Chances are the fattest and slowest football player in the NFL is faster than you are. You don't believe this, and right now you're scoffing at the very idea. You've seen these guys run when they try and recover a fumble or try and chase down a wide receiver in the open field. You've seen their bellies come bouncing out over their pants, and you've sat at home from the comfort of your couch and laughed at them, thinking all along that if you were blessed with their size you'd be an NFL player too. These fat men in the NFL may be rich, you think, but they aren't athletes. At the very least you, king of the plasma screen domain that is your basement, are definitely faster than them.
You, my friend, are wrong.
I know this because I went through NFL Combine training with some of the top college football players in America. We were all training for the 2008 NFL Combine, our shot at glory and the 2008 NFL Draft. Well, their shot.
But you probably won't believe me when I say that the fattest and slowest football player in the NFL is faster than you are. At least not yet. That makes sense. After all, I'm not an athlete. I'm a 28-year-old lawyer who has never even worn a jock in his life, much less put on football pads or a football helmet. If you asked me to summarize the highlights of my athletic career the list would be short: In fourth grade little league I struck out the final batter with the bases loaded to win the league championship. In high school soccer I once scored a goal from the fullback position on a miraculous shot from midfield. During an intramural basketball game in law school I hit six consecutive three-point shots.
That is all.
When I was eleven, I asked my dad what he thought of my athletic abilities. Dad was brutally honest. "You're about average," he said. "Better when you don't have to move." Since these accomplishments I have done nothing to further burnish my athletic credentials. This was the perfect training for the NFL Combine. Or at least I thought it was. That's because in January of 2008 I decided to live alongside sixteen other elite college athletes as they trained for the NFL Combine.
NFL players are not born. They're made. Other sports pluck their stars while all are still teenagers. Major League Baseball finds reed-thin fifteen year olds from the Dominican Republic and signs them to professional contracts. NBA stars grow into their money, sky high repositories of multi-million dollar sneaker contracts before they are even capable of buying a beer. Hockey brings their own teenage stars to the ice at a young age, signing them as fresh-faced youths and immediately bringing them into the NHL, where everyone marvels at their speed, grace, and creative talents. Teenage prodigies achieve glory within individual sports like tennis and golf, and in Olympic sports like swimming, gymnastics, track, and the like. Young champions at the pinnacle of their sport can be found in all of them. But not football.
Football is different. No teenager can withstand the physical brutality of the NFL, single bone-crushing hits from grown men could end their careers just as they begin. Football players train their bodies for years to withstand the rigors of the NFL. Even elite athletes who arrive on college campuses as talented 18-year-olds are unprepared for the rigor that lies ahead. For years, football players sweat and train outside their actual sport, lifting weights, doing sprint drills, refining their techniques. Rarely in athletic history have so many trained so hard for so few minutes of actual playing time. Ultimately, unlike every other sport in America, football is not a game that can be dominated by teenage prodigies; it is a game for grown men.
In 2004, 1.5 million high-schoolers played football. Of that number one quarter, about 375,000, graduated from high school in the late spring or early summer of 2004 and roughly 4,300, or 1 in 65, received a scholarship to play in the top echelon of college football. Four years later, in early 2008, the majority of these 4,300 athletes extinguish their collegiate eligibility. Exactly 252 will be drafted in the seven rounds of the NFL Draft. These men are the chosen few, .000672 percent of the players that took the field for high school football. By now, at the age of 22, virtually every high school athlete's dream of ever playing professional football has vanished. For a few men, it hasn't. This is their story.
