"Are you watching? Because this is going to be awful."
Joe DeFranco knelt on the 40-yard line, holding a stopwatch. A squad of NFL prospects stood behind me, holding back laughter.
I crouched on the goal line in the Overtime Sports facility in Wayne, New Jersey. And the only thing I held was my breath.
The players behind me – all elite former college players who're training for the NFL Combine – were snickering because I was going to run my first 40-yard dash with no coaching. DeFranco told me he wanted to see what I'm made of.
It was Tuesday, January 13th, and I'd been training with this group for all of two hours. I was on the first of four tests that I would experience in my week of training with DeFranco and his athletes. Still to come, the vertical jump on Wednesday, the 20-yard shuttle on Thursday, and the 225-pound bench press for reps on Friday
In between all of that, I'd be lifting whatever his athletes were lifting, running whatever they were running.
I was there for two reasons. First, of course, is because of opportunity. I mean, if you had an invitation to train with some of the country's top athletes in any major sport, wouldn't you?
Second, and more seriously, I wanted to see if I could hold my own with guys like this. It's not that I'm delusional enough to think I can hang with them on the football field. That would be suicidal. I didn't even play in high school, for no particular reason other than the fact I like to play everything but don't like being told how to play anything.
Five years after graduating, I have no regrets about the touchdowns I didn't score. But I do take a lot of pride in the fact that I train like an athlete, and look like one. Now I was going to find out if that pride is warranted.
When DeFranco and I worked out the details of my visit to his gym, I told him I didn't want to be a fly on the wall. I wanted to do everything his NFL prospects did. If I couldn't handle the training, I'd say so in the article. What I didn't tell him, though, was that Tim Patterson, swearing me to secrecy, had supplied me with his mythic Plazma formula to help me handle Defranco's infamously brutal workouts.
All I can say is, Plazma not only made a difference, but it made the difference – bringing my trashed muscles literally back from the dead, bigger, stronger, and ready for more. I've never experienced anything like that before. Totally amazing stuff, but more on that later.
DeFranco agreed to let me participate in everything, which is how I ended up on the goal line, 40 yards away from DeFranco and his stopwatch, in front of a group of elite football players who're trying not to laugh.
"Come to Jersey, and you'll see how hard my guys lift in a warehouse when the world isn't watching."
DeFranco's gym was harder than hell to find. Thanks to his horrible directions ("Look for the Chevrolet dealership"), it took longer than I expected to get there from the airport. I had to ditch my cab and set off on foot, eventually finding the warehouse gym tucked between two identically nondescript buildings.
I was five minutes late. Not the way I'd hoped to start this thing.
Walking into DeFranco's the first time on that Monday morning was a sensory overload. Hip-hop music blared and chains clanked. There was chalk dust in the air, and ammonia assaulted my nostrils.
My eyes tried to take in everything at once: the huge banner hanging over the power racks on one side of the gym, the signed pictures and jerseys from professional athletes decorating the opposite wall, the 600-pound tire lurking ominously in a corner next to sledgehammers, heavy bands, boards, and every type of barbell you can imagine. Fourteen guys, my training partners this week, were spread out randomly across the gym, stretching and talking loud enough to hear themselves over the music.
Who wouldn't want to train in a place like this? I felt at home... until I realized nobody was going to talk to me.
They knew who I was, and why I was there – DeFranco had told them I was coming. The problem was that nobody wanted to break the ice until I'd been tested.
What am I getting myself into? I thought as I laced up my Nikes in the corner. I shoved my regular clothes into a backpack, jumped up and down a few times, clapped my hands together, and grabbed my balls to make sure they hadn't run home to momma.
The guys had broken up into two groups and started warming up for the first exercise, a max effort, reverse-band bench press with chains. "Jump in there," DeFranco said, pointing to the second power rack.
I made my way over to the rack and warmed up with my group. Fifteen minutes had passed since I first walked in the door, and the only words directed to me from anyone other than DeFranco were "you're up" or "do two reps."
As we neared our two-rep max, a dude in a beanie and orange shirt stopped me. He pointed to my faded T Nation shirt. "Is that pink or salmon?"
"I think it's magenta," I replied. "Maybe rose."
I pushed by and took my spot on the bench, looking up at a bar loaded with 385 pounds.
"C'mon Salmon!" he yelled.
I pulled my feet underneath me, tightened my upper back, took a hand-off from the spotter, and pushed through two hard, clean reps. When I stood up and walked off the platform, Orange Shirt (real name: Mike Guadango a baseball star at William Paterson University, a local Division III school) held his hand out. I slapped it. I'd been initiated.
