Blaise Winter knew he didn't have All-Pro talent when he joined the National Football League after playing for Syracuse. He did, however, have enough talent and resourcefulness to forge out a 12-year playing career on the defensive line of mainly three teams -- the Chargers, Colts and Packers.
That resourcefulness is what brought him to Minnesota this spring to work with the Vikings' defensive linemen.
"I always looked at bringing people into my life who had specialties," Winter told VU. "I worked one summer with an Olympic power lifter from overseas. I worked another offseason with a sprint coach that was world-renowned out of San Diego. The thing that made the most sense to me was that my hands could make the difference in how I play. I really think it added another three, four, five years to my career.
"When I went into the pros. not a lot of guys were doing it (martial arts), but some guys were. I always had a curiosity to find out how I could stay around for more years. I knew that I had some limitations from my hips down. I knew running-wise I wasn't Mr. Fleetfooted. I knew I wasn't a huge guy. From that standpoint I knew I needed to come up with something else.
Hand quickness and reaction are part of what Winter has been teaching players from Chris Hovan to rookie free agent Colin Cole. It's a combination of many techniques, from martial arts to hand-to-hand combat.
"I used certain things from the military, tools I take from different disciplines … different styles of martial arts," Winter said. "I take it from a lot of different realms and then I put it into a football progression."
Winters attended practices in April, May and June and saw some progress already in the veterans.
"I think they all have that potential (for great hands), but I think I see Hovan buying into it more and more. I see Kenny Mixon buying into it more," Winter said. "You can't beat these offensive linemen who can use their hands unless you know how to combat it. Lance (Johnstone) has shown some improvement in that area. I think some guys are going to have more success because their timing is a little bit better. We can't duplicate what happens on the field. They have to speed it up in their mind."
Winter also mentioned inside players like Fred Robbins and Billy Lyons as making progress in their handwork, but he said that tackles need to speed it up even more because they don't have time to set up offensive linemen like a defensive end might.
"You have three seconds against the quarterback -- three seconds or less. In football you can't set people up very much. You've got to go," he said.
It doesn't hurt that Winter is also a motivational speaker for corporate seminars as his main job, traveling the country and doing more than 100 of them each year.
So how does an ex-football player-turned-Tony Robbins come to consult for the Vikings? The same way most assistant coaches do -- connections. His connection to the Vikings is through George O'Leary, who coached Winter in college and for a time at the Chargers under Bobby Ross.
Winter wanted to stay close to football, but he didn't want to be a fulltime coach because he didn't like the idea of uprooting his family with each new job. Using his specialty in martial arts, he began to consult players at Georgia Tech. Now he has added the Bears, Chargers, Maryland, Duke to his client list.
"This is my vacation," Winter says of working with football players. "I'm very passionate about this stuff. I love it. I've been around it for 11 years as a pro, and for me to waste all that knowledge is a sin. I want to share it with other people. I have a unique perspective on how to go about attacking people.
"One thing I really sense here is that guys trust in me because I was a player. … I've worked with a lot of martial arts people over the years, and the ones that worked best for me were the ones that actually sat and learned the game. You don't have time to overhaul people. You have to tweak what they already do well. If it adds one or two more sacks over the course of a year, that might be the difference between a win and a loss or being able to get another contract and being told to just go home. Literally, two or three sacks can make a huge difference in a team's success as well as an individual's future in the league."
He hopes his tactics will manifest themselves as early as the season opener at Green Bay, despite the fact that he has his office in nearby Appleton, Wis.
"I've already received the razzing of ‘Aren't you a Packer. What sideline are you going to stand on when we open the season at Green Bay,'" he said. "I'm not loyal to a symbol, I'm loyal to people. And the people I'm loyal to here are Coach Tice, Coach O'Leary, Brian Baker and Chuck Knox."
The Hand Combat Man
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