The first NFL Draft occurred on February 8, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. Prior to this event NFL teams competed with each other to sign eligible players and the richest teams in the league -- the Giants, Bears and Packers -- were consistently adding the best players. In a fit of brilliance, the NFL owners decided that the strength of their league depended on all the football teams being competitive with one another, and that the NFL needed a more equitable and fair system to redistribute new talent to the respective teams. They decided that the fairest way to make this happen was to reward the top overall draft pick to the team with the worst record. So the Eagles, at 2-9, the worst record in football that year, selected first, taking University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger. Unfortunately for the Eagles Berwanger chose not to turn pro. Even more unfortunately for the Eagles, they were unable to sign any of their other nine draft picks that year. Hardly anyone attended the draft and hardly anyone took note of the results. But the event that would come to dominate the spring of football fans had begun.
Even 20 years later, by the 1950s, only a handful of teams employed anything approaching a sophisticated scouting method. Instead, most teams showed up with newspaper clippings, old magazines and quarters for the pay phone in the hallway in order to make frantic telephone calls to college coaches to solicit recommendations for their selections. Often, these picks were based on nothing more than sheer chance and rampant speculation and rumor-mongering. Today, most fantasy football drafts are conducted with more research. Back then no sports fans followed the actual draft. Now every NFL football fan does.
By 2005, 5.2 million households tuned in to watch the NFL Draft televised live on ESPN. The first three hours of the 2005 draft drew more sports viewers than any other event that week. So powerful was the attraction to sports fans that the NFL Draft drew more viewers than actual NBA playoff games, a NASCAR race, or a PGA golf event. Need more evidence that the country has gone draft mad? These ratings are five times what ESPN draws for a prime-time men's college basketball game and almost triple what ESPN draws for an actual Saturday afternoon college football game.
But before the draft comes the NFL Scouting Combine, a week-long showcase where invited players post measurable numbers and see their draft stock rise or plummet. The combine, begun in 1977 and now a major media event of its own, takes place in Indianapolis in late February of each year. As soon as their college football season ends, players head to facilities to begin training for the 40, the three-cone drill, the bench press, the vertical, and the sundry other position drills that will determine their draft fate. NFL Combine training is intense, competitive, expensive, and only offered to the best football players in the country, those that have an NFL future.
That's why it makes perfect sense for out an out-of-shape lawyer to come along for the ride.
When you're not an athlete and you have the idea of training for the NFL Combine lots of people, such as your wife, make fun of you. "You're not an athlete," my wife says, "you might die." If you're anything like me, a 6-foot, 180-pound weekend athlete who has been obsessed with sports for his entire life, you have the feeling that you're a better athlete than you actually are. For instance, before I started training for the NFL Combine I was convinced I could run a forty yard dash in under 5.0 seconds. Right now many of you think you can ... you're wrong, you can't.
The 40 is the most popular single event that is tested at the NFL Combine. It sounds very simple -- basically you run 40 yards and someone times you with a stopwatch. It's not. The complexity of the 40 is fascinating, but I didn't know that yet. I knew fast times were in the 4.3 and 4.4 ranges. Rarely, if ever, does a player run in the 4.2s. When Olympic Sprinter Justin Gatlin set the Olympic record for the 100-meter, he ran his first 40 yards in 4.38 seconds. So anything in this neighborhood is world class speed. And world class speed is rare. Really rare.
Skill position players (defensive backs, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and ideally linebackers) all need to run sub-4.7 times at the NFL Combine to be confident of being drafted. Anything above these times for these players and they risk the ignoble fate of being labeled "slow," the 21st century football kiss of death. Back before football replaced baseball as the most popular sport in America, "chicks dig the long ball" was a trendy cliché used to illustrate the weight home runs carried in baseball. The 40 is the new home run. Yep, chicks dig the fast guy.
I didn't think I was a fast guy, but I didn't think I was a slow guy either. Surely I would be able to break 5.0 in the 40. I was faster than fat NFL linemen. I would dust them. I'd played sports my entire life and never been the slowest guy on the field. Not even close.
As the meeting that would determine whether or not I was allowed to train full-time with future NFL prospects grew nearer, the one thing I didn't fear was that I would be faster than the linemen. That's what I was thinking about, anyway, as I pulled up to meet Will Bartholomew at D1 Sports training facility near Franklin, Tennessee.
