CHARLESTON, SC — At the end of a morning-long set of drills on a hot mid-August day, new head football coach Mike Houston called the 95 sweat-drenched players together on the 20-yard-line at Willson Field here, where the Citadel Bulldogs are holding their summer camp.
“We’ve got a real treat for you today, courtesy of the South Carolina Watermelon Association,” he announced. “All the watermelon you can eat.”
“Watermelon. Watermelon,” the players shouted.
“And the South Carolina Watermelon Queen is here today.” Coach Houston pointed to Brooke Hastings Allender, in a white dress with a royal sash, who gave a wave to the assembled throng.
“Yea, Queen. Yea, Queen,” the players shouted.
Coach Houston pointed to tables laden with watermelon slices near the end zone. “Now go get that watermelon.” The players noisily streamed over to the tables, several stopping to get their photos taken with the watermelon queen. In short order, the players ate their fill and tramped into the field house, leaving only a few remnant slices on the tables.
The watermelon treat promotes the fruit as a natural sports refresher. The association offered watermelon this summer at football practices for five colleges and universities in the state: The Citadel, Clemson University in Clemson, Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina State College in Orangeburg and the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Donnell Boucher, the assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning at The Citadel, is a big fan of watermelon. “Watermelon is a natural product, not engineered in a laboratory with chemicals,” he said. “The human body metabolizes watermelon more efficiently.”
Boucher ticked off the health benefits of watermelon, learned in his master’s degree courses in health, exercise and sport science: “It’s a real food, dense in nutrients, with high levels of amino acids. It has citrulline which maintains blood flow in the heart and relieves muscle soreness; lycopene, an anti-oxidant; and potassium, magnesium, vitamin C and thiamine. And it’s 92 percent water. Best of all,” he added, “our athletes love watermelon.”
Watermelon is part of the training table for The Citadel Bulldogs this year, Boucher said, not common among college sports programs but becoming more popular — especially as sports nutritionists join most professional and upper-level college and university athletic teams.
Matt Cornwell, a watermelon specialist at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and executive director of the South Carolina Watermelon Association, regards athletics and the fitness movement as a huge untapped market for watermelon. Cornwell also thinks the current trend toward local foods could benefit watermelon. South Carolina ranks among the top 10 producers of watermelon, he said.
“We need to find a way to improve how it is prepared,” Cornwell observed, “disposing of the rind is a problem for those who don’t want to pickle it.” It’s the cheapest fruit per serving, he noted, adding, “Watermelon is nature’s sports drink.”