NFL: Offseason academies keep players in shape
Kansas City, Mo. • This past offseason, Chiefs offensive lineman Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson could have made like a couple of college kids on spring break, sleeping until noon then hitting the beach.
They instead rose with the sun and worked until they dropped.
You see, Allen and Stephenson joined a growing number of players taking part in offseason camps and academies, often organized and run by former NFL players. The lure is simple: The rare opportunity for guys with gumption to get ahead in a business that has become particular about the amount of time players can spend with their regular coaches at their team facilities.
"With the new collective-bargaining agreement, we've got a lot of time to ourselves," Allen said this week, "so it's all about what you want to do with your time. I wanted to invest in myself, and that's why a lot of guys do those things."
Make no mistake. Allen means investing. When he joined Stephenson at the LeCharles Bentley O-Line Performance Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, the third-year pro paid his own way.
It was a small investment, though, considering the potential payoff. After attending the Bentley camp two summers ago, Geoff Schwartz went from a journeyman trying to stick with a team to a starter for the Chiefs, then signed a four-year, $16.5 million deal with the Giants.
"If you play offensive line and you're trying to get better," Chance Warmack of the Titans said, "then that's the place to go."
There are other places to go for other positions, too.
IMG Academy's Athletic and Personal Development program in Florida promises "deluxe housing, fine dining, cutting-edge training facilities and equipment, world-class fields" and even a full-service spa for those who attend its offseason programs.
Those who have worked with the program, overseen by former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke, include Steelers tight end Heath Miller and Rams offensive lineman Rodger Saffold.
Not all camps promise full-service spas, though. In fact, many are little more than private workouts organized by players that grew through word-of-mouth into large-scale endeavors.
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, for example, started a camp after his first Pro Bowl in 2005. Other players began showing up, mostly pass catchers such as teammate Michael Floyd and Packers tight end Jermichael Finely. The next thing Fitzgerald knew, quarterbacks such as the Vikings' Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Cassel were hanging around the practices.
Fitzgerald never invites anybody; they just drop in. And while he's never promised "cutting-edge facilities," Hall of Famers such as Cris Carter often show up to help.
"There's nothing more competitive than the environment we have on an everyday basis [in the NFL]," Fitzgerald said. "I try to simulate that in terms of workouts, try to make it competitive. You don't want to get too far away from the competition. The drills that we run, I'm trying to whip Mike's [butt]. He's trying to beat me every day. You get results."
The guys who attended Bentley's academy certainly are seeing results.
Warmack spent three days at home with family after Tennessee wrapped its offseason program in June, then headed to the desert. He spent four of the five weeks he had left before the start of Titans training camp in what can only be described as boot camp:
• Wake to his alarm at 4:30 a.m. and quickly head out the door.
• Arrive at the facility by 5 a.m. for a personalized, 2-hour workout.
• After a quick nap, return at 11 a.m. for another 2-hour workout.
• Spend the afternoon breaking down film in the classroom.
"Whatever I need in terms of technique, getting stronger in the weight room, talking to someone about going through the NFL lifestyle, just any questions I have that I need a second opinion on, he's there for me," Warmack said.
Some team executives worry that the camps increase the chance of injuries and that the programs might not complement the club's philosophies. On the other, they provide players an opportunity to do "football work."
"From an organizational standpoint, you applaud someone trying to make themselves better," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. "And when you put guys in competitive environments, peer pressure always does something."
That way, when the season rolls around, you're able to beat your peers.
"You have to be self-driven in your offseason. You have to be able to take advantage of that time. You can't sit and do nothing," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "Everybody kind of goes their own direction and has to find what fits for them. There are places all over the country now, a lot of them in Arizona. Everybody has their deal and what they are comfortable with."