Will Bartholomew is the 27-year-old founder of D1 Sports Training; the facility is partly owned by Peyton Manning, Bartholomew's business partner and former teammate at the University of Tennessee. Each winter Bartholomew brings in a select class of 20 or so would-be NFL athletes to train for the combine. No more than 20. Anything more and their focus on these players could not be intense enough to allow their speed and strength to improve significantly.
The players live in apartments near the facility, eat every meal together, and prepare at least 12 hours a day for the combine or their pro days. In 2005 Bartholomew trained two first-round draft picks, among his 16 or so athletes, the Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams and the Dallas Cowboys' Bobby Carpenter. Each year star athletes from the major college conferences in the country, the Big Ten, the SEC, the ACC, the Big East, the Big 12, and the Pac-10 converge in Nashville to prepare for the next phase of their football life. But it's not just the major college athletes, it's also players from small schools, who no one has heard of, that arrive to pursue their dreams.
Bartholomew, a blond-haired, clean-shaven, walking muscle, is smaller now than when he played fullback for the University of Tennessee from 1998-2001. When he takes my hand in May of 2007 as we meet for the first time at the D1 Facility, Bartholomew's grip pulverizes my knuckles. His black shirt hangs tightly across his broad chest. Even his temples appear to have muscles. It is possible he has no fat anywhere on his body.
Upstairs in his office are pictures of Bartholomew celebrating the National Championship he won in 1998 with Tennessee. Directly behind his desk hang framed jerseys from both the Vols and the NFL's Denver Broncos, where Bartholomew played before a knee injury ended his career. On the wall across from his desk is a photo of Bartholomew leading the UT band in the playing of Rocky Top at The Swamp in Gainesville, Florida after the 17-point underdog Vols waltzed into Florida and won, 34-32, in 2001. The win ended a string of 30 years during which time the Vols did not win in Gainesville.
Bartholomew has deep blue eyes and he fixes his steely gaze upon me.
"Our workouts are so hard," he says, "that even guys who have been training for four or five years with their football teams have to take breaks to throw up." He stares across his desk at me, dribbles his muscular hands on the wooden desk, "You haven't been training that hard for four or five years, have you, Clay?"
I stammer out a response about training for a boxing match during law school. (Really, I just went to a cardio boxing class, but an actual boxing match sounds tougher. This is the most difficult athletic training I've done in a decade.) Bartholomew fixes me with a piercing gaze that seems to find me wanting in every respect. I had been hungry before I arrived at the facility. Now my stomach is twisted and I don't feel like eating anything.
At lunch, Bartholomew orders salmon on a bed of rice and stares across the table at me. I explain that I would like to train for the NFL Combine at his facility. He nods. Bartholomew's blue eyes seem to stare deep within your soul and find your inner motivations. As such, he makes decisions very rapidly. "You're about the right size for a D-3 receiver," he says, surprising me with the abruptness of his decision. "The guy from New Hampshire looked like you. Scruffy guy. He was killing people. We'll shave your head and tell the other guys you're a D-3 receiver."
I almost choke on my chicken parmesian sandwich. It had never been my intent to try and pass as a potential NFL player. No writer has attempted to pull off something like this in recent history. Especially someone like me who has never worn football pads in his life. Pleased with his decision, Bartholomew continues, peppering me with questions: "Are you fast?" he asks, blue eyes flashing across the table at me. I stammer, "Well, fast enough, I guess."
This is a lie.
"Can you catch?" This time I am actually choking on my sandwich, "Well, uh, for a regular guy I have pretty good hands, yeah." This is true.
Bartholomew nods, "Good, because I don't want Erik Ainge (the current New York Jet who Bartholomew believed would be training at the facility come winter in preparation for the 2008 draft) or somebody humming passes to you and having you drop them everywhere." Suddenly, my spine is chilled. How hard exactly does an NFL quarterback throw passes? I'm afraid to ask Bartholomew.
