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Behind the scenes: more than brute strength

Posted May 20, 2011

San Diego’s strength and conditioning coaches work with elite athletes, but the goal is to help them stay healthy and prepare them for football, not ratchet their bench press to Olympic qualifying levels.

Editor’s note: this is the first installment of a series looking at Chargers staff members who contribute to the team behind the scenes.

SAN DIEGO – The 200-pound dumbbells are attention-grabbers in the weight room at Chargers Park.

NFL players often are described as the best athletes in the world, and it’s easy to imagine them throwing around barbells stacked with 45-pound plates or dead-lifting something that resembles a small car.

While San Diego’s roster includes some with impressive brute strength, rivaling a World’s Strongest Man re-run isn’t the goal. A 16-game regular season does enough to erode joints.

“You might have a 10-year vet; we do him no good by pounding a bunch of weight on his back in a squat,” Strength and Conditioning Coach Jeff Hurd said. “We find a different exercise or a different movement to keep him strong and healthy; not something that might be helping him deteriorate his knee or his lower back.”

The strength program isn’t trying to develop Olympic-caliber lifters.

“Our job is to help prepare them to win games. There’s really no other goal,” Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Vernon Stephens said. “We don’t like to waste any time. We like to be very efficient. Our program is designed to prepare them to play football.”

The most remarkable thing about an NFL strength program compared with what college athletes endure or what your average gym attendee follows is its specificity, breadth and the amount of time it requires year-round.

Stephens, in his fifth NFL season, also spent years at the University of North Florida and the University of Colorado. College athletes may be capable of matching professionals physically, but the NCAA imposes strict limits designed to emphasize the importance of education. Also, a typical college football team includes 40 or 50 more players.

“We don’t have those same limitations,” Stephens said. “In the NFL we work with these athletes year-round, which gives them an advantage. We can individualize a program. We do a lot more specific. We can change a lot more deficiencies.

“I believe it takes two to three years for an NFL player to reach who they’re going to be physically. That first year is really important.”

Because of that, one of their most important jobs is working with the training staff to keep players healthy and on the field. When Hurd entered the NFL in 1992 as an intern for the Kansas City Chiefs, many players used training camp to get in shape. A strength and conditioning coach had to act as a drill sergeant. Now that role sometimes shifts to doting parent. Players know they must show up in shape or else they’ll be susceptible to injury and will be too tired to keep up with the learning curve.

“On the flip side of that, it’s important that they understand there still needs to be a recovery period after the season,” Hurd said. “They have no idea until they actually stop sometimes how beat up they really are.”

Year-round isn’t synonymous with metronome. The program focuses on maintenance and recovery in-season. The beginning of the offseason is devoted to recovery, followed by a gradual acceleration to a full-fledged conditioning peak near training camp.

Every athlete that walks into the room is genetically gifted to some extent. The job is less about physical development in many cases and more about accountability and focus. Like in all levels of sports, the weight room offers a sort of macho social environment and emotional outlet for athletes.

“A lot of times people forget these guys come in and they’re 22, 23 years old. Even the average player is 26, which is a young man. I’m 10 years older than the average guy on our team,” Stephens said.

 “Some of those guys have questions or they have things they’re dealing with that can be a hindrance to them focusing on what they need to do on the field. Sometimes they just need some direction or they need somebody just to listen to them that’s not interested in taking money out of their pocket.”

The reason athletes get paid to play often has more to do with how they translate their power, explosion and speed to position-specific techniques than what they can max on a bench press.

“When you see some of these offensive linemen that are 330 pounds still running a 4.9, 5.0 40-yard dash, doing our change of direction drills, that’s what separates them from someone who’s in the gym squatting 500 pounds,” Hurd said.

“I’ve seen a lot of 400-pound bench pressers that play football like they’re on roller skates.”

The thing that amazes Hurd is that players haven’t lost athleticism over the decades, just gotten larger.

A noticeable personality, Hurd’s trademark is an upside-down, backward visor that he wears to practice, often accompanied by some sort of facial hair. He loves being involved with the players, snapping the ball during 7-on-7 drills and constantly talking.

He’s grateful for the prominence of strength and conditioning in the Chargers’ organization and credits Head Coach Norv Turner for emphasizing it to the players and offering support.

“(Turner) treats this just like he would a meeting or practice,” Hurd said. “He lets the players know that in his mind, this is how you can stay on the field, this is how you can have a prolonged career and this is going to help you win football games.

“That allows us to be effective. Because if not, you can be like a sheriff without a gun down here. Sometimes (Turner) doesn’t get enough credit because he’s a humble guy and no one sees him behind the scenes.”

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