<strong>August 4, 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.sportingnews.com/exclusives/20050804/637477.html">The Sporting News</a>
The stuff sits benignly on the grass. A rope ladder. A bungee cord. An orange power belt. A few cones. This is supposed to be a state-of-the-art workout, not a refuge for orphans from some fitness nut's yard sale. "Just you wait," says the thickly muscled man who unpacked all of it from a bag. He is grinning the grin of someone who knows a secret and is eager to reveal it. But it's easy for him to smile; he isn't about to embark on two nasty sessions from exercise hell, covering almost 2 hours. That task falls to his companion on this mildly hot June day in San Diego -- and all you see on the face of LaDainian Tomlinson is serious anticipation.
It is eight weeks before training camp. There are no fans around to cheer, no teammates to offer support, no coaches to prod. The venue is plain vanilla, a public park. The silence of the morning gives way only occasionally to the intrusion of a passing car, the wail of a distant mower. This is the most famous athlete in San Diego, yet no one stops to watch, no one wonders why he is on these grounds, willing to turn his legs into a big puddle of mush.
He knows why.
They, too, prodded themselves during offseasons, measuring their fortitude against constantly expanding limits of endurance and pain. They had talent but became something much greater and more memorable because of their willingness to develop their bodies beyond anything they realistically could imagine. They ran hills and trudged along sandy beaches and watched as peers accompanying them fell off to puke.
What if someone more gifted than Rice or Payton -- the best player in the NFL today -- attempts to exceed their level of determination? And what if, instead of hills and beaches, he relies on cutting-edge training techniques, computer measurements and a crew of specialists dedicated to honing virtually every aspect of his body? How extraordinary could he become? How high could he raise his performance?
The thickly muscled man calls out the number. Tomlinson says nothing. He is hopping very quickly on one foot, over and over, between rungs of the fully extended rope ladder, before turning and bouncing back on the other foot.
Twenty-two hundred yards -- it is his goal this season, a goal that would obliterate Eric Dickerson's NFL rushing record of 2,105. And now that Emmitt Smith has retired, carrying with him the all-time career rushing yardage mark (18,355), why not aim to surpass that number, too? Certainly, no other contemporary has the combination of talent, potential career longevity and grit to better stalk Smith, Tomlinson's boyhood idol. At 26, after four seasons, he already has accumulated 5,899 rushing yards, almost one-third of the way to Smith's benchmark figure.
"He's a staggering talent," says Randy Mueller, the Dolphins' new general manager. "He has no weaknesses. And he has that extra gear to go 60 yards every time. But he's more than a runner. He is a great receiver, he's willing to go inside for extra yards, he'll pick up blitzes. He is the most complete back in the business. And he's not even close to his prime. But to catch Emmitt, he will need health, luck and good talent around him, which wasn't the case before last year. It'll be fun to watch."
The ladder drill ends. "We start off with low-intensity stuff," says Todd Durkin, the thickly muscled man, although the intensity already seems quite high. A former quarterback at William & Mary, Durkin has transformed himself into an elite personal trainer, selected the best in the country by his peers this year. Two years ago, after doing offseason workouts on his own, Tomlinson asked Durkin to make him better.
"How good do you want to be?"
"The best ever."
Durkin never allows his client to forget that goal. Or others Tomlinson constantly establishes. Tomlinson is obsessed with goals; they give reason to why he is alone with Durkin on this field, testing his willpower and mental discipline. Already wildly rich -- he signed a new eight-year, $60 million deal with the Chargers last year -- Tomlinson sees responsibilities amid the financial blessings. How unconscionable would it be for him to provide his bosses with anything less than a performance exceeding what he already has produced?
"When we were negotiating with LT, I told people that sometimes a guy gets a lot of money and you don't know what will happen," says Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. "But not with LT. He will be the same player, the best I have ever seen in my 40-plus years of following pro football. He has great, great personal pride in everything he does. You need to realize he is a unique individual, with a high sense of values and great loyalty. He feels if he isn't doing this extra work, he is letting someone down. Now, I'm not saying money isn't important to him. But it's not what drives him."