So I ask my friend Tardio the next day. "Don't worry," says Tardio, "I heard Bret Favre only broke his receiver's fingers every few practices. It's not every throw."
By the time we finish lunch Bartholomew has agreed to allow me to participate in his training program. But there are some conditions. First, I have to start training at his facility at least three months in advance of when the players arrive for the NFL Combine. Otherwise I'll be even more worthless than I already am. Second, I have to arrive for a preliminary testing of the NFL Combine events so we can see what sort of shape I'm in. Third, they reserve the right to pull my offer at any time, and fourth, the lead trainer, Kurt Hester, a Cajun who wrestles alligators in his spare time, has to approve me.
Fresh off my meeting with Bartholomew I'm terrified. I arrive home that evening and confess to my wife Lara that I believe I've made a bad decision. She's reading on our bed. My wife is a much better athlete than I am. During her high school days in Michigan, she came in fifth in the all-around in state gymnastics and set records running track. As if that weren't enough she also danced with Alvin Ailey in New York City and later was a cheerleader for the Titans where she memorized 20-minute dance routines in 14 minutes. (I know, it sounds physically impossible). She's also, despite being 5'2" and weighing a little over 100 pounds, much tougher than I am. "You're going to be so sore," she says.
She shuts her book and grins at me. My wife is dark-haired with large brown eyes and such long eyelashes that occasionally they remind of dark butterflies, cavorting across the room when she blinks. We met during our first year of law school at a beer social. She was wearing a sundress and standing so that the sun was behind her. As a result she was a top target for the law school coed softball team I organized. My recruiting methods had nothing to do with athletic ability, and everything to do with who I thought were the best looking girls. I don't believe we won a single game. We've been married four years, and at some point during the course of our marriage my wife decided that I was lazy. I have no idea why she thinks this.
Well, kind of, I do. It's because I don't really like doing things very much that require movement. I like to read, and write, and watch sports on television. And sleep. I really like to sleep. Some people look forward to waking up to do things. One of my favorite things to do is climb into bed and not have to get up in the morning for any reason. If I have a choice between doing something really adventurous on vacation or getting more sleep than I normally get, I'd vote to get more sleep. This might be why I wasn't a very good lawyer.
As a result my wife likes when I'm forced to push myself past my normal boundaries of taking out the trash, turning off the home alarm, and reading. She likes it when I'm sore. She likes it when I have to get up early in the morning.
"You're going to have to get up really early in the morning," she says. Then she smiles some more.
"I might get hurt," I say.
"Oh, you're going to get hurt," she says. Then she grins again.
"At least I'm still pretty young," I say. (I'm 28.)
"You're not that young," my wife says.
Ignoring her baiting, I press on. "I need to know my 40 time to see if I'm fast."
My wife laughs again. "You're not fast," she trills.
"Fast enough," I say.
Speed cannot be taught and, despite my contentions otherwise, I am not fast. This is a bad combination. So bad that before I even arrive at the D1 Sports training facility for a preliminary recording of my skills, I insist that my wife accompany me to the Vanderbilt practice football field with a stopwatch so we can see what my 40 time will be.
It is late in summer and hot. So hot that I'm sweating by the time I even arrive at the field. In doing so we've brushed right past a sign that says, "Fields are for varsity athletes only." I am not a varsity athlete. Not close to one. But I have allayed my wife's fears by pointing out that Will Bartholomew, the owner of D1 sports training facility, has told me I could pass for a D-3 receiver. "From the walkway, we'll look like we belong," I say. My wife may or may not have nodded.
At the end zone line I do a few "stretches." I have not sprinted 40 yards (or any distance for that matter) since law school intramurals at least four years before. My wife lines up at the 40-yard line with her stopwatch. In the distance an actual Vanderbilt football player, a large black man, practices swim moves on a tackling dummy. Idly, I raise my hand in athletic acknowledgment, a sign of mutual respect. After all, we are football players, he and I, honing our skills in the heat of summer's late evening. The football player does not return my gesture. "Go," my wife calls out, and I go.
