Living the College Football Dream – with Food Allergy, Celiac, EoE

in Features, Food Allergy, Managing Allergies
Published: April 19, 2023
Living the College Football Dream - with Food Allergy, Celiac, EoE
Pete Schuh in his No. 39 uniform. photo: Oklahoma Athletics

His whole life he’s navigated health issues: food allergies, eosinophilic esophagitis, celiac disease, asthma, reactive hypoglycemia. 

But Pete Schuh refused to let any health issue stand in his way. Today, the unstoppable 19-year-old is living out the dream of a lifetime: playing college football. 

The first time Schuh took the field as an Oklahoma Sooner was against Kent State in September 2022. Amid the roar of 80,000 fans, and with his parents watching back home on TV, “I felt on top of the world,” Pete tells Allergic Living. “I tried to soak it all in,” says the defensive back who wears No. 39.

As she watched with emotion, Pete’s mom Colleen Schuh thought back to her son’s childhood years of health struggles. 

Even when he could compete in those days, his mom worried about how much his body could withstand. How far would he be able to take the sport he’d loved since he first held a football as a baby?

But on that fall football Saturday, Colleen could see her son jumping up and down during the game on her television screen. “I could feel his excitement. It’s the epitome of everything he’s been working for,” she says. 

The joy he feels on the field at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium is what drives the freshman from Wyckoff, New Jersey. Today Pete, who made 62 tackles as a high school senior, is in the best shape of his life. 

“I never would have thought at 9 years old – when I was going through so many health challenges – that I’d be playing football as an Oklahoma Sooner,” Pete says. “Football has been an outlet my entire life.”

Schuh’s Health Issues Grow

Football certainly helped to keep Pete’s mind off of his many doctor appointments as a kid. When he was on the field focusing on his favorite sport, he wasn’t worried about what he would be able to safely eat that day. 

Due to food allergies, celiac disease and now-controlled eosinophilic esophagitis (or EoE), Pete has several foods that are off-limits. They include: gluten, wheat, barley, potatoes, soy, corn, peas, carrots, string beans, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, nuts, and raw dairy. 

By the time Pete was 3 years old, Colleen knew something was wrong. Her young son wasn’t eating much. He was getting thinner, looked pale, and had circles under his eyes and rashes. During a family vacation to Disney World, young Pete vomited after every meal. But there didn’t seem to be a pattern to his eating issues.

In kindergarten, Pete was diagnosed with celiac disease. But even getting the diagnosis came with challenges. The boy aspirated during the investigative endoscopy and he suffered pulmonary failure. In the hospital admission that followed, doctors diagnosed asthma, as well as a heart defect. His heart issue has fully resolved; his heart is “super strong,” says his mom. Since that endoscopy, Pete has carried inhalers for his asthma, which is under control.

Pete and his family were adjusting to celiac disease and asthma. Then within two years, he was also diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia, in which his blood sugar level would suddenly drop.

Despite the additional setback, his family figured how to keep the young football player on the field, pursuing his passion. “I came up with a game plan when he got sick,” says Colleen. “As his parents, like his coaches, we said: ‘this is what needs to happen’. Follow the game plan.”  

But more challenges arrived by Pete’s 9th birthday. He told his mom that he couldn’t swallow and felt like something was stuck in his throat. It was a form of allergic reaction that led to months of trying to determine his food triggers. He lost 20 pounds, and missed most of fourth grade. This time, EoE was added to Pete’s list of health challenges.

Yet, his parents stood behind his athletic ambitions. Colleen and Paul Schuh understood that football was where Pete “felt free” – and in his element. “Once we had a diagnosis, we said, ‘OK, now we can figure out what to do,’” Colleen says. 

She told her son: “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you on that field, as long, as you do what’s needed for your health.” And that game plan worked as Pete worked tirelessly to develop as an athlete and college prospect.

College: OU’s Football and Diet Advantages

Going away to college would bring novel challenges. The Schuhs knew excellent communication was essential to keeping Pete safe. So, conversations about his dietary needs began early in the recruitment process. 

Pete had two big concerns. First, would his health needs affect his recruitment chances? But also, would a school have the necessary resources to feed him safely?

