I got to hang out with the strength and conditioning coach at a Big Ten school a couple of weeks ago. I was there to do a profile on the guy for a football newsletter. For about an hour, we sat in an office just off the gym with a view of the enormous weight room.
Everything, as you might expect, was huge. From the size of the players working out to the number and comic book proportions of the barbells some of them were lifting. Having spent a lot of time in a few regulation size health clubs, I can say that the equipment in the weight room of a major university is AWESOME by comparison. First it's all intended to feed into a particular mystique -- we're big and we're bad. To start, everything is painted an intimidating flat black. Or it's chromed and shiny like a '56 Chevy. The floors are covered with thick rubber mats to protect the valuable cement from the body parts and chunks of metal that could land there, since what goes up can often, unexpectedly, come down.
Each machine looks like it's been ramped up to accommodate The Incredible Hulk. Oh, wait, these guys are ALL incredible hulks. Even, um, that girl riding the stationary bike. I had to look twice to be sure she wasn't a he. It was an understandable mistake. Everybody's wearing the same uniform -- t-shirts with the sleeves ripped off and utility shorts -- so how was I supposed to know?
We were also taking pictures of the different workouts, but when players with the biggest guns were posing, you couldn't get anyone with smaller arms to join them. And some guys were concerned about the amount of weight they were lifting. Would it make them look weak? Compared to what? An earthmover? Seriously, Dude, you're 6'4" and you're lifting something that's heavier than the front end of a car. I wouldn't worry about it. Luckily we weren't in the locker room. That's where the competition gets really fierce.
Meanwhile, I continued chatting up the coach, who looks young enough to be one of the players, even though he's almost fifty years old. But, as young as he is, he's already had his hips replaced. So we had some common ground, although I pointed out that when he finally got to my age he'd probably have to have them replaced again. I do know how to bring the good news.
There were a couple of amusing moments as I typed everything he said into my computer. He was talking about the thousands of calories the guys need every day, and said he recommends three "squares" and three snacks. Oh, you mean snacks like Clif bars, I said, hoping to interject my vast knowledge of all things athletes consume into the conversation. No, more like a meatball sub, a glass of milk and some bananas. Or the living room sofa, in a pinch.
I wanted to know about some of the drills the players had to endure. The coach smiled and gave me the details on what the players call "The Wheel of Death." Enough said. I asked a running back to describe what it felt like when that particular drill was over. He said afterward his legs can't seem to stop shaking. Everything feels like Jell-O. And his feet feel like they've been lit on fire with a blowtorch. Good times.
To keep these highly competitive players engaged there are any number of competitions for bragging rights. There are the usual ones -- who's the biggest, strongest and the fastest. But the truck tire toss is the one that got my attention. Competitors have to flip a tire the size of Rhode Island across the stadium field. The one who does it the most times the fastest wins. Something for the kids to do on a rainy day in the basement.
On the flip side, the athletes also do yoga exercises for stretching. Not to mention the latest advance in sports performance enhancement -- plyometrics. As near as I can determine no one over 25 years old or more than 200 pounds should attempt to execute plyos, as they are affectionately known. Apparently someone with too much time on their hands got the bright idea to make physics and springboard diving a part of weight training. Okay, I exaggerate. But not as much as you may think. Personally, I can't imagine how mixing math and muscles could possibly have a good outcome. Certainly not when you're my age, when just walking upright is cause for astonishment.
Meanwhile, the coach and I were finishing up our interview when he was summoned to supervise the final moments of the day's conditioning exercises -- running the stairs of the football stadium. In 92 degree heat. At noon. Which just proves the old adage -- the more things change, the more they stay the same.