My legs are pumping, my tennis shoes fairly skimming across the next-turf field. I am running, running faster than I ever remember running before. The warm summer air spreads before my powerful torso, my arms pump like the powerful pistons they are, my legs spring me forward like a latter-day Greek Olympian brought to life. I cross the line. "6.4," says my wife, "we'll just call that one a warm-up."
I'm out of breath. My legs are trembling beneath me. "There's no way," I say, breathing heavily, "that was a 6.4."
So once more we run through the sprints. This time I'm sure that I'm setting the turf afire. That somewhere Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson is going to hear about the fleet old white man who is tearing up his field. That my football career is about to be born. "6.07," my wife says, "better."
Once more I go into the 40-yard breach. Fling myself and all my energy into the sprint. Am flying, until, about the 30-yard line I stride too far and lose my balance. Careening sideways, I finish the final 10 yards without managing to fall. "6.7," says my wife, "but you were going really fast at first." Twice more I sprint. Neither time do I break six seconds. My breath is ragged. My thighs, front and back, are locked up and already I can tell I'm going to be sore in the morning.
It's the middle of the summer and I'm still six months away from training starting, and there is only one thing I'm sure of: I'm in big trouble and there's no way on earth anyone is going to believe I ever played at a D-3 school.
I promise myself I'm going to commit to a hard regimen of training for the remainder of the summer. Training of all types. I'll be Ali running through the humid night streets of Nashville, one of those Kenyan distance runners who can run 941 consecutive miles without eating or sleeping. What I do instead is get my wife pregnant.
She's due with our first child on February 6, 2008. My mother-in-law is thrilled to hear about the pregnancy, not so thrilled to hear that when the baby arrives I'll be training for the NFL Combine. "He's doing what?" Then in a fit of further pique she says, "He knows there's no way he's getting drafted, right?"
In late October I arrive at D1 to commence my combine training. The D1 Sports training facility is located in the south Nashville suburbs, nestled between two large strip malls, a towering tin-roofed structure with walls that can be raised or lowered depending on the weather. On the day I arrive to commence my training, the indoor football field is empty and so are the bleachers at one end. I step out onto the indoor field in my flip-flops, and walk around a bit. Picture myself dropping down to a sprinter's stance and taking off across the field. Football glory, it seems, is tantalizingly close.
I leave the field and stand in front of the best training times ever recorded at the facility. The names are written on a white board in black dry-erase marker, each record, just the swipe of an eraser away from never existing anymore. A 17-year-old has run a 4.37 forty-yard dash. I find myself suddenly jealous. And scared. Beneath the record times is the motto of the D-1 Training Facility. "Iron sharpens iron." I wince. I am neither iron nor sharpening iron.
My trainer is named Wil Santi. He's a 34-year-old former professional football player. A native of New York, Santi played college football at Rhode Island and then played in both the arena football league and NFL Europe as a defensive tackle. He's stocky, six feet tall, has a shaved head, and is incredibly gruff. His eyes are piercing and deadened. The kind of eyes you see on a prison guard just after he's knocked down a recalcitrant inmate with a billy club. He clasps my hand as we stand near midfield on the artificial turf surface, "We're going to make you into a real football player," he says. He does not smile.
The first order of business is deciding what time we'll be meeting every day for the next two months. "How about afternoon?" I ask.
"Football players start early," Santi says.
"I don't really like early."
Santi stares at me. "How about I'll be here at 8:30," I say. Santi nods. Later my wife will pump her fist and say, "Yessss," when I tell her about my early morning training sessions.
Our first order of business is for me to get tested on all of the events the players will be training to complete. The results are not impressive. These are the drills:
Most of the NFL Combine drills the average person has never attempted. Other than the 40 and the bench press, I'd never tried any of these drills. First up is the three-cone drill. Santi walks me through the steps of the drill and then pulls out his stopwatch and holds his hand out in front of him. "We'll go on you," he says. I take a couple of deep breaths and stretch a bit. Then I go.
