For July Fourth, NFL linemen and their barbecue hobbies come in handy


Whether it’s a barbecue sandwich smothered in so much sauce you don’t know where the bun begins and ends, corn-on-the-cob or the simple hot dog, there is something special about Fourth of July food.

No one knows this better than a few former NFL players.

Just ask George Foster, who has been at cookouts with friends and family grilling and marinating since he can remember. We’re talking probably way too young to properly flip the burger.

“[Usually] one or multiple men in the family, would man the grill. As you grew up and started having functions of your own with your friends, you had to learn how to grill, so here we are!” Foster, a former offensive tackle who was the 20th overall pick by the Denver Broncos in the 2003 NFL Draft, told ESPN. He kept cooking through college all the way to the NFL, he said.

Now, it’s a lot more calm — but grilling still has a special place in his heart.

“Nowadays, I’m at home more, and it’s just my absolute favorite method of cooking. It’s therapeutic. Nobody bothers you. It’s just me, my music and the grill,” Foster said.

And though he doesn’t have a favorite food to make and doesn’t have any special holiday recipes in mind, he will certainly be spending time with all the rubs, marinades and spices he can get his hand on.

Other former players are right there with him.

“We were in the middle of the lockout [nine years ago] and I wanted to try to help out around the house since I had plenty of time on my hands. So I picked up some of the cooking and kind of just fell in love with it,” former New York Jets Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold said. “It kind of ran from there.”

Mangold, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL, described how midway through his career, former Jets offensive line coach Ron Heller — a certified barbecue judge — became his barbecue “guru” and taught him the “nuances of cooking it.”

Now retired, Mangold owns Seventy Four BBQ Sauce, which sells authentic, small-batch sauces he makes himself.

What his friends and family show up for, what Mangold makes particularly well — pulled pork — is not what he is actually grilling up for the holiday. He’s more of a keep-it-simple guy, which means hot dogs and hamburgers for all.

Mangold isn’t the only center who is self-taught. Ryan Jensen, who currently plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has even reviewed local barbecue restaurants, learned how to cook how a lot of us did: Food Network.

But, Jensen’s not new to the kitchen.

“My love of food began at an early age, I started watching the Food Network at an early age. Used to be my go-to after “The Price Is Right” during the summer. This is what really introduced me to cooking and some different techniques. I actually wanted to own my own restaurant at a young age and have thought about coming back to that after I retire from the NFL,” Jensen said.

And being a restaurant owner doesn’t seem like a bad future for Jensen after football. Right now, his favorite thing to cook is ribeye with compound butter and herb-roasted red potatoes. This Fourth of July he is smoking two briskets and a pork shoulder.

But when talking about grilling and barbecue, there is one name that should never be left off the list: Joe Thomas.

The retired offensive tackle played his entire 11-year NFL career with the Cleveland Browns and is a partner in several Mission BBQ franchises.

For Thomas., it’s an extension of the offensive linemen culture in which there is “a love for good food — but there’s also a lot of offensive linemen that love to cook.”

When Thomas retired following the 2017 season, he was home more and took to cooking. Like many other home chefs, he likes to show off what he has made.

“… As soon as I started cooking and actually making good stuff, I fell in love with it, and now my love of cooking and eating are in parallel universes,” Thomas said. Spending a holiday weekend with Thomas’ house sounds ideal: He has a nice custom-made offset smoker to do some more serious smoking. “It’s great now that we all seem to have a little bit more time on our hands to be able to get out and have a good beer and enjoy watching and smelling some good meat over the fire,” he said.

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