February 19, 2003

Training center lures athletic elite

Top stars, pro prospects work, play, learn at Arizona facility


By Pete Williams
Special to USA Today


TEMPE, Ariz. - Quarterback Ken Dorsey sprints across an AstroTurf field in the shadow of Sun Devil Stadium, paying close attention to his running form. It's a month after his Miami Hurricanes lost to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, but he's preparing for his next important test: this week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Twenty yards away, former NFL head coach Joe Bugel barks orders. Top NFL prospects Jordan Gross and Kwame Harris are among the offensive linemen jumping at his commands. Former NFL All-Pro Seth Joyner demonstrates footwork to a group of linebackers.

Behind them looms a sprawling complex, Athletes' Performance, a high-tech pro training center that, this time of year, specializes in helping NFL aspirants become stronger, quicker and, if need be, bigger, before the combine.

In Indianapolis, they will undergo five days of intense workouts, interviews and drills in which officials from all NFL teams attempt to grade their physical skills, mental acumen and psychological makeup.

How the players perform can determine when they are selected in April's draft, and that can mean a difference of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in signing bonus money. Two dozen NFL hopefuls are here because their agents have committed as much as $10,500 for an intense preparation session that, for many of the players, includes private training until the draft.

"It's not just physical training," says Mark Verstegen, president of Athletes' Performance. "We want to show the work ethic and professionalism needed to be successful at the next level."

There's no shortage of role models.

Inside, on one end of the workout floor, PGA Tour pro Billy Mayfair grunts as he hurls a medicine ball against a concrete block wall, loosely mimicking his golf swing. Twenty feet away, world soccer star Mia Hamm, her fiancé, Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar

Garciaparra, and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell pull cables tethered to resistance machines.

Meanwhile, Oakland Raiders teammates Sam Adams and Regan Upshaw stand poolside, watching a half-dozen big-league baseball players engaged in a spirited game of water basketball.

There's enough jock star power on hand to stage the ESPY Awards or at least a sneaker commercial. But this is no fantasy camp or Superstars competition. Mayfair, Hamm, Garciaparra and Burrell are among the dozens of established athletes who pay up to $50,000 annually to labor under the guidance of Verstegen and his 18-member staff of trainers, nutritionists, physical therapists and "performance specialists."

"You feel like a pro here," says Gross, the Utah tackle projected as a first-round draft pick in April. "You see Nomar or Billy Mayfair grinding, and you realize what it takes to succeed at the next level."

Veteran athletes say the cost is worth it to be exposed to cutting-edge training methods in a warm-weather, professional environment free from autograph hounds and media attention. Rather than rely on team officials, nutritionists and personal trainers spread across the country, they invest in one all-inclusive, tax-deductible program that organizes their training year-round.

"It's paid off big-time for me," says Garciaparra, who has worked with Verstegen for six weeks annually since 1995 and credits him for his transformation from spindly minor leaguer into big league slugger. "With everyone putting a premium on conditioning, you need something like this."

Verstegen, 33, markets his program by emphasizing that it can improve and extend careers. Top-level members receive year-round access via phone to Verstegen and staff, reserved lockers - even signs posted at their parking spots.

"Athletes think nothing of spending $50,000 on a golf club membership," he says. "I tell them that for what they pay us, we can help them afford a hundred more golf memberships."

Covering all bases

Athletes' Performance, which opened two years ago, is part space-age training center, part private club and part retreat. Verstegen, who has a master's degree in exercise physiology and the build and flattop haircut of Howie Long, designed the facility so athletes would have no reason to leave between morning and afternoon training sessions. An entire wing is devoted to "rest" and includes a theater, two lounges, cafeteria, and locker rooms modeled after pro facilities.

The remainder of the complex, nestled amid pink oleanders and towering fan palms on three acres of Arizona State University property, is dedicated to intense athletic conditioning.

"Everything you need is right here," says pro tennis player Mary Pierce, who has trained with Verstegen for years. "You don't need to go one place for therapy, another for massage and somewhere else to eat."

What sets Athletes' Performance apart, the pros say, is that it places a premium on improving flexibility, balance and explosive movement - not just strength and speed. Athletes spend as much time balancing on large rubber "physioballs" and working their hips, torso and rotator cuffs as they do pumping iron.

By working those areas, commonly referred to as the "core," athletes create greater joint stability and flexibility, which produces more power behind a golf stroke, tennis serve, baseball swing or football move. The methods also help prevent common overuse injuries that require rehabilitation. Verstegen calls his process "pre-hab."

"You learn how to strengthen all those little muscles that take the weight off the joints," says Hamm, who was introduced to the training center last year by Garciaparra. "My posture has improved, my running mechanics are better, all of which helps my game."

Mayfair said the program enabled him to overcome chronic back problems he feared would derail his career. Nikolai Khabibulin, a goalie for the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning who met Verstegen while playing for the Phoenix Coyotes, said it's helped him avoid the groin and lower body ailments common among players at his position. Tennis pro Meghann Shaughnessy says she's been able to add 15 pounds of muscle and become more of a force on the tour.

Then there's the Oakland Raiders' Trace Armstrong, who believes in Verstegen's methods so strongly that he used his clout as president of the NFL Players Association to hire the trainer as the union's "director of performance," consulting on issues ranging from heat exhaustion to nutritional supplements.

"He's so far ahead of your traditional strength coaches when it comes to using the most modern scientific methods," says Armstrong, who has worked with Verstegen for five years, including his most recent comeback, from Achilles' tendon surgery.

 "At the same time, he stays in constant contact with the player's team."

Athletes, trainers gain insights

With so much money at stake, pro teams are protective of their players, often discouraging them from going out of house for training and medical services. Verstegen says he avoids potential rifts by keeping the lines of communication open. Several teams have sought his services.

The Red Sox and Kansas City Royals pay for young prospects to train at Athletes' Performance. The Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs have sent strength coaches to spend time at the facility. Last year, the Coyotes enlisted Verstegen and his staff for a preseason conditioning minicamp. Wayne Gretzky, the team's managing partner, joined in the drills, prompting brief rumors of a comeback.

Bill Henry, the San Diego Padres' strength coach, has incorporated some of Verstegen's routines into his team's workouts. "You never want to think you know everything," Henry said. "Mark has opened the eyes of a lot of trainers."

Henry, who previously worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates, met Verstegen during spring training in the mid-1990s in Bradenton, Fla., where Verstegen was running the International Performance Institute at the nearby campus of the IMG Sports Academies.

Verstegen says he loved that job but felt spread thin by the hundreds of teenage sports prodigies training there. He left for Arizona in 1999 with the goal of building a complex that would focus on pro training in a locale where many athletes live.

While Athletes' Performance was under construction, Verstegen operated out of spare Arizona State facilities for nearly two years with only a handful of clients, including Garciaparra and Red Sox teammate Lou Merloni. Now more than 75 athletes show up in January and early February alone, including seven members of the Red Sox.

Says Merloni: "It's become our unofficial offseason program."

That camaraderie extends throughout the facility, with players sharing meals, golf outings and advice. For football players just weeks removed from their final college games, the experience is invaluable.

"I've learned a lot talking to guys from other sports," says Dorsey, who added 15 pounds to his skinny frame before the combine. "Not just about training but how to deal with the pressures of being a pro."

Harris, a former Stanford lineman projected as a first-round NFL draftee, says he's sold on Athletes' Performance for the long term.

"You think you know how to lift weights and train," he said. "Then you come here and find there's so much more to it."


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