September 2006

The strength-and-calm workout

We train with the NFL's elite to learn the secrets to a strong mind and an even stronger body


By Pete Williams

Men's Health


All-pro middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma cringes as he crunches his body into a V to complete the last of 100 toe touches. Vilma, of the New York Jets, squints, exhales, barks an expletive and looks over his shoulder.

"Keep fighting it, Frank," he says.

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore grunts an acknowledgment and continues crunching, his toes near the windows of the University of Miami weight room. Were this not 6:25 on a late April morning, these windows would provide a panoramic view of the practice field belonging to the Hurricanes football team on their practice field. Now, all is darkness.

Ten feet away, Andreu Swasey watches these NFL players as he finishes a set of bicep curls. It's the only time the UM strength coach can lift, what with five groups of current Hurricanes to train, a five-person staff to oversee, and a dozen NFL veterans returning for preseason conditioning to the place they affectionately call "The U.".

Vilma is usually the first to arrive. The New York Jets, like most teams, prefer their players to spend the off-season training at team headquarters. It builds camaraderie, the theory goes, reinforces the team concept, and, if nothing else, motivates those less than committed to the weight room. It's a philosophy ignored by Vilma and many other Hurricane alumni in the NFL.

"I understand where the Jets are coming from, but I get a good workout down here," Vilma says, nodding at the unoccupied 12,000-square-foot expanse of weight room. "This is what took me to the NFL."

Swasey nods. "Anyone who thinks guys are just down here hanging out at SouthBeach should come down here and watch."

At7 a.m., the first wave of 20 current UM players trudges out to one side of the practice field, cleats leaving footprints on the dew-soaked grass. Vilma and Gore line up with them and, at Swasey's command, sprint 100 yards. They rest briefly and sprint back.

After the sixth sprint, the players are gassed, but nobody takes a knee, bends at the waist, or places hands on his head. The only acceptable posture is hands on hips. Players even must ask permission to tie shoes.

Gore leads a military cadence. "Don't stop…Won't stop…Feels so good…Real good."

Swasey, 34, smiles. He wants his college players to invest themselves in the program. And it helps when they have NFL millionaires setting the example. Miami has produced at least one first-round draft pick each season since 1995 and boasts more active NFL players than any other school.

There are glitzier off-season conditioning centers, full of athletes from all sports who pay big money for training. But nowhere else attracts so much NFL talent.

Many still live in South Florida during the off-season, either for tax purposes or because they have homes or family here. They believe in Swasey's program and remember as students seeing men like Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin returning to train in the off-season. Then there's the ever-lasting bond with "The U."

Reggie Wayne, a wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts, explains the allure while sitting in Swasey's office before his workout. "Look at this," he says, pointing to a school-logo tattoo on his shoulder. "It's like our own fraternity, our brand. When you get that tat, you've made it. You're a brother. You've been through the blood, sweat and tears."

At 10:30 a.m., the parking lot begins to fill with exotic vehicles. Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss arrives in a burgundy Mercedes S550. D.J. Williams, a linebacker for the Broncos, parks a BMW 760 Li with oversized tires and rims. The players and their vehicles cause no particular stir it's just another day in sunny South Florida.

A few minutes later, Swasey lines up the NFL veterans in the end zone, along with another wave of current Hurricanes. It's an impressive group of NFL talent. Besides Moss and Williams, there are wide receivers Wayne of the Colts and Roscoe Parrish (Buffalo Bills), and defensive linemen Kenard Lang (Broncos) and William Joseph (New York Giants).

It's actually a slow day for Swasey. Ed Reed, safety for the Baltimore Ravens, is usually on hand. Alex Rodriguez, a Miami native who would have played baseball for the Hurricanes had he not turned pro out of high school, trains alongside the football players before spring training. In recent years, Swasey has welcomed back Clinton Portis, Bubba Franks, Willis McGahee, and Jeremy Shockey.

"What's this?" Swasey asks as the players line up. "The Pro Bowl team working out?"

The players start with 100-yard sprints, followed by a series of exercises designed to improve explosiveness. For 20 minutes, they high-step and sprint through rope ladders and, with shirts and shoes removed, move on to Swasey's notorious sandpit.

Not exactly a day at the beach. "We don't have hills, so we use the sandpit for resistance," Swasey says. "The speed of the game is multidirectional. You need quick feet and change-of-direction ability and the sand helps with that."

Soaked with sweat, their calves dusted with sand, the players retreat to the weight room. It's nearly noon now, and they have the place to themselves.

For a younger guy, Swasey is old school when it comes to lifting weights, developing strength, and training elite athletes. You won't find Bosu balls, balance boards, foam rollers, or other new training tools in his gym. There are only a couple of Physioballs. Don't expect to see his football players – past or present – spending much time on weight machines, either.

Instead, Swasey – who played defensive back at BaylorUniversity - focuses on traditional weight exercises such as the bench press, Romanian deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts, which many NFL teams and trainers have abandoned for trendier movements and methods.

"I'm not going to be sitting around with a bunch of guys on Physioballs," Swasey says. "We're going to stand up, like in a game, doing a lot of stuff on our feet." His overriding philosophy is simple. "The old stuff always works and always will."

The players pair up or work alone at weight stations, all within shouting distance of one another, as rap music blares from the sound system. Running back Edgerrin James, now with the Arizona Cardinals, sets up shop in the middle of the room. On one side of James, his former Colts teammate, Wayne, is working with Moss. D.J. Williams loads a bar on James' other side.

As James finishes a set of squats, he searches for his favorite verbal sparring partner. Defensive end Kenard Lang is entering his 10th NFL season, his first with Denver, and James is already eying the late-season match-up between the Broncos and Arizona.

"I can't wait to see you coming on the blitz, Kenard," James says.

Lang takes a look at James's weight rack. There are four 45-pound plates on either side for a total of 405 pounds "That's a warm-up set, right?" Lang deadpans. "Please tell me that's a warm-up set. You better do more than that if you want to get by me coming around the corner."

"I'll just stiff-arm your ass," James says.

Williams, who has been training virtually nonstop since last season ended, stays clear of the smack-talk crossfire, concentrating on an intense workout. The others leave him alone, other than offering a few words of admiration.

The chance to work out with his all-pro buddies is why James comes back to Coral Gables, to the U. They inspire him to work harder.       

"They are my fuel source," James says. "It goes back to being around successful people, having those healthy habits and doing the things it takes to maintain success."

By 1 o'clock, the workout is over, and the ex-‘Canes relax in Swasey's office. Soon the NFL's endless series of minicamps will begin, breaking them up for another year.

"We'll be ready," Wayne says. "Teams are always waiting to see what kind of condition you're in. If you're in bad shape, you'll be expected to stay in town next summer. But as long as I'm with Coach Swasey, I know I'm going to be in phenomenal shape."



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