In Chicago, home for Nemanja Nikolic is a lovely 40th-floor Streeterville apartment that overlooks Navy Pier. The Fire striker moved into the building a few months ago at the recommendation of a teammate.
So far it’s been an ideal fit. He enjoys the great views of Lake Michigan and its central location – close to Millennium Park when he wants to relax with his wife and kids, and an easy commute to Toyota Park for training and games.
For ‘Niko’ and his family – wife Nóra, 6-year old daughter Tijana and 3-year old son Marko – home is actually thousands of miles away. Niko was born and raised in Serbia, and his parents still reside there. At 18, he moved to Hungary, where he began his professional career and met Nóra; Hungary is the birthplace of both of the couple’s children. The family enjoyed Poland during Niko’s ultra-successful tenure at Legia Warsaw, developing a fondness for the lifestyle in the Polish capital.
When Niko thinks of his multiple homes, his mind can’t help but wander to the various cuisine associated with each place. There’s ćevapi, Serbian minced meat grilled to perfection. Hungary is home to paprikash, a chicken dish that makes the striker’s mouth water just saying its name. In Warsaw, he and Nóra had a favorite restaurant where they’d dine every Sunday; by the end of their time there, the waiters knew their orders before they even sat down to eat.
Food is important to Niko. Not only because of its associations to the homes he’s had over the course of his life, but because it’s what fuels his career. Seven years ago, the foods he was putting into his body were failing him, causing stomach issues and runny noses. The poor health affected his stamina on the pitch. He didn’t understand why the foods he’d always eaten were suddenly making him feel ill or what impact they were having on his performance as a player.
It would be a long road to finding all the answers to his questions.
Sensing a problem
The man who’s on the record as saying “the goals, for me, are like food” began experiencing stomachaches that were, at times, unbearable. His nose ran so much he’d be wiping snot as he ran down the field, and describes it as feeling like being subject to the flu for months at a time. For an athlete entering the prime of his career, these symptoms raised suspicion.
As a 22-year old playing for Kaposvári Rákóczi FC in southern Hungary, Nikolic occasionally would have to ask out of games because of the pains he felt. His diet was the same as it had always been – pizza, hamburgers, plus the local delicacies – but it felt as though his body couldn’t handle it.
“When I was young I’d say, ‘If I eat pizza, I play good. If I eat chicken, I also play good,'” he recalled. “You don’t care about these things.”
WATCH: Niko’s First 10 Goals in MLS
When the stomach pains worsened, Nikolic decided to tell his coaches and trainers. The team suggested he see a dietician that would examine how Nikolic’s intake was impacting his body. After multiple tests were taken, the results came back – he had a gluten allergy, had digestive issues related to dairy, and needed to completely overhaul the foods he ate on a regular basis. But first, he had to understand what exactly was causing the problems.
“The doctor told me I need to put out the glutens, the milk, the dairy things because it’s not so good,” Nikolic said. “I say ‘OK, gluten, no problem I don’t eat gluten.’
“(The doctor responded) ‘How you no eat gluten?’ and I say ‘I don’t know what is gluten.’ She told me, pasta, pizza, breads. So these things, they have gluten. And not just in these things, but in 90 percent of the things you eat, they have gluten.”
Nikolic wasn’t the only one in his house to have these issues. Nóra also was feeling bloated and ill after eating, so she opted to take the tests as well. The results came back nearly identical. In the blink of an eye, the couple had to re-evaluate their entire diets and how they were going to shop for food.
“Coming here to America, our life is easier with this. If you want
to eat anything, you need to just ask.” – Nemanja Nikolic
In Hungary, the couple found a few places that sold gluten-free items. If they were lucky, a restaurant would have on its menu one or two dishes that would fit their requirements, usually a gluten-free pasta with no sauce or a plain chicken breast and a side of rice. Online shopping provided some help, and the availability of products improved slightly when Nemanja began playing for Legia Warsaw in 2015. Still, locating the necessary groceries was difficult, especially after the couple’s children – both of whom have dietary issues of their own – were born.
It turned out that what the Nikolics needed was a different new home, one that offered the option of getting the exact foods they all needed.
A move to a healthier life
As a world-class striker, Nemanja Nikolic has built a reputation as a tireless worker dedicated to honing his craft. Just six months after signing with the Fire, he is leading MLS in scoring, with a return of 11 goals in 13 games. If he can sustain that pace through the course of the season, he’d be the first Chicago player to claim the league’s Golden Boot.
The 29-year old brings the same mentality to other phases of his life. Now in his seventh year of being gluten free, he learned through extensive studying and research what are the proper foods to eat that allow him to be at his best on the field and feel well off of it. That’s why on a recent midweek afternoon, following a long Fire training session, Nemanja was at home, fiercely mashing bananas that Nóra would eventually bake into muffins.
“To be honest, my energy feels OK,” Nemanja said. “The most important thing is I feel better, once I started eating this food. So when I start to eat these kind of things, I (lost some weight). So it means a lot. I feel better, my nose stops running. I don’t feel pain in the stomach. To be honest, in the beginning I feel big change. But as times go, it starts to be normal.”
Relocating to Chicago has made a major impact. When the Nikolics moved into their apartment, they quickly realized they were just a few blocks from a Whole Foods Market. There they could find almond milk, gluten-free potato chips and a host of other items that fit their dietary needs. Nóra now shops there on a daily basis. There are also multiple restaurants in the family’s neighborhood that have full menus of gluten-free dishes, a stark difference to what they found in Europe.
READ MORE: Fire’s Nikolic Taking League by Storm
When Nemanja has to travel for games, the Fire coordinate with the hotel staff and opposing team to ensure that the food available before and after matches fit his needs, as well as the needs of other players on the roster with food allergies.
“I am really happy with my performance physically, because to be honest it’s totally different than in Europe, the traveling and the games,” he said. “Here [there are] a lot of games in the middle of the week, but in Europe its minimal, most games are on weekend. You have traveling, three games on the road. In Europe, you have one game on road, one game at home. So here is different, but until now I adopt really good.”
Nemanja wants to play as long as possible. He’s purchased exercise machines so that he can work out at home, and he soaks his legs in ice baths at night. But it all comes back to the diet. He’ll still occasionally indulge in burgers or pizza, but during the season, he keeps the menu as clean as possible. On a typical gameday, breakfast is scrambled eggs, a fruit smoothie and some almonds; lunch will be salad with either grilled chicken or salmon; and then a plate of pasta and some more chicken for protein as a mid-afternoon snack. That keeps him energized for the 90 minutes the Fire need him to be in peak condition.
Adjusting to life with gluten sensitivity has taken time for Nemanja and his family. The answers they sought were not always easy to find. But moving to a new home has helped him feel as well as he has in a long time, allowing him to play as well as possible.
“Coming here to America, our life is easier with this,” Nikolic said with a smile. “If you want to eat anything, you need to just ask.”
Eli Kaberon is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com