A farm. A field. A canyon. A pool. Even a driveway. As NFL players wait for a return to normalcy before the 2020 regular season begins, they have had to get creative with how and where they train.
The ripple effects of these unprecedented times — nationwide social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and an unknown timetable for a vaccine — have altered the professional sports landscape, and the NFL is no exception.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell authorized the reopening of all team facilities this week, in accordance with state and local regulations, although coaches and players who are not undergoing rehabilitation are prohibited from entering team buildings. While a handful of clubs took advantage of this allowance, states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, Michigan, Illinois, Washington and California are still imposing heavier restrictions that affect a dozen team facilities.
These inconsistent regulations have also changed the responsibilities of NFL strength trainers, who have spent time remotely assessing the workout needs of players, including their access to resources, as well as acting as liaisons for online equipment purchases. NFL teams were permitted to provide each player with up to $1,500 worth of workout equipment. Nevertheless, players have had to find inventive ways to stay in shape.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins uses his parents’ driveway as his outdoor gym. New York Giants wide receiver Golden Tate mowed a track into a steep canyon near his home. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington designed a training regimen on his Texas farm. New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis has his personal trainers living with him. Giants linebacker Blake Martinez became the beneficiary of a state-of-the-art gym. And Cleveland Browns punter Jamie Gillan grabbed some beers and built a “grubby” garage gym.
Even though players’ locations, living situations and resources differ, there’s a lesson shared by all: There are no excuses.
Big-money quarterback staying with parents
The playful jab is uttered without warning, hurled from the driver’s side of a passing vehicle.
“Go Pack, go!”
And in that moment of lighthearted jest, Kirk Cousins can only ignore it. He knows the stop sign in front of the house makes him a sitting duck every morning.
Four times a week, starting promptly at 9 a.m., the Vikings quarterback gathers equipment from the garage and arranges it neatly on the long, curved pavement leading from his parents’ house to the sidewalk. Resting on a wooden chair is his laptop, connected by videoconference to his longtime personal trainer, Chad Cook, who is 450 miles away in Atlanta. This is a glimpse into what constitutes the 2020 NFL offseason.
“I like my privacy, so being out in the driveway, on display for the whole neighborhood to see is probably less than ideal. But desperate times call for desperate measures,” Cousins said with a smile during a recent ESPN interview. “If it means a guy drives by in a truck and yells, ‘Go Pack, go!’ at me while we’re working out, then so be it.”
The manicured lawns of this Orlando, Florida, suburb serve as a backdrop to Cousins’ regimen and his attempt at normalcy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not a “home gym” by any means, Cousins concedes, but he insists he has everything he needs: a medicine ball, jump-rope, foam rollers, free weights and a football. And, the most essential tool of all: the laptop he uses to connect with Cook.
“[Every car will] see me doing my shuffles across the driveway, or my cariocas, or doing the jump-rope or different plank exercises, core work, medicine ball, lunges — whatever it may be. And different people honk or wave, so it’s kind of fun,” said Cousins, who signed a two-year, $66 million extension with the Vikings in March.
Spotty Wi-Fi is a challenge when working out outdoors, but sheltering in place with his parents was by design: The nine-year veteran and his wife, Julie, now have plenty of reinforcements when it comes to taking care of their sons, Cooper, 2½, and Turner, 1.
“I kind of laugh when I talk about having two like I have 10,” Cousins joked, “because compared to other guys in the league who have three, four, five, six kids, having two is not a big deal.”
Dealing with this adversity has reaffirmed his commitment to his craft. It also taught him that the Public Broadcasting Service can be a football player’s, as well as a father’s, best friend: “‘Daniel Tiger[‘s Neighborhood]’ on PBS can be a lifesaver.”
‘Strict training mode’ means living with trainers
The plan was to be in Nashville, Tennessee, for a month, but Demario Davis‘ offseason residence has become his permanent dwelling during the pandemic. His 7,500-square-foot house, purchased last offseason, is a saving grace of sorts, equipped with enough room for his wife, Tamela, and their four children under the age of 6.
And his two personal trainers.
Davis’ trainers, Jose Tienda and Piankhi Gibson, typically work with him in two-to-three-week “strict training mode” spurts before heading back to their respective homes. They’ll return to Nashville soon for another extended stay with Davis.
As the 31-year-old enters his ninth NFL season — and the final year of his contract — he is determined not to lose ground to a youngster who might be aiming for his spot.
Mid-morning acupuncture and soft tissue work with Tienda give way to afternoon aqua training in a neighbor’s pool with Gibson. Davis pauses for dinner and to help put the kids to bed. But before long, he’s headed back for more body work. He crawls into bed around 12:30 or 1 a.m. on those rigorous training days.