That personal pride has led to this: a trainer, nutritionist, two massage experts and a chiropractor, all focused on producing what Durkin calls "optimum performance." Only no one, not Durkin, not Tomlinson, knows what that optimum performance might be. That's the excitement behind all this arduous training: Where will it lead? "I am quicker, stronger, my core is better balanced and more in line," he says. "I can feel it on the field. I know it is helping a lot."
"Be the hardest-working player. No one outworks you."
It is deep into this first session. Tomlinson has a rope attached to the orange belt around his waist, and he is running hard while Durkin pulls the opposite way, creating enormous resistance for LT to overcome. Durkin is the cheerleader to Tomlinson's silent efforts, constantly prodding him with rapid bursts of inspiration.
This is all about the buzzwords of functional sports training: dynamic quickness, explosion, core strengthening, fast twitch, top-end speed. Weight training is left to the Chargers; these two-or-three-times-a-week double sessions with Durkin are devised to meticulously and deliberately develop specific areas of Tomlinson's body -- the small muscles of his feet so he can have more strength to cut; his hips so he can spin equally as impressively in either direction; his shoulders and groin and eyes and every other element essential to elevating performance. The goal is to reduce injuries while putting LT in proper physical balance and symmetry. The edge in games comes when, because of this training, he has the extra burst to turn 5 yards into 60, the power to twirl away from a tackler.
"Come on, feet, show us what you got."
The exercises are increasing in intensity now. Tomlinson is hopping over cones for a few minutes, then running while attached to a bungee cord to help activate fast-twitch muscles. Sweat masks his face. He refuses to breathe vigorously. Durkin brings out a football. Tomlinson holds it during some drills; other times, he turns and catches poorly thrown passes at the end of a fatiguing set. He never drops one. This is about reproducing the motions and feel of games. It's why he wears football cleats; it's why he works on thick grass, not an artificial surface. It's why he constantly is cutting, not running straight ahead.
He is so obsessive about training that Durkin must monitor him closely. Two weeks after the end of the 2003 season, in which the Chargers finished 4-12 and Tomlinson accounted for almost 46 percent of their yards, he resumed workouts. He felt responsible for his team's mediocrity, so he had to try to make himself even better. On supposed off-days, he would run up and down stairs in his house. He peaked too early, lost too much weight (from 223 to 215 pounds) for a man with 6 percent body fat and never recovered physically before training camp. He pulled a groin muscle in October, which both he and Durkin blame on overtraining. The groin never fully healed, hampering his running until December. He still finished with 1,335 rushing yards and 53 catches, all the while enjoying the Chargers' unexpected surge to the playoffs, a first in his career.
This offseason, he rested for six weeks, enough time for him to dive into the cookies and cakes he loves and indulge in his favorite fajitas and burritos. Once his nutritionist begins cooking for him just before camp, he eats mostly chicken, rice, pasta and fish. Most of this -- the prepared meals, four massages a week, weekly visits to the chiropractor -- is influenced by Emmitt Smith. The two are friends -- LT once attended his football camp -- and the wise veteran has told him, "Don't be like me and wait too long to take really good care of your body." It was not until near the end of his career that Smith surrounded himself with a variety of conditioning specialists. "Coming from him," says Tomlinson, "I took it as the gospel. He didn't have to share those things with me; he knew I could be coming after his records. But he didn't care."
Tomlinson watched Smith's retirement press conference last February on television. He shed a tear and applauded his idol. Even though Smith has urged him to call anytime, Tomlinson has resisted contacting him. He still feels awkward, like a little kid, in Smith's presence. "I don't want to bother him," LT says. "I mean, to me, he still is Emmitt Smith, the guy I grew up wanting to copy."
It is one of the elements that makes Tomlinson so refreshing, this respectful, wide-eyed part of him. "They tell me I am an old man in a young guy's body," he says, laughing. He does have some old-time views. He still thinks players should be loyal to their teams, a major reason he passed on becoming a free agent and re-signed with the Chargers last training camp, long before they began tasting success. He reflects a work ethic learned from a mother who brought up three kids on her own, supporting them by working two jobs, and a father who loaded hay on trucks in the searing west Texas summer heat. In February, he treated his linemen to a Pro Bowl trip. He later finished his final courses to earn a degree from TCU. He is so much of what many fans miss today about the athletes they watch -- plus he's so darn much fun on the field, the way he darts around tacklers and threatens to turn each carry into a spectacular gain.
