Diet

Libertyville's Santino Panico — the self-proclaimed 'worst punt returner in Nebraska history' — now an advocate for …


Santino Panico had it all. And then he had nothing.

How could it unspool so fast?

One minute he was scoring touchdowns in every conceivable way at Libertyville High School, a triple threat (running back, cornerback and returner) named Illinois’ Gatorade Player of the Year. Chicagoan Bill Callahan signed Panico in 2004 to play at Nebraska and inserted him as the punt returner in Week 2 of his freshman season.

The next minute, fans tagged him “Fair-catch Panico,” and some even egged his car. Panico is harsher than those critics, noting his 22 returns netted just 68 yards. He calls himself the “worst punt returner in Nebraska history.”

Panico left Lincoln and tried to transfer to Utah. But he lost a lengthy fight with the NCAA regarding credit hours and gave up.

His body was bloated from a 7,500-calorie-a-day diet loaded with eggs, chicken, steak and dairy — the proteins he thought he needed to become a Division I football player.

He felt gross. He experienced migraines, sinus infections, acid reflux and digestive issues.

What to do next?

Panico studied sustainability at Arizona State. He earned a master’s in environmental conservation at NYU. After reading nutritional studies, he switched to a vegan diet — no meat, poultry, fish or animal byproducts such as eggs and cheese.

His decision was akin to Mike Ditka starting a touch football league. Panico’s grandmother once made the meatballs for the family’s Italian restaurant in downtown Libertyville, Cafe Pomigliano.

“My grandma said, ‘What? Are you out of your tree?’ ” he recalled.

But Panico insists his acne, migraines and sinus infections went away once he stiff-armed meat and dairy. He lost 15 pounds within two months.

One day while in New York, he scanned his bookshelf and DVD collection and wondered if there was a way to combine his love of movies and reverence for football stars such as Walter Payton and conservationists such as Jane Goodall.

He googled “How to make a documentary.”

“I wanted to make a documentary about food and athletes and hope,” he said.

It took him nearly five years, but the result makes a compelling case for why humans should adopt a plant-based diet. (Even for a guy like me, who views the annual Baconfest culinary fair as a national holiday.)

“From the Ground Up” is the name of Panico’s 96-minute documentary. Released in December, it had a one-night showing at the Music Box Theatre in Lake View and is now available via iTunes and Amazon, having received raves on both sites.

Professional reviews were mixed. The Hollywood Reporter said: “His unpolished voiceover and the general sense of overkill aside, Panico delivers a quite respectable doc production. He borrows music by Explosions in the Sky to give the film an idealistic, ‘Friday Night Lights’ mood, and though he’s clearly on a soapbox, his tone is never hectoring.”

The Los Angeles Times criticized the movie’s structure and editing but concluded: “This is director-producer-writer Panico’s first film, and as in sports, he may get better results next time after more practice.”

Maybe. But viewers would be wise to sample this film. It challenges conventional wisdom by opening with this question: “What makes up the meat of an athlete?”

It turns out some of the nation’s top mixed martial artists and endurance athletes get by just fine on lentils, oats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and tofu. Many insist their unconventional diet improves their performance.

“I have never felt stronger,” MMA veteran Alex Caceres says. “I don’t like the title ‘vegan.’ I eat plants. I only eat plants. You have to build yourself from the ground up.”

Remarkably, Panico said he already had the title in mind before Caceres uttered that line.

“We look at tearing down the old paradigm,” Panico said. “You build from the ground up.”

Other athletes, such as Ironman and Ultraman world champion Hillary Biscay, eschew meat mainly for moral reasons: “I’m not going to eat my puppies; I’m not going to eat that cow either.”

On that topic, the film is preachy but not obnoxious.

Panico figures he once ate enough meat in a year to feed a third-world village.

Now 32, a marathon runner and consultant on sustainability issues in Manhattan, his heaven on a plate is gluten-free penne pasta (made of quinoa-rice flour) with steamed and sauteed broccoli and zucchini, garbanzo beans and a lentil-pecan “Bolognese” with spicy Arrabbiata red sauce.

“If you didn’t know it was a vegan dish, it could pass as a meat sauce,” he said. “It all comes down to flavoring.”

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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