The three-cone drill requires you to sprint ahead five yards, touch the line with your hand, then turn and sprint back to the line where you started where you're to touch the line once again. Then turn and rush back to the five-yard line. At the five yard line you run around the outside of a cone and then sprint on a straight line 10 yards distant. Then you go around that cone, run back down the straight line and finish by sprinting through the final five yards. Just writing this makes me dizzy. And tired.
It's also confusing. The first couple of times I sprint around the cones I go the wrong way. Will Santi is not pleased. "You gotta concentrate," he says.
Next up is the pro agility (20-yard shuttle). You stand with your feet on either side of a yard line, place your left hand on the line, put your right hand on the small of your back, and then spring five yards to your right, touch the line with your right hand, sprint ten yards back, touch the line with your right hand again, and sprint five more yards back through the original line where you started.
Without comment Santi records my times in a red folder. By now my hamstrings are tight but I'm afraid to mention it to Santi for fear of what he'll say. I've known him for less than an hour, and Santi is already terrifying. To make small talk I ask Santi whether he's ever contemplated growing a beard. "I don't need a beard," he says.
Now it's time for the 40.
Santi sets out the cones at a 40-yard distance. Then he walks to the finish line where he stands with the stopwatch. Unlike the three-cone and the pro agility where I have no idea what a good time is, I know my 40 is not going to be good.
When I finish my first sprint Santi stares at the stopwatch in front of him as if he believes it might have malfunctioned. He takes off his cap and his bald head gleams in the sunlight streaming through the open walls of the D1 facility.
I'm afraid to ask. But I'm also an optimistic guy. So for a fleeting instant I allow myself to believe he might be astounded by my speed. Eventually Santi raises his head and looks at me.
"6.16," he says. His lips curl around the words as if the very words taste rancid. My 40 time has brought a strange pall to the facility. Where once there was loud rap music blaring, now all is silent, Kanye West has literally stopped rapping. Coincidental? Maybe. But it's a mournful moment, my 40 has died, we're at the funeral, and no one can bring it back to life.
"OK," Santi says, "you had to get loose. Go again."
I walk back to the other end of D1's indoor football field. There are few people in the gym -- it's the middle of the week and the middle of the day -- but I'm nervous about Santi calling out my time too loudly, as if people are going to recoil in terror when they hear my next number.
When I cross the line a second time, Santi stares down at the stopwatch. His jaw may or may not have been agape. He doesn't say anything.
"What's the time?" I ask.
"I got you at a 5.4 but I messed up hitting the button. No way you ran a 5.4." I believe this marks the first time in 40 history that the phrase, "No way you ran a 5.4," has ever been uttered because it's way too fast. So, winded and with my hamstrings tightening, I throw myself once more into the 40. And my baseline time is once again a 6.16. I'm nothing if not consistently slow. Santi pronounces my 40 dead, "That's it," he says, waving his arms above his head in disgust, as if he's a referee stopping a boxing match.
After the 40, I broad jump. The broad jump requires almost no training or explanation. You squat and you jump. Santi brings out the tape measure. I broad jump 5 feet 6 inches.
"What's a good broad jump?" I ask.
"9 feet is okay," says Santi.
Santi writes down the result in his red folder. I feel like my own paltry athleticism is actually letting him down. I feel bad for him that he has to train me. Suddenly my decision to train for the NFL Combine seems positively ludicrous.
Next up is the vertical. Santi pulls out a tall measuring device and has me stand alongside it. I lift my hand and Santi raises up the device until the tip of my middle finger is level with a hole on the device. Above me pegs of red blue and white are waiting to be touched. Privately, I'm worried that I'm not going to touch any of them.
I squat down and then explode up as high as I can. Mercifully several of the pegs slide by under my fingers. Unfortunately not very many. My vertical leap is 21 inches.
