Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin had his sons and nephews running the steps of the practice field at the University of Minnesota at 5 a.m. earlier this week. When the Gophers came out an hour later and started running the same steps after the grade-schoolers finished, it made an impression on the youngsters.
Then came the big fish – the NFL players who stepped onto that practice field and started an intense workout with a mid-morning sweat. No matter the age level, football players across the country are starting to tune their bodies for preseason camps.
Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr., a four-time Pro Bowler, organizes a three-week camp that serves as a pre-training camp primer for NFL athletes and puts Minnesota as the place to be in July for those that want to challenge themselves. Fitzgerald, a Minnesota native who went on to star at the University of Pittsburgh and become one of the NFL's best and most dedicated receivers, has about two dozen players this week for the start of his workouts at the University of Minnesota – about half of them are on NFL rosters.
"It's cool. It's a big plus for me to be able to be at home and come up here with a lot of guys that are world-class athletes," said Minnesota native and St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis. "I think last year I came up here because I was thinking to myself, ‘How do I really get in shape for an NFL season and a training camp?' When Larry invited me I knew he would be a guy that would be in great shape for it and I loved what we did last year. This year it's the same mentality. It's just trying to get better and faster and more conditioned and you've got to surround yourself with guys like that."
Fitzgerald plays no favorites. He has receivers, quarterbacks, running backs, lineman, linebackers and defensive backs all attending the sessions, but a willingness to work is a requirement. Under the rising temperatures and increasing humidity earlier this week, the players went through footwork drills, ran several conditioning sprints that covered 300 yards each and then started the football drills of passing, receiving and covering.
"My biggest thing is conditioning. I really need to get into condition," said Golden Tate, a former Notre Dame star making his way into the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. "A guy's success is measured by how much work he puts in in the offseason. I'm kind of behind on that, so I'm trying to catch up and get ahead of the curve by coming out here, running the 300s and doing whatever they ask me. Anytime I drop a ball, you're going to see me run that route again and catch it. Just working hard out here and taking advantage of the opportunity."
Work is the key word, and it's a concept that is familiar to Fitzgerald, a former Vikings ball boy. He is driven to succeed, and that drive sent him to Florida when he was in high school so he could train with the best the Minnesota Vikings had to offer at the time – Cris Carter, Daunte Culpepper, Robert Smith. Carter organized that camp, but there is a common component to both camps, Bill Welle, who runs WelleFast Elite Programs.
Welle went from training Carter to putting together the routine for Fitzgerald's camp.
The players work out four days a week. Monday is speed day, Tuesday is agility, Thursday focuses on acceleration and Friday concentrates on metabolic training.
"It's a masterful job he does running these guys through this camp," said Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, who was on hand this week to dispense advice and inspire the athletes. "To see that many guys move through so efficiently and get the kind of work that they're getting, that's incredible. I love the idea that they work before they catch because that's what the game is. That's where the game is won. The game is won in the fourth quarter after all the work. You still have to concentrate in the fourth and make plays. That's what this says."
Irvin is just one of the Hall of Famers Fitzgerald brings in to work with the NFL players. Last year, Jerry Rice attended. Sometime this week, Cris Carter, who has been a Hall of Fame candidate for two years, is expected to arrive.
"Michael Irvin, he watches every single route and creates guys and (we) try to improve. That's really what it is," Fitzgerald said. "… Jerry Rice, he's the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time). He's probably the greatest receiver to ever play. He's a phenomenal route runner. Michael Irvin was probably the most mentally tough receiver to play. Mentally just so, so fierce and you can see that in the way he instructs guys out here. Cris was a technician with his routes and a master at getting open and making spectacular plays. So everybody has a little different flavor, and I think that's good for guys to be able to see greatness in so many different areas."
Irvin was instructing receivers about the game of inches involved in route-running and moving defensive players by the way the receiver runs the route. He also stressed being physical with a cornerback throughout the game.
He had a varied group of players to work with, from rookies like Tate and Broncos receiver Eric Decker to slightly experienced ones like Jaymar Johnson of the Vikings to veterans like tight end Jermichael Finley of the Packers and free agent Bobby Engram.
Minnesota's Sidney Rice is expected to join later this week and eventually more of Fitzgerald's teammates, like Beanie Wells, Steve Breaston and Matt Leinart, will make the trek to Minnesota. One of the big attractions is the influence of the Hall of Famers that are invited to dispense advice.
"I think it more so legitimizes things," Fitzgerald said. "They know a Hall of Famer is not going to come up here – he could be doing a thousand things, instructional camps or whatever he wants to do, he's a Hall of Famer – but he chooses to come up here and help us get better and that says a lot about him."
Irvin said he was honored by Fitzgerald's invitation and praised the receiver's interest in becoming a student of the game.
"If a quarterback is going to have success, he's going to have to have a receiver that's exactly what he is: a student of the game. Larry is phenomenal in that sense," Irvin said. "As young as he is, to have the ability to influence as many guys as he has, coming here to work out with him, it's incredible. He has a mission to continue to do what he does. And those guys are looking up to him. Most guys don't get this until after they're out of the league. Very few do this. It speaks to his maturity."
Said Tate: "Larry's been in the league for a number of years now. He knows exactly what to expect. He's out in Arizona where it's hot as balls. I'm out in Seattle, a little different weather-wise but same game. Just trying to have an idea of what's ahead of me right now.
Even an already-successful tight end like Finley is picking up pointers from Irvin, which is the reason he attended. Finley was referred to the camp by Packers receiver Greg Jennings, and now Finley plans attend each year for as long as Fitzgerald is having the camp.
"You've got Hall of Famers out here and Pro Bowlers. Everybody can learn from everybody. That's what I did. I just came out here, listened to Mike and took things from him. I'm going to go with it and see what I can do," Finley said. "The physical conditioning, that's all in the player. But routes is more of learning and teaching and detailing. That's what I came out here for, to detail my routes and try to be the best. That's my goal this year is to be the best tight end in history."
Fitzgerald's camp tends to draw out the competitiveness in players, whether it's divisional rivals like Finley and Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson or Fitzgerald and Laurinaitis.
"(Larry) doesn't like to be out-competed, so your competitive nature comes out big-time and that's the whole purpose of a bunch of guys getting around each other," Laurinaitis said. "I'm not going to lie to you – we're going to try to one-up each other. We see Larry twice a year, so I'm trying to see how he's working and try to keep up with those guys. But it's all good. Everyone's game is getting ready that way."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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