Jacksonville Jaguars safety Donovin Darius' extreme training methods include running while pulling a weighted steel sled.
The e-mail popped onto my laptop screen within hours of my return from a nine-day vacation in June. Sports Illustrated's managing editor, Terry McDonell, had an idea for a major project: Discovering how NFL players prepare for the regular season.
I have to admit my initial skepticism. Every time I mentioned the idea to my peers, they responded with a worried look, as if I suddenly had been asked to make Tom Cruise sound sane. But a funny thing happened as I started reporting the story with the help of SI writer-reporter Bill Syken. We discovered that we had more material to work with than we ever imagined. We realized we were destined to find interesting stories because, when you really think about it, no team sport requires more preparation than football.
If you want a better idea of what I'm talking about, consider this tidbit offered by Detroit Lions strength coach Jason Arapoff. He broke down the number of snaps played by each Lion last season and determined that left tackle Jeff Backus led the team with 1,077 plays from scrimmage. Then Arapoff calculated how many seconds each play lasted to give me a sense of how much work Backus did over the course of 16 games. In all, Backus performed his job for exactly one hour and 47 minutes in 2004. He probably spent more time in the weight room during one session with Arapoff this spring.
That statistic put everything in perspective. It told me that the NFL offseason wasn't merely about working hard. It was about finding ways to make that work more efficient, more imaginative, more stimulating. After all, if you spend most of your time preparing to do something instead of actually doing it, you damn sure better get excited about it. If not, it becomes too easy to just go through the motions, to train just because you have to do it. It becomes a drag.
This explains the increase in radical training methods around today's NFL. We dealt with six players in this project and they all did something unique in their workouts. Jacksonville Jaguars strong safety Donovin Darius had the most extreme routine, a 3.5-hour daily session that melded classic weight training with track exercises, yoga and even kick-boxing techniques he learned from an ultimate fighting champion. Seattle Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones spent his offseason pushing his brother-in-law's Escalade twice a week, a drill that strengthened Jones's lower body. And when I caught up with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb on a 112-degree day in Phoenix, he was actually playing tag with a workout group that included New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson and a handful of high school athletes. The exercise apparently improves his agility.
These ideas surely sound bizarre to an outsider but the players all swear by them. They love these drills because they can see the purpose in them. McNabb knows that if he's avoiding somebody in a game of tag, he's using the same muscles to shake defenders during a game. Jones understands that if he can push a three-ton SUV 25 yards, he'll be just as fierce in finishing off blocks. In fact, Jones doesn't even know how much he can max on the bench press. He hasn't worried about that since his days at Florida State because he's not training to be a weightlifter. He's training to be an athlete.
It makes sense when you really think about it. Football isn't merely a game of strength and power. It never was. It's mostly a game of movement and today's players want to focus on quickness, speed and flexibility more than ever. They also want something that is far less tangible -- a belief that what they're doing provides an edge on the field. There's a heightened sense of confidence that comes from doing things that other players aren't and it's no coincidence that every player we dealt with in this story refuses to train in their teams' respective voluntary offseason programs. They simply don't think they get pushed enough in those environments.
That's not to say trainers aren't progressive. Minnesota Vikings strength coach Kurtis Shultz runs a killer session known as the Jailhouse workout. In Detroit, Arapoff lords over a weight room that houses spinning cycles, a heavy bag for cardio-boxing and a section reserved for weekly Pilates sessions. He even moves the machines around his facility regularly just so players don't feel like they're doing the same old thing. "If you're just telling guys to run and lift, they won't want to stick with your program," Arapoff says. "They'll know they can do all that in Miami and be on South Beach by 11 a.m."
The man isn't kidding. There's simply too much at stake for today's players, too many reasons for some to seek out the edgiest training methods they can find. In fact, the ones we dealt with were as proud of what they did off the field as what they did on it. That's because few people ever get to see all the effort they put into their jobs. Now that I have, I can honestly say this: There are plenty of fascinating things going on around the NFL and they're not all happening on game days anymore.