Finally we move to the bench press where I heave and I ho and I manage to bench press 225 pounds (two 45 pound plates on each side) a single time. This is impressive to me. For most of my college life, my athletic goal was to be able to bench press 225 pounds, solely because that's the weight they test you on at the combine. I fantasized about hearing my name called at the NFL combine, striding to the bench, and cranking out a single rep.
Santi nods and writes down my achievement in a red folder. For the first time he shows a glimmer of appreciation for my athleticism.
"Not bad," he says.
"How many times can you do 225?" I ask.
"My best was 43," Santi says, "but I was bigger then. I could probably only do 30 or so now."
This is an insane amount of strength. If you haven't ever lifted any weights before it doesn't mean anything to you. But it should. Next time you're in the gym take all the weights off the bench press bar with the exception of two 10 pound weights and do 43 bench press repetitions. You're doing 65 pounds. It's not easy, is it? That will give you some idea of Santi's strength.
I'm a beaten man even before we do the squats and power cleans. I'm not doing much weight but the squats kill me. Destroy me. I've never done them before, and Santi stands behind me constantly imploring me to sink lower.
"That's not a squat," he says, gruffly.
Over and over again I squat on my haunches and try to explode back up with the weight. Before we're done I've also power-cleaned, leg-lifted and finished with sprints on the field. I'm seeing stars by the time at the end when Santi tosses a 14-pound medicine ball at me and insists that we finish with abdominal work. As I sit up with the large medicine ball in my hands, I feel like I'm going to puke, my skin is clammy. Santi grins maniacally above me.
"Now remember to stretch before you go to bed and after you get up in the morning. Because you might be sore," Santi says.
"Might be sore" is the understatement of my year. That night it hurts to climb the stairs to the bedroom. Lara is lying in bed, her pregnant stomach uncovered so that we can watch our baby move.
"Are you sore?" she asks.
"I'm beyond sore," I say. "I don't know if I can go back tomorrow. I think I tore something."
"You didn't tear anything."
"My ankle hurts too."
"Your ankle's fine."
My wife refuses to believe I'm ever sick or injured. The previous winter I complained I had a fever and cold chills and she wouldn't believe me. So she went and bought an electric thermometer. Now each time I say I have a fever she gets the electric thermometer, pushes the engage button, hands it to me and says, "Prove it."
I change the subject.
"How's the little guy?" I ask, putting my hand on top of her stomach. Almost immediately I can feel the baby kick inside. No matter how many times this happens it doesn't get old.
"He's fine," she says, "I'm hoping he gets my speed."
We turn out the lights. After what seems like four minutes the morning arrives, and I'm so sore, it hurts to breathe. My hamstrings feel like rubber bands stretched beyond their point of elasticity. My calves ache. My stomach and my back hurt. The muscles in my ass are particularly painful because I've never used them before. The very idea of throwing the covers back and stepping out of bed is petrifying. Because I know once I take that first step it's going to lead me, inexorably, back to Wil Santi and back to the training.
I can't escape.
The next day, as I stand trembling on the field after completing a series of conditioning sprints, Wil Santi pulls me aside and adds to my indignities, "You don't run right," he says. I've played sports my entire life and no one has ever said this to me before. "Your legs and your arms aren't moving together. You need your arms to be flexing back at the end of the run. Like you've got a hammer in your hand and you're hammering a board behind you." For the rest of our training Santi will occasionally yell, "Hammer that board," and I'll know exactly what he means, that my arms aren't moving appropriately. Then, he blows my world, "The faster you move your arms the faster your legs move."
My world is officially changed forever. I've played sports my entire life and no one has ever told me this before. But it's true. If you move your arms as fast as you can, your legs move as fast as they can as well. No one knows this. When I told my friends, they all looked at me like I was DeSoto and had just discovered the fountain of youth. So, you know, aside from being so sore it hurts to move, I'd uncovered one as yet unknown fact that first week, if you moved your arms fast enough the rest of life took care of itself.