With Louisiana still reeling from 35,316 confirmed COVID-19 cases (and 2,485 reported deaths) as of Thursday, Davis wasn’t surprised Saints coach Sean Payton — who was the first known NFL figure to test positive for the coronavirus — announced there would not be virtual workouts, meetings or workout sessions at the team facility.
“The virtual offseason really wouldn’t have fit the flow of how we operate down there,” the veteran linebacker said of the Saints, who have one of the oldest rosters in the NFL. “We don’t have a young team. … He knew with our experience level, the strong leaders we have at each position, that we’d get it done as far as training.”
While Davis is eager to play, he said he won’t waste time guessing when the season will start.
“The pandemic don’t know nothing about football season. The virus ain’t just like, ‘Oh, football season’s coming, let me chill out,'” he said with a laugh. “So I’m going to train and stay in shape because that’s just a philosophy of mine — you stay ready at all times. But I think it’s a discredit to people who are on the front lines working, and the people who are being affected by it, when we’re just thinking about how fast we can get back to sports.”
‘Grubby little gym’ becomes labor of love
The police officers approached without warning.
Jamie Gillan had been punting on a turf field almost an hour away from his Tremont, Ohio, residence, completely unaware of the state’s shelter-in-place orders. With nonessential businesses closed, the Browns punter — nicknamed “The Scottish Hammer” — had used local fields to practice his kicking drills. That is, until he was no longer allowed.
“[The officers] were like, ‘Yeah man, we want to let you punt. We love the Browns and everything, but it’s just the rules,'” the Scotland-born special-teamer explained in his thick brogue.
Faced with the prospect of quarantining alone, Gillan chose to go be with family.
He made trips to the liquor store and the supermarket — packing his truck with several bottles of bourbon for his father, “120 eggs and 16 racks of bacon” — and then he and his German shepherd named Bear traveled seven hours to southern Maryland to stay with his parents and 19-year-old sister.
The rural area around his parents’ house affords him space to practice his booming kicks, and there’s a “massive” field, owned by a friend, which Gillan uses, too. But the self-described “workout junkie” had to get creative with strength training. Soon his parents’ garage became his gym.
Unable to buy equipment online because of limited inventory and “skyrocketing” prices, Gillan purchased old equipment from a local high school: barbells, bumper plates, 40-, 80- and 100-pound dumbbells and bands. He purchased rubber matting from a local tractor store.
He searched Facebook Marketplace for a squat rack, but he and his father, Colin, who is a former rugby player and member of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, came up with a better solution — they would construct their own.
“We came back [from Lowe’s], cracked open some beers and just started building it,” Gillan said with a chuckle. Even with old, rusty weights, his “grubby little gym” was everything he needed.
Gillan said his resourcefulness was forged during four years playing at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a historically black university. During offseasons when he and his teammates didn’t have access to the gym, their surroundings became their workout room. They bench-pressed and squatted logs, they did dips and pullups on metal bars at local parks, and Gillan hopped fences to punt on neighboring fields when access to their football field was prohibited.
“One thing I notice about a lot of historically black colleges is they’re very underfunded,” Gillan said, stressing that he and other student-athletes had to be creative. “Maybe it got me prepared for this weird period.”
State-of-the-art amenities ease the transition
Blake Martinez‘s father, Marc, had a master plan: purchase a plot of land 15 minutes from the family home in Tucson, Arizona, and build a facility for his son to train and live. It didn’t take long for the idea to become Martinez’s reality.
The linebacker thanks his father every day for his ingenuity, as well as his construction company.
The 18,000-square-foot facility — conceptualized and built last year — “has everything a football player would need,” said Martinez, a 2016 fourth-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers who signed a three-year, $30 million free-agent contract with the Giants in March.
The warehouse-looking steel structure contains “a miniature version of a college weight room,” a full-length basketball court, a 30-by-15-yard turf field and an outdoor sand volleyball court. It also doubles as a residence, with three bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen on the second level for him, his wife, Kristy, and their young daughter.
“It kept getting better and better as it kept getting built,” Martinez said. He works out for two hours in person with his longtime trainer, Glenn Howell, four times a week.
But familiarity with his new franchise is a luxury Martinez, 26, doesn’t have.
With New York and New Jersey being one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Martinez doesn’t know when he’ll be able to travel to the facility or even meet members of the Giants organization for the first time.
“It’s not like I’ve been on the team for a while and I know the guys already. So, it’s been tough in that aspect, connecting with guys,” he said.
Martinez said the pandemic has taught him “I literally have zero excuses not to show up the first day and make sure I’m 100 percent ready to go and help push all of the younger guys to that level if they haven’t gotten there yet.”
Making use of California canyons
Golden Tate‘s stunning San Diego views come at a price.
“I’ve just got to watch out for rattlesnakes,” the Giants wide receiver said with a laugh.
When stay-at-home orders were issued in California in mid-March, Tate took advantage of his surroundings — namely, the canyon his house is built on.
