Bigger, faster, stronger Fitness: Looking to protect their investment in players, NFL teams put their stock and faith in year-round strength and conditioning programs.

September 20, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Every new Ravens player is required to meet with strength and conditioning coach Jerry Simmons, who evaluates the player's diet, previous training methods and medical history.

Within a short time, Simmons draws his own conclusions, sometimes not favorable.

"When I was a rookie, that man walked into my apartment, opened my refrigerator, started throwing out all my junk food, took us to the grocery store and then introduced us to a dietitian," said Ravens fourth-year offensive tackle Orlando Brown, 6 feet 7 and 340 pounds.

"He treated me, [guard] Wally Williams and [tackle] Herman Arvie like we were the three little pigs. He started us on this weight program and taught us how to eat right."

Did it work?

"Yeah, I guess you could say I improved by about 500 percent," said Brown, laughing.

Strength and conditioning coaches have taken their Marine sergeant mentalities and worked their way into the NFL inner circle. They now have just as much importance as the team doctor or trainer.

Maybe more.

NFL owners pour millions of dollars into player contracts, and they have decided that year-round conditioning programs, like the one instituted a few years ago by the Dallas Cowboys, help win Super Bowls and prevent injuries.

Coaches want bigger, faster and stronger athletes, and strength and conditioning coaches always are trying to find ways to build superior athletes, whether it's through tae kwon do or pulling out the parachutes.

"Our job is to help these players get to their maximum levels," said Simmons. "That's why when the rookies come in, I try to shock them into understanding that where they have been or whatever they have done is not good enough, because you're at another level. My job is to kick their [butts] and get them scared all over again."

New York Giants strength and conditioning coach Al Miller said: "The strength and conditioning field is a science, because the body is a science. What good is it if a team is paying a player $3 million, $4 million or $5 million and his body falls apart? Can he last 16 games and into the postseason? We have to address those situations."

Strength and conditioning programs have come a long way since the 1960s, when weightlifting was considered dangerous and a detriment to an athlete's flexibility.

But that all started to change in 1963, when Alvin Roy became the league's first strength and conditioning coach, with the San Diego Chargers.

And Roy, a firm believer in free weights, produced winners wherever he went. He was the strength coach at LSU in 1958 when the school won its first national championship, and was with the Chargers in 1963 when they won the American Football League championship. He later held similar positions with the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs and 1971 Dallas Cowboys, both Super Bowl winners.

"It was the beginning of a culture of trial and error, but Roy kept doing things his own way," said Raiders owner Al Davis.

Almost a decade later, weight machines such as Nautilus and the Universal Gym started appearing, and the new trend touched off a debate. Which is better: machines or free weights?

The New York Giants prefer free weights. The Washington Redskins are a machines team.

The Ravens like the free weights, too. According to Simmons, only about four or five teams now use the machines.

"We went through different periods through the '80s to '90s, but now we're back to the old stuff, the free weights," said Simmons. "The Nautilus principle is still there, but most high schools and colleges are back to free-weight training as well."

Machines basically work the chest, shoulders, triceps, biceps, back, neck, calves and forearms. Exercises used with free weights are the bench press, dead lift, squat, clean and press, and snatch to get more of the entire body involved at once.

Each Ravens workout is based on percentages of a maximum lift in each exercise. Workouts can last from as little as 45 minutes during the season to almost two hours in the off-season. Off-season workouts are required four out of the five weekdays.

And it's very serious business. Some players stretch for as much as an hour before working out.

"We have warm-up procedures like jumping rope, range-of-motion kicks," said Simmons. "We stretch each guy before he is allowed to lift, to warm up the muscle joint so you can work at a better tempo and at a higher rate. That

keeps us away from joint problems and other injuries. We also believe rest is extremely important, that you give the muscle time to recover and grow."

Each day, Simmons pores over individual weightlifting results and takes input from other sources to evaluate players.

For instance, the Ravens' coaching staff noticed that Brown couldn't pass protect unless he stood on his toes while delivering a block. He wasn't getting his full force and didn't have a solid base.

They concluded that Brown needed to stretch more around the hip area, so Brown stretches almost 45 minutes before each workout in the weight room and for nearly 90 minutes before a game.

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