Strength And Speed -- From the Inside

The idea? The Blue and Gold News sends a writer through West Virginia University's Speed, Strength and Conditioning camp to provide an inside view of that program. The results? Read on...

The insipration for the idea is George Plimpton, who was one of the first "participatory journalists". Plimpton spent a summer training camp and an exhibition game as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, sparred with world champion boxer Archie Moore, and played guard for basketball's Boston Celtics, and lived to write about it.

So Kevin Kinder of pitches what a great idea it is to me. Sure, General Custer, let's camp here.

I'm out of the game, retired at 21. Flagship U. isn't the Lions, though the records were comparable last season. Won't be taking cheap shots from the Detroit secondary, either.

And Greg Hunter, the publisher of the Blue & Gold News won't do. It's speed, strength, conditioning. He has one out of three.

They should have sent Willie Bucy, Bob's son. He is an all-star baseball player, a future big-timer. He's not yet a teen. It's too young or too old. That leaves me.

"You're a pretty good softball player," Bob McClain, a graduate assistant for the football team, says. "Should be no problem."

West Virginia native John Kruk, a former first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies: "I'm a ballplayer, not an athlete."

I've been in college three years. Beers replaced barbells, and 6 a.m. is when the day ends, not begins. The freshman 15? This 6-0, 170-pounder lost five pounds overall, probably more of muscle.

Visions of scholarships faded long ago. It's why you're reading this by me, instead of this, about me, though I've even twisted that as well. Power of the press.

There's a certain pressure in being the oldest. Once you're too old, that's fine. The tension ceases. You're not supposed to compete. I still am. I fear I'm expected to impress, as well.

May 11, 9 a.m. Camp is held inside the Indoor Practice Facility and Puskar Center weight room at the Mountaineer Football Complex. There are 150 athletes overall. They range in age from 10 to 21. Guess who's 21?

Everybody else is a teenager. The next youngest is 18, not yet out of high school. West Virginia capped it like that, probably so college athletic rejects don't clog the field.

We want to look good out there; Spot the Athlete. Not all are football players. Wrestlers are the next largest segment. There are a few girls, basketball and softball players. Some soccer daughters.

A couple high school football teams bring 10 or more players.

Mike Barwis, head strength coach, gives me the OK to go with any group. The 15-year olds look tempting. They'll lift, and six years should give me a major advantage. I go with the 17-18 year olds.

The camp is impressively structured. The entire indoor facility is used. Scattered are cones, footwork ladders, medicine balls and Stretch Bands, the invention of 61-year old Dick Hartzell and latest in training technology.

The staff of 18 builds the exercises. I'll backpedal and shuffle, work foot speed and mechanics, squat, power clean and bench press, all before lunch. I'll know everything about each.

First, the basics of running form. McClain and Christin Annie, a former Mountaineer women's basketball player and current professional boxer, instruct on basics. Proper arm form, breathing and rhythm.

"There are football players, Division 1-A athletes, who don't run properly," McClain said. "We take a lot of players, especially lineman, and have to teach them how to run."

I think of Antonio Brown and a mild balance problem and hope McClain knows what he's talking about.

Speed increases and endurance will improve with proper mechanics. It's been proven.

Forty-five degree arm angle, hands up, maybe pinch the thumb and index finger, bring it up to your chest, pump the arms with the legs, upper body is as important as the lower, stay low when you start, break down to cut.

Little league coaches do that to players while they bat. Elbow back, bat up, swing through the zone, rotate the hips, small step, eye on the ball, flip the wrists.

The kids are always busy processing the last of the instruction as the pitch goes by.

Nothing learned today will improve me immediately. It takes daily drills, repetition until the mind shapes the form until it's second nature. WVU's decathalete took a couple years to get all this.

"I have no idea what I used to look like," he said. "But I know I gained speed and quickness just working and molding proper form. Everything comes, but it takes major effort and time."