“It’s not the best condition to be running in,” admitted the 11-year NFL player, who mowed a 7-by-40-yard patch of grass on a steep incline. “But it’ll suffice right now. It’s better than doing nothing.”
— Golden Tate (@ShowtimeTate) May 15, 2020
Tate, a married father of two small kids, purchased PowerBlock dumbbells and a Jugs machine from which he catches about 100 balls a day. He bikes at home on his Peloton and uses mountain bike trails for his aerobic conditioning. But finding a flat surface for route running has been a challenge. So, too, is self-discipline.
“Over my career, I’m so used to having someone — an instructor or the guys around me — push me. And right now, I’m forced to push myself,” said Tate, who turns 32 on Aug. 2.
The veteran receiver played through the 2011 NFL lockout, but he said the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything he has experienced.
“I feel bad for the first-, second-, third- and fourth-round guys who are expected to come in and help the team right away, but they’re not having the same opportunity to grow as a player, not getting those reps on the field,” he said.
“The offseason is when you have the time to really focus on the fundamentals of the game, the bigger picture and the details of the game. And it looks like right now we’re going to show up for camp — if we show up for camp — in the middle of the fire of trying to figure out who’s going to make the team and trying to get ready for a season. That can be overwhelming.”
Strengths trainers turned investigators
With their players scattered across the country, NFL strength and conditioning coaches feel more like part-time sleuths and office managers than in-person trainers.
“We kind of went more into equipment sales and trying to be a liaison to help guys get set up and make sure they’re doing the right thing,” said Justus Galac, now in his seventh year as the New York Jets‘ head strength and conditioning coach. “What we found was, guys in the Southern states and more into the Midwest had more access than our guys in the Northeast and West Coast.”
Danny Amendola impresses with some nifty, one-handed catches while working out with a helmet on in his backyard.
Strength trainers have been tasked with identifying what their players need from a performance standpoint to achieve their fitness goals, regardless of where they live and what resources they have access to. “Even though they might have access to a Steak ‘n Shake parking lot or they might be in a third floor of an apartment,” said Justin Lovett, the Los Angeles Rams‘ new head strength and conditioning coach.
Lovett was hired in the midst of California’s coronavirus shutdown, but unlike during the 2011 lockout year, when he was on the Denver Broncos‘ staff, communication is permitted and has proved paramount. But there have been challenges.
“The biggest problem with the rookie class is they don’t have the money that some of the older guys do,” Galac said. “Not saying millions of dollars, but able to go buy equipment, pay for a trainer to take care of them, buying more food that you may normally not have to buy because the facility provides it. All those little things are adding up for these guys. And the rookies, they have no idea. And it’s not their fault.”
This time of year is crucial for strength staffs, not only for getting players in shape but also for getting new players up to speed with their programs. “And we’ve lost that,” Galac said.
In fact, the Jets’ weight room underwent a face-lift this offseason, complete with a new floor, turf accents and equipment. “And nobody’s using it,” Galac said. “It’s sitting empty. The players haven’t even seen it yet.”
Finding space and serenity in the countryside
James Washington misses football. And, occasionally, his farm.
The 26-acre property the Steelers wide receiver purchased near his hometown of Abilene, Texas, made it easy for him to comply with social distancing rules. It also afforded him space to work out and keep in shape by way of chores. Washington, who was an agribusiness major with a concentration in farm and ranch management at Oklahoma State, finds the countryside calming. He enjoys the views of passing cars, wheat fields and cattle pastures during his eight- to 12-mile rides on his recently purchased bicycle.
His workout setup, which included an assortment of resistance bands sent by the Steelers and his high school dumbbells retrieved from his parents’ house, was complete with the arrival of a Jugs machine, which he kept in the barn and carried to a flat area in one of the pastures.
However, staving off boredom is a challenge whenever he’s in Pittsburgh, a more crowded city with fewer options for keeping busy.
“When I was in Texas, I’d work out, do my virtual [team] meetings and then I’d have to find something to do cause I can’t just sit in the house,” Washington said last week, after he, JuJu Smith-Schuster and fellow receiver Ryan Switzer worked out in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s home weight room. “Being on the farm really helped me a lot, because there was always something that could have been done.”
Washington loves his farm so much his recent stay in Pittsburgh was short-lived. He returned to Texas on Wednesday to celebrate Memorial Day weekend with family and tend to his most recent purchase: cattle. The time away from the Steelers’ facility has also given Washington time to think.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” he said. “Everybody feels like we should be at the facility, doing physical stuff, getting ready to go. … Even if there’s no fans, we still have to go out there and just go 110 percent, even if it would feel weird. Fans help make the game. It’s really crazy to think about.
“Just being away from things, you really find out how much you miss the sport. It sucks. That’s really what I figured out. That I love football.”