados and stuff. It really broke it down to your body. That test was mainly for your body, what your body can accept. A lot of people go out with a generic diet method of, 'You gotta eat this.' Well, if you're body don't accept it, you can't eat it."
In addition to steering clear of foods like nuts and avocados, Wilfork said that this season he's stayed away from eating as many carbs as he has in the past. It's been tough for him, a rice and pasta lover, but the results have been staggering.
"Nothing really made me feel like how I feel now," Wilfork said. "This is the best I ever felt. My body, my body don't feel like it's been through a 20, 21 game season already. I'm still fresh. My body, I don't have no aches and bruises. I think a lot of that have to do with my nutrition, understanding what you're putting into your body.
"I still feel the difference. Going this whole season, feeling the way I feel, I never felt that. And I'm 33. I never felt like this in a season ever. It's crazy . . . It took me 11 years, but I got there. Better late than never."
Wilfork has long been more health-conscious than most. His father died when he was 48 years old after a battle with diabetes, and in 2009 Wilfork established his own foundation to further the fight against that particular disease.
But it wasn't until this season that Wilfork has felt the effects of a dietary plan made to his specifications. What's helped the Patriots is that he's feeling better without having lost any of the weight or the strength that has made him one of the centerpieces of the team's defense for over a decade.
Pressed on the issue of his weight, Wilfork insisted he is playing at his listed 325 pounds.
"Everybody always questions me because I got a big belly," Wilfork said with a smile. "I tell them all the time that I'm always gonna have a belly. I'm always gonna have a belly. That's my trademark. I'm gonna have a belly. But when you do body-fat tests and all that stuff, all my fat is in my stomach. Everywhere else, I mean, you cut my belly out you'd think I'm a linebacker or something. You know what I mean? Everyone always questions me about that, but there's no question. That's what it is. Just because I got a big belly, I'm proportioned a little bit differently than everybody else."
WANT TO KEEP YOUR JOB?
Brady has famously developed his own nutrition regimen that works for him, one that's been tailor-made over several years. But even if he wanted to share all of his tricks with his teammates, they likely wouldn't get the desired results.
With the wide range of body types, needs and tastes inhabiting the Patriots locker room, it's Harper's job to find the right formula for each player.
It takes tireless effort.
For massive offensive linemen like Nate Solder (6-foot-8, 320 pounds) and Sebastian Vollmer (6-8, 320), it's actually difficult to keep weight on -- the good kind of weight that allows them to anchor and protect Brady from oncoming rushers.
Solder, who's lactose intolerant, said he won't go two hours without eating some type of high-calorie food and a significant amount of protein. To keep his body feeling the way he wants it to while providing him the size he needs, he'll eat about two grams of protein for every pound of his body weight daily.
"I'm starving right now," Solder said, looking at the clock in the locker room after a team meeting late in the season. "I'm chomping at the bit here."
For 300-pound defensive linemen like Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch, dialing back on fatty foods and excessive calories is important so that they don't feel an extra five pounds hanging in their guts as they lower into their three-point stances. They know they need to remain explosive yet powerful, and the dietary road there can at times be difficult for them.
"As a big boy it's always hard," Siliga said. "It's hard. But at the end of the day, you get paid to do this. I mean, you still wanna still have a job? You can choose: Eat extra and not have a job, or don't eat extra and have a job. It's pretty easy."
For a leaner player like safety Devin McCourty, the rule of thumb is usually the more the better.
"I can always use more," he said. "I'm one of the smaller guys so I can always use more proteins. Ted always talks to me about making sure I keep my calorie intake high especially because I burn it off."
The idea of maintaining a diet to maximize performance is foreign to some when they enter the Patriots locker room, Belichick explained. There are players who came from high-profile college programs who got an education on the importance of good nutrition, while there are others who did not.
When rookie defensive lineman Zach Moore played at Division 2 Concordia University, he said he ate fried chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks and curly fries every day. When he and his college teammates finished their workouts, they used to have to cross the street from the weight room and buy bottles of Muscle Milk at a Holiday gas station.
Now? Every afternoon a tray wheels through the Patriots locker room loaded with protein shakes, protein bars (players love Cookies and Cream flavored Bonk Breaker bars), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, almond butter and jelly sandwiches and bananas.
Moore eats tacos with ground bison meat, which is more protein-dense than beef, whenever they're available for dinner, and he loads up on the vegetables he avoided in college.
"I gained a lot of good healthy weight, but I can barely notice it," he said. "That's how I can tell I'm eating the right things and putting the right things in my body because if I'm able to gain healthy weight and still maintain my quickness and speed and power and all that then that's a good sign for me."
Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler is finally eating breakfast ever since he made the Patriots out of training camp, something he didn't do much of at Division 2 West Alabama. And some of his favorite foods -- including fried fish with macaroni -- have been replaced by healthier baked items from the team cafeteria.
"It's a big change, a big difference," he said. "It's only for the better though."
NO DAYS OFF
Harper's work can be life-changing for Patriots players, and his bosses know it.
According to this story from The Shelbyville News in Indiana, Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft allowed Harper to redesign the team's dining hall soon after he was hired.
It's a spacious area where two or three different dinner entrees are featured daily, complete with a choice of a rice option, a potato option or a pasta option.
The hall also includes a full salad bar, a fruit bar, a sandwich bar and an area where all manner of shakes can be created. Julian Edelman likes a thick green concoction made from water, kale, spinach, blueberry, watermelon and protein powder. Team president Jonathan Kraft has been known to drop in for a kale shake as well.
Harper's influence extends beyond the cafeteria, however. He also oversees the use of supplements for all players to ensure that they are both safe and legitimate under NFL rules.
"Every player has his own right to go out and pursue his own supplements, but they have to be legal," he said. "They can't have any banned substances in them and I oversee that. I make sure they're taking safe products so we make sure we don't lose them for four games or more. Ideally, I try to push food first as much as possible. Supplements, as the word states, are supplementary."
With myriad responsibilities, Harper is busy, but he said his job doesn't feel like a lot of work.
"I treat them all like brothers," he said. "You spend so much time with them every day. I don't even know what a weekend feels like anymore. We don't really get days off, and if you love what you do, then it doesn't matter. You go in, you see them everyday and joke around with them and lighten the mood, but know also that we're very focused on all of our jobs. As Bill likes to say 'Do your job,' and I definitely do mine."
That job became particularly difficult this week with the Patriots away from their facilities as they prepared for their Super Bowl matchup with the Seahawks in Arizona.
"It's very difficult being away from home for an extended amount of time," he said, "but you just try to make the hotel team dining room as homey as possible. A lot of logistics go into it..."
Asked for details of the logistics, Harper politely declined to answer. Perhaps because he had more work to do. Perhaps because he knew he was supposed to keep certain details of his job quiet. Likely both.
Brady had left the podium by that point and Harper had to fight through the crowd to catch up with him.
Like that, the Patriots' edge took off jogging, protein shakes in hand.