He teaches explosive drills for the legs. Five different types of exercises are shown. Butt kicks, high stepping, etc.

Barwis comes over and works us through the ladders. It's a foot speed drill. Ropes strung together to resemble a ladder lay on the ground. Step in, step out, maybe two steps in and out, side shuffle and up and back. The wrestlers hate the intricacy of it. I do, too. Of everything in the day, that took the most effort, both mental and physical. And Barwis makes us run through it again if we misstep.

He's more fluid and quicker than any of us.

We spend 20 minutes at each drill, and this one seems like one hour.

We shuffle from there to the cones, which will haunt us later.

Now we're ready to put the first three drills together. Stacian Brown, NCAA qualifier and All-American sprinter for WVU's track team, times us in getting through the cones. Sprint up, shuffle to the right and left, backpedal, do it again. How many in 20 seconds. I get through four to five each time and pat myself on the back. I'm quicker than most through the cones, backpedal better. My 15-plus years of backyard football and the "Everybody go Deep" plays help. That's all we did -- backpedal and read the eyes of the quarterback. There was no power game.

"Not bad," Brown says. I watch her do it, and my enthusiasm slightly wanes. She's all-world, though, one of a handful of Jamaican track athletes at WVU and one of the fastest women in college sports.

The next area is the most innovative of any. The stretch rubber bands are a miracle of basic thought.

Hartzell, the inventor and a former Ohio high school football coach, started using oversized rubber bands because he felt too many of his players were getting injured from basic problems like lack of flexibility and strength in the joints.

He designed the bands, patented and marketed them, got dropped by two different companies and lost his house before hitting the road to sell the product and himself. The bands, used by 90 percent of Major League Baseball teams and a majority of pro and college football and basketball squads, grossed $1.2 million last year.

Hartzell, while brilliant, is a physical freak. He's in his 60s, and has more white hair, better flexibility and more chiseled muscles than any other athlete there. He does splits like a collegiate gymnast and has the mental fortitude to work Derek Jeter and Bobby Knight, who he has had pictures taken with, the same way he works the 12-year old campers.

The first year Ohio State used the bands the Buckeyes dropped from 40-50 soft tissue injuries to three. At the end of the camp Hartzell will jump up and down, landing on the side of his ankle to show he can't break it.

"I don't believe in sprained ankles," he said. "I had major college quarterbacks, playing for teams like Youngstown State (where the bands were originally used) and Mount Union -- one of the winningest programs in the nation -- suffer major ankle sprains on a Saturday and be back practicing Monday."

The secret, which WVU will also utilize, is to stretch the joint and use it immediately after the injury.

"When you sprain an ankle, you pull apart fibers and tendons in an unnatural way," he said. "Then you ice it, keeping the swelling down but freezing those pulls in place. That's not 99 percent wrong. It is 100 percent wrong. I take the injury and begin to stretch it out and allow it to move back into place and keep the blood going to the area."

Doctors might disagree, but the immediate results can't be argued, though long term consequences have yet to be assessed.

Hartzell shows us several exercises, mostly stretching. The bands give resistance both ways, known to be the most effective way to stretch and build stronger and more flexible muscles, the kind least likely to be injured. We also work on exploding off the ball using a series of giant rubber bands tied together.

Ten to 12 people can use the octopus-like contraption at one time. Each athlete gives resistance to the other, so the more athletes, the more resistance. A band goes around the waist, and players can move out of a three-point distance or backpedal or work on sideways shuffling.

It's tiring, and Hartzell works us over like a mandolin. From there we jog to the Puskar Center for training on weights.

Editor's Note: As Matt trots down the hill, we'll draw the curtain down on Part 1 of his summer camping excursion. Check back on Monday for a look at the remainder of the day, and witness Matt's biggest challenge as he goes one-on-one with a camp instructor.

On a serious note, would like to thank the entire Strength and Conditioning staff at WVU for allowing us the opportunity to participate in the camp. They are professionals in every sense of the word!

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