Colleen says those early discussions revealed that some colleges interested in her son lacked understanding about how to navigate food allergies. Those schools were struck from Pete’s consideration list. She told him, “Your safety is the priority.”

When Coach Brent Venables recruited Pete as a preferred walk-on at the University of Oklahoma, Pete felt reassured. Not only was he given a chance to live out his football dream, but he could also do so on a team that prioritizes his well-being.

During a meeting with the Schuhs about Pete’s dietary needs, Oklahoma’s nutrition staff and chef simply said: “this is why we are here.” 

“We face a lot of adversity as food allergy parents, but then you have these people who go the extra mile,” Colleen notes.

Pete’s mom counts Oklahoma’s Chef Kelsey Trent as someone who goes above and beyond. Trent tells Allergic Living that she enjoys the challenge of making food for Pete that is not only safe, but also tastes great. 

“I want food to be approachable for everyone,” says Trent, executive performance chef in charge of the athletic dining hall. “You shouldn’t be restricted or left out because of a medical condition.”

Chef Goes Above and Beyond

Chef Kelsey Trent

When he arrived on the campus in the summer of 2022, Pete worked closely with the nutritionist and the chef to figure out a plan. They discussed safe brands, foods that Pete likes, how the food would be safely stored and prepared, and when and where he would get his meals.

Pete also keeps safe food in his dorm, such as cold cuts for sandwiches or burger patties to cook in his air fryer. When he travels with the football team, the dietitian makes him a snack packet full of safe options such as rice Chex cereal, meat sticks, gluten-free fig bars, bean chips and applesauce pouches. 

During the week, Trent and Pete text every day, keeping a line of communication open about his meal choices. For example, Pete might request a favorite poke bowl or homemade pizza. Or the chef will suggest a meal based on what she has on hand, such as ribeye steaks or wings. 

Trent has customized a system to ensure that Pete is safely fed. Her process includes:

  • A dedicated prep table on wheels away from other food prep. It’s wrapped in purple to signal it is solely for Pete’s food. 
  • Basic ingredients and kitchen tools, such as gloves, knife, cutting board and spatula are stored on a shelf of the prep table. 
  • Ingredients are all safe brands based on instructions from mom and the dietitian. All have labels: “Don’t touch. For Pete Schuh only.”
  • Dishes, utensils and cookware are washed separately. 
  • A small stove dedicated to cooking his food.

Because of the efforts of people like Chef Trent, “I can just focus on football and school,” Pete says. The chef calls her work “a passion. I really love what I do.” 

‘Control the Controllable’

Pete, family and mentor Devin McCourty
at signing. photo: Taner Kurtz

As Pete navigates life as a college athlete, he knows that the protocols in place are necessary for his health and happiness. “I’m 25 hours from home, it’s do or die. You either grow up or it’s not going to work,” he says. 

His mom began the process of handing over the reins of food allergy management when he was a high school student in Montvale, New Jersey. For example, Pete started to prepare his own meals, go food shopping, learn how to cook easy meals in an air fryer, and go to doctor appointments on his own. 

“You put your cleats on for football. This is your protocol for life,” Colleen says about her middle child. (Pete has an older sister Isabella, and younger brother Teddy.)

Pete and his family find success by sticking to the mantra, “Control the controllable.” While he might not be able to control his medical diagnoses, Pete can control how he thrives while managing them. 

“It’s just part of who I am. You just have to figure it out,” he says. He wants other kids to get that message, too. Pete is an ambassador for SOUL (Serving Our Uncommon Legacy), a Sooners’ program that aims to help players grow beyond football. The program, which focuses on character development, includes community service, career development, and mentorship for players. 

Pete will be traveling to South Africa with SOUL in May 2023, and wants to remind kids to believe in themselves. No matter what challenges they face, he encourages a positive mindset. “You can control your outlook,” he says. 

“Football is so much more than a game. It has been Pete’s lifeline,” notes Colleen. “OU, Coach Venables, and his entire staff have given Pete a safe place, a home to pursue his dreams and live his life.” 

Related Reading: 
Expert Q&A: Dupilumab Approved for EoE, Hope for More Therapies
Surprising Side Effect of Allergies: Confidence
Swimmer Vollmer and Diet Secrets of Gluten-Free Athletes