I could go on and on about how much I hurt that first week; how painful the stretching was, how excruciating each sprinting step was. The adjectives, similes, and metaphors would flow. But I'll leave you with this, I left town at the end of the first weekend to go to the Georgia-Florida football game in Jacksonville. As part of that trip I played The Player's Championship Course at Sawgrass. It's an amazing course, and you have to play with a caddie. This caddie gives you all sorts of tips about reading the green. On the first hole he motioned me over beside him, and squatted down to point out the line that my putt should follow. When I didn't immediately squat down beside him, he gestured again for me to join him on the green. And I said, "I'm too sore to squat."
This wasn't an exaggeration. I still hurt that bad.
For the next three months, every week day I arrive to train with Wil Santi. By Christmas, my wife finds me standing with my shirt off in front of the mirror.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
"Flexing," I say.
Five days before I'll begin training, I meet the man who will be in charge of whipping us into shape, Kurt Hester. Hester is a 45-year-old Cajun from the swamps of Louisiana. He resembles the Incredible Hulk if the Incredible Hulk were 5'6". His shoulders, arms, and back appear to be one rippling muscle and he's wearing shorts and a shirt with no sleeves. Small, trendy eyeglasses with small frames are perched incongruously on the edge of his nose, and he has long dirty blond hair that almost touches his shoulders. Hester was the strength and conditioning coach for LSU, and has trained hundreds of top athletes for the NFL Combine for the past 10 years out of his gym near New Orleans. He trained Will Bartholomew after his career at the University of Tennessee, which is how the two men met. This was to be Hester's first year training athletes in the D1 facility outside Nashville.
Bartholomew describes Hester as the best NFL Combine trainer on earth. "I've met a ton of them, and there isn't even a close second." But he also said, "Now, Kurt is going to be good for the book. He's a crazy bastard. Guy goes hunting for alligators with his bare hands, but I have to tell him what you're doing and make sure he's okay with it."
Wil Santi's instructing me on squats when Hester approaches us in the company of D1 owner Will Bartholomew. I'd been updated on the discussions about my training. "His first response was 'Hell, no'" says Bartholomew, "but I'm working on him. He just needs to meet you."
Now we're meeting. "So you're the guy writing the book," says Hester by way of introduction. His voice is gravelly, even his throat is muscled. When Hester speaks his vocal cords almost sound as if they're being wrestled into submission by the muscles in his neck.
"Yes," I say.
Hester looks me up and down. "You look the part," he says. And then he's gone.
While Hester may feel I look the part, any hope of passing as a player has already been shot down by the D1 brain trust. After a meeting featuring Santi and the man who runs the facility on a day-to-day basis, former Tennessee Titan offensive lineman Jason Mathews, it's been decided that there's no way I can pretend to be a D-3 receiver. Bartholomew reluctantly concurs: "If you were running a sub-5.0 we could fake your times on the 40, but there's no way they're going to see you running and think that you're a player." This is a relief in many respects. I'd been worried about pretending to be something that I wasn't, making friends with some of the guys under false pretenses and then being beaten to a bloody pulp when they found out that I was lying. This way there'll be no uncertainty. I'm going to suck at the training, but I'm going to honestly suck at the training. We're just one day away now. Come morning, I'll begin my training.
I ask Santi how he thinks I'll fit in. He scrunches up his mouth, stares at the ceiling, exhales slowly. "Better than you would have," he says, "better than you would have." I nod. He grabs my arm. "Please don't embarrass me, Clay," he says.
One of FanHouse's newest additions, Clay Travis is the author of Dixieland Delight and the forthcoming On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era. For several years he wrote the ClayNation column for CBS Sportsline, worked as an editor for Deadspin.com, and practiced law, where his love for the billable hour rivaled only his love for the WNBA. He's convinced that his 40 time is much better than yours.