Melon Power Growers bring fruit to the football field

The South Carolina Department of Agriculture and South Carolina Watermelon Board distributed melon wedges at Clemson University's summer practices.

Sticky, summery watermelon has always been associated with lazy days. Perhaps that's partly because back when the fruit came crammed with seeds (roughly 85 percent of watermelons sold today are seed-free), all that spitting couldn't be rushed. Whatever the reason, a wedge of watermelon tends to conjure up memories of creekside picnics and muggy evenings on the front porch. It's not usually associated with vigorously sacking an unsuspecting quarterback.

But the South Carolina Watermelon Association is now making a major effort to position watermelon as an ideal gameday snack. If the group had its druthers, participants in today's college football bowl games would repair to the sidelines for a watermelon slice or cup of sweet watermelon puree instead of a chemically manipulated sports drink. The goal is not just to enhance gridiron performance but to set an example for the 150 million Americans who exercise regularly.

"Athletics is such a huge market that the fruit and vegetable industry hasn't tapped into as much as it could," says Matt Cornwell, the South Carolina Department of Agriculture's watermelon commodity specialist. "When I was growing up, we had orange slices, and that was it."

In hopes of popularizing watermelon among athletes, the state's watermelon association and the SCDA this fall distributed watermelons at preseason football practices at the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and The Citadel. The groups also plan to hand out watermelon at the Cooper River Bridge Run, although Cornwell says organizers are still strategizing exactly how "to provide that much watermelon to that many runners." For this year's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., the National Watermelon Promotion Board fabricated 48,000 five-ounce serving containers.

Cornwell thinks the current interest in local foods bodes well for watermelon in South Carolina, one of the nation's Top 10 producers of the crop. But as the Cooper River Bridge run conundrum suggests, the region's growers still have to figure out how to cost-effectively process and package the seasonal fruit for year-round snacking.

With 96 countries now in the watermelon business, it's almost always possible to find a watermelon. But in South Carolina, the harvest runs from mid-June until late August, and even the National Watermelon Promotion Board concedes that a melon's flavor diminishes after four weeks off the vine.

According to Cornwell, watermelon juices and purees that don't suffer from spending time in the freezer are the best candidates for extending the shelf life of South Carolina's crop. Science shows purees offer the same health benefits as watermelon in its natural form: A recent study of cyclists funded by the National Watermelon Promotion Board concluded "drinking watermelon puree is as effective as (Gatorade) in supporting performance, with the added advantage of improving antioxidant capacity through increased intake of lycopene and vitamins A and C."

The watermelon puree also helped to lower subjects' blood pressure and enhance the release of nitric oxide, a gas critical to nervous, immune and cardiovascular functions. On a more basic level, at 92 percent water, watermelon is credited with keeping hydration levels up, a significant concern for athletes.

"Watermelon is just a concentrated source of elements which help you bounce back," Cornwell says.

Although watermelon research is ongoing, the findings don't surprise Andy Clawson, The Citadel's director of sports medicine. Clawson joined The Citadel as its head athletic trainer in 1973, and remembers when watermelons were one of the few concessions to hydration on the training table.

"They've only let people drink fluids in the last 30 years," says Clawson, who recalls when football players received a single cup of ice cubes to see them through a tough game or practice session. "They'd crunch on the ice until their gums would be bleeding."

Nowadays, the weekly hydration drill for football players starts on Fridays at 2:30 p.m., when they begin their intake of 100 ounces of fluid. The following day, they're given another 140 ounces. "We check their specific gravity," Clawson says of the monitoring process. "If they're not hydrated, they can have catastrophic issues."

But sliced watermelons showed up in the 1970s, long before the refractometers. The fruit's primary advantage is its popularity, Clawson says.

"They like it," Clawson says. "When you're dealing with 18-year-olds, that's the most important thing."

Although watermelon's never been a tough sell with teenagers, Clawson says he's observed changes in his charges' diets over the past few decades.

"Back in the day, if they didn't get red meat, they didn't think they were eating," he says. "Everybody drank Coke. You give them a Coke now, they'll throw it at you. They drink isotonic sports drinks, or they drink water."

Watermelon growers may have to work to wean athletes off sports drinks, which are frequently promoted with claims that they've been engineered to fuel elite performance (Gatorade, of course, became a phenomenon after University of Florida players attributed their first-ever Orange Bowl win to a specific mix of water, sodium, sugar, potassium and lemon juice.) What they shouldn't have to overcome are worries about playing into stereotypes:

"Although I've never completely avoided watermelon, I always had rules about when, where and how I would eat watermelon. Eat a big slice in public? No," Bernadette Adams Davis wrote in a 2005 Christian Science Monitor essay about her complicated relationship with watermelon as an African-American woman.

Cornwell says the SCDA didn't encounter any such concerns on the practice fields at South Carolina State University, a historically black university. "We cut melons there, and they loved it," Cornwell says. "Even the band came over and got in on it."

If watermelons weren't so expensive off-season, Clawson says they'd always appear at practice: Watermelons rank among the cheapest available fruits in the summer, but prices shoot up in late fall. Then there's the matter of the rinds.

"Watermelons are very important," he says. "They're tasty. The kids eat it. The reason we don't it at every practice is because of the mess. A bottle of water is much easier."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.