"He is a breath of fresh air for this league," says Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal. "A class act, a hard worker, no excuses and really entertaining. He is going to get national attention now that we are winning, and people are going to like what they see. He is the future of this league, what it needs."
Despite Tomlinson's brilliance, his national profile remains incomplete, in large part because, before last season, the Chargers rarely appeared on national TV. It will be different this fall; San Diego will be part of at least five nationally broadcast contests. It's a terrific forum for Tomlinson, but with the emergence of tight end Antonio Gates and the development of quarterback Drew Brees, the offense now has a balance that could limit his exposure and carries, making the 2,200 goal more difficult. Isn't it ironic Schottenheimer -- father of run-loving Martyball -- has the best back he has ever coached at a time Schottenheimer has become enamored of passing? But Tomlinson isn't completely sold on the new Marty. "Despite all Marty says about passing, deep down he's still a coach who wants to run it. You wait and see."
"Never show you are tired."
Durkin knows how to push Tomlinson -- just imply he can't overcome fatigue. LT doesn't acknowledge his trainer. But he finishes up the outdoor session with explosions of speed unequaled previously. Then they kneel for a quick prayer.
Twenty minutes later, they are at it again, this time inside Fitness Quest 10, where Durkin works. The rope ladder and bungee cord have given way to mats, a piece of wood, a half-ball/half-platform called a Bosu, dumbbells, strength-measuring machines and a few tennis balls. This is where Tomlinson builds up various parts of his body; the field drills translate this strengthening into practical applications.
At one point, Tomlinson, in stocking feet, stands with one leg on the Bosu platform while Durkin snaps passes at him, low, high, just within reach. It is incredibly taxing on the small muscles in his feet, yet Tomlinson not once falls off or mishandles a pass. It took him three weeks to learn how to stay upright.
He does crunches and leg work while lying across a large exercise ball. He walks laterally, legs straining outward against a bungee cord around his feet, bent at the waist, hands spread wide. He does drills with a power wheel strapped between his feet, pushing up his arms from the mat, then bringing the wheel toward his hands so his legs wind up under him. He pulls on a cord attached to a machine to measure hip strength, then is strapped into another machine that helps enhance power in his running motion.
By the time he finishes, he is very weary. He denies it. "We usually go longer outside," he says. "I am only 80-90 percent of where I want to be at camp. We are right on track."
During a vacation to Jamaica last winter with his wife, he couldn't stay away from the exercise room. For a moment, even he wondered why. But he knows the answer. "Walter would be working out," he says. There's more. "It's all about whether you have it to be the best. You can talk about it, but will you truly put in the time when no one is watching? How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be a legend in the game or someone just playing for the money or whatever?
"I feel I am a very talented player, but how much better would I be if I do these workouts? Maybe it will make me talented enough to blow out your eyes. No one knows -- but why not try to be the greatest? I could be walking on the beach right now telling myself how good I am. Or I could be here, doing something about it. If I am not, someone else is getting the edge on me, to be better than me, and I just refuse to let anyone be better than me."
He grabs a salad from a nearby carryout and drives off in his Hummer2. He'll be back again in a couple of days. Best ever. It's there for the taking -- if you just work hard enough for it.
THIS IS ... LaDAINIAN TOMLINSON
Favorite TV show: CSI: Miami
Favorite movie: Diary of a Mad Black Woman
Favorite athlete growing up: Emmitt Smith
Favorite video game: Madden
Favorite musical artist: Scarface
Favorite CD: T.I.'s Urban Legend
Favorite actor: Jamie Foxx
Favorite relaxation: Golf
Favorite vacation spot: Jamaica
ATTNER'S TOP 5
A quick ranking of the top running backs in the NFL heading into the 2005 season:
1. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers
2. Jamal Lewis, Ravens
3. Priest Holmes, Chiefs
4. Corey Dillon, Patriots
5. Edgerrin James, Colts