Players face dilemma when picking where to work out during lockout
In a normal offseason, players rely on teams to set up workout regimen
Now, some work out at health clubs; others at high schools or colleges
Performance centers offer a full service that most mimic the NFL experience
The Virginia Mason Athletic Center sits on an eastern bank of Lake Washington, a short drive (traffic permitting) from downtown Seattle. Home to the Seahawks since August 2008, the $60 million complex features an indoor practice facility, three outdoor fields and a weight room large enough for a royal wedding.
In previous off-seasons this is where quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and tight end John Carlson would come to train. It offers state-of-the-art equipment, manicured fields, certified trainers and physical therapists, a strength-and-conditioning program tailored to each player's needs and a cafeteria that serves healthy meals.
Yet on a rainy morning Hasselbeck and Carlson are working out at a private gym in nearby Bellevue. The facility sits in a shopping plaza along with a Goodwill store, a Mattress Depot, a paint distributorship and a Chinese restaurant. The regular gym patrons try to be discreet, but they sneak a few peeks -- it's not every day an NFL quarterback shows up to work out.
It's even rarer to find him throwing passes to his tight end in the parking lot behind the gym. That's where Hasselbeck and Carlson practice their routes later in the day. At one point the football rolls into a puddle at the base of a Dumpster. The players look quizzically at each other, as if to say: Who's going to get it? Maybe it's time to call it quits. But Carlson mans up, grabs the ball, tosses it to Hasselbeck, and the training resumes.
In most years off-season workouts are like football Lunchables: prepackaged to meet necessary daily requirements. Players are told where to be and when to be there, what to do and for how long. Little thought is required. That hasn't been the case since the owners closed their doors on March 12. The locked-out players are now responsible for arranging their own training. They've already missed two months of team-run conditioning, at least one minicamp and the start of organized team activities (OTAs), when coaches install or refine their schemes. Whenever the labor impasse ends, players will need to be at full speed physically. The question is, How to get there?
Some are working out at health clubs; others have arranged training sessions with teammates at high schools and colleges. Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour paid most of the tab for a four-day camp for 33 players outside Atlanta, and safety Brian Dawkins did the same for 15 Broncos. Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald brought in Minnesota-based trainer Bill Welle and respected receivers coach Jerry Sullivan to run his workouts in Phoenix.
As well intentioned as those sessions are, they lack the NFL's full-service element. For instance, when Fitzgerald and roughly 30 other players finished an on-field workout on a sunny morning in Tempe, they had to get in their cars and drive down the street to lift weights at Arizona State. Film study was done on personal laptops or in the theater room in Fitzgerald's Paradise Valley home.
While not major inconveniences, these are breaks from the norm, one reason some team players are training at private performance centers such as IMG academies in Bradenton, Fla., and Athletes Performance, which has complexes in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. The facilities have the staff, resources and know-how to replicate what players get at their team headquarters. "One advantage is that there's usually a certified trainer present," says Rams general manager Billy Devaney. "Another is that there's structure, whether it be a weight coach or a conditioning coach. You're going to be doing your running and lifting at a scheduled time. They're also going to monitor the players' calories and work with them on nutrition."
And there's another benefit that's less tangible but may be more important. "The peer pressure element is big," Devaney says. "When you're training on your own, it's easy to slack off or skip a session. But when you have people around you to help motivate you and push you, it'll get you out of bed when you don't feel like going."
That was evident at Athletes Performance in Phoenix, where Raiders running back Michael Bush and Saints defensive end Will Smith were grinding through a two-hour morning session that concluded with high-intensity circuit training, after which the players sat on the equipment as sweat puddled at their feet. Before Bush or Smith could catch his breath, a trainer threw down a challenge: "It's overtime! You need an eight-play drive to win." He then instructed the two to do as many alternate presses on the upright machine as they could in eight five-second intervals.
Bush and Smith looked at each other sideways, then got to it. When they finished, the trainer called for a second overtime (college rules?): three 150-yard shuttle runs. Bush and Smith shrugged and headed outside to complete the work.
Would they have pushed themselves as hard on their own? "In a small group, with no supervision? Not likely," says Bush, 26. "I think guys would be like, 'We did enough.' You would have done one shuttle and tapped out. Here you buckle down and do it."
The costs of these organized and supervised workouts adds up -- up to $600 a week or $2,000 a month, and that doesn't include airfare, hotel rooms, a rental car and certain meals, the last being expenses normally covered by a player's team-issued per diem. Still, API expects more than 90 players at its facilities this offseason, and the (former) Players Association is considering staging its own two-week minicamps in June.
IMG Academies' size and resources are unmatched within the industry. It covers 450 acres and has the capacity to go as high as 800. There are three regulation football fields, 56 tennis courts, 13 soccer fields, three baseball and lacrosse fields, an 18-hole golf course, and two basketball courts, with designs pending for an Olympic-quality track. There are 25 staff members dedicated to physical and mental conditioning, nearly 800 youth athletes who live on the premises, another 1,400 who participate in camps throughout the year, and Olympic medalists and pro athletes who come and go on the regular.
What also makes IMG one-stop shopping is that it offers everything, including lodging. If a veteran player is concerned about leaving behind his family, he can rent an apartment or home within the gated compound and have the peace of mind that he's getting excellent training during the day and family time at night.
For rookies like Cam Newton, the Heisman winner who was drafted first by the Panthers, one of the chief benefits of these structured environments is that they can closely mimic the NFL experience. IMG football director Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman winner, and former Heisman finalist Ken Dorsey have been tweaking Newton's mechanics on the field and teaching him the Panthers' offense off it. Dorsey played for Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski at Miami as well as with the 49ers and the Browns, so he knows the scheme. Because Newton received the Panthers' playbook in the brief window when doors were open after the draft, Dorsey and Weinke can use it to bring him along in much the same way the team would have.
First they simulated a four-day minicamp for Newton. Each day began with 90 minutes of classroom work, during which he'd learn the offensive schemes; that would be followed by a couple of hours on the field to apply what he'd been taught. After lunch the three returned to the classroom to review concepts on the board, and that was followed by a second round of installation. Occasionally they'd return to the field a last time for more throwing. "The installation is coming right out of the Panthers' playbook," says Weinke.
Vikings rookie first-round pick Christian Ponder is going through a similar program this week at IMG. The Florida State QB is expected to battle for immediate playing time, so it's imperative he have a grasp of the offense and terminology whenever the lockout does end. But IMG's training is not limited to quarterbacks. They have retired or veteran coaches on retainer as consultants and can work with players at any position.
Michael Clayton, a 2004 first-round draft choice of the Bucs, has been going to IMG since his rookie season. Recently, though, he spent a week working out with members of the Giants, with whom he's eyeing a spot, on a high school field in Hoboken, N.J. "The two work hand in hand," Clayton says, comparing the structured and the informal training. "In terms of working out, really knocking the rust off, getting the body in gear, IMG provides that. Out here [with the Giants] we're basically running routes. No real training, just practicing our craft, repping every route multiple times. There are no ice tubs, no training rooms, no doctors, no nutritionists -- we're raw. Backyard football pretty much, trying to do the our best to be prepared."
For whenever it is that they get the call.