As the workout progressed, I stopped worrying about my own performance and started watching the other guys train. This group was in its third week of training with DeFranco, at the end of the most intense part of the program. After this week, they would start tapering in preparation for the Combine, which started February 18.
Because they knew the system, they could joke and bust each other's balls between sets, and then be all business when it was their turn to step onto the platform.
Then there was me. Most of the time I didn't even realize when it was my turn in the rotation.
Under the bar, they grimaced and grunted. But it wasn't "hey, look at me!" grunting. These were more primal, more guttural, more necessary. If the athlete under the bar wasn't making enough noise, the guys around him picked up the slack, yelling, cursing, and flat-out demanding that he lift the weight.
"You'll see I don't have to yell or scream," DeFranco had told me earlier. "Everybody thinks that we go fucking nuts in the gym, which is definitely true in terms of energy. But I don't have to get on them. I just write the workout on the board and coach the guys. They're self-motivated beyond anything I could ever say or do."
I quickly learned the worst thing you can do at DeFranco's is come to a complete stop. While doing a set of push-ups with 80 pounds of chains draped around my neck, I paused at the top to catch my breath.
"What the hell are you doing, Salmon? Drive! Drive! Drive!"
The same thing happened toward the end of the Gun Show, an arm blast that included three 30-second sets of fat-bar cable curls, supersetted with band triceps extensions.
"Lock it out! Don't you fucking stop!"
Luckily, the yelling and hard looks weren't always directed toward me.
I asked DeFranco about the "don't stop" mentality of his athletes as we wrapped up our first day of training.
"At this level, everyone's kissing their ass," DeFranco said. "'Man, you're fucking awesome. You're a freak.' And the guys hear this shit and it's hard for them not to have their heads swell. But they get in here and they're humbled. They're not out to impress anybody. They're here to work their asses off. Their actions speak louder than words."
"Our guys are different. They've got a mental edge over everyone else."
A few words about the NFL Combine, in case you've been wondering what the hell these guys are training for:
Think of the Combine as an invitation-only job interview that could either win you a six- or seven-figure NFL contract... or send you back to wherever it is you came from, with no consolation prize. Only 300 college football players get the chance to travel to Indianapolis in mid-February to perform a battery of physical and mental tests in front of NFL scouts.
Until recently, most athletes didn't train specifically for the event.
"A lot of kids have a good college career and are gifted athletes, so they think they can automatically go on [to the pros]," DeFranco told me. "But now it's the best of the best. Every little detail counts, and you better train for it."
If you put yourself in the scout's shoes, you quickly see the benefit of the Combine tests. Take two guys who play the same position, are roughly the same height and weight, and are relatively equal on the field. How do you decide which one will be the better player at the next level? Even if their college teams played against each other, how do you separate their individual talent from the strength of their teammates, or the quality of the coaching they received?
The Combine can't tell anyone that, but it does allow coaches to get an accurate measure of the athletes' height, weight, speed in the 40-yard dash, and ability to grind out reps of the bench press with 225 pounds. They can also judge the athletes in the shirtless test, which is exactly what it sounds like: deciding who looks better with his shirt off.
A tenth of a second here, an inch there, two reps somewhere else, or thicker muscles anywhere may be all that separates two prospects.
"The difference between the 10th and 15th draft pick may not be that much at all," DeFranco said. "But it could mean a million dollars or more, based on those little differences and where they end up being ranked."
And while DeFranco has a few potential first-round picks – former USC linebacker Brian Cushing, for example – they're not the typical athletes he attracts or even wants.
"I pride myself on attracting the blue-collar kids who're looking to make real improvements. Every trainer's going to make their claim and tell you their programs are superior and their athletes are the best. But most of them are glorified babysitters who're just going to take credit for the first-round freak. I don't give a shit if you have a kid who comes to you and runs a 4.35 40. If he's not running faster than that at the Combine, you didn't do a damn thing. My mother could've done that. I want to take a kid that runs a 4.35, and have him run a 4.29 when it counts."
But don't think DeFranco's first-rounders take the easy way out. "Cushing could do nothing for the next few weeks, go into the Combine, and crush it," DeFranco said. "But that's not good enough for him. He wants to be the best linebacker there, so he's working his ass off to get even freakier."
"What the hell kind of set-up is that?"
So there I was on Tuesday morning, crouching on the goal line in my awkward position, preparing to run the 40-yard dash for the first time since high school. I set my feet, paused briefly, then lurched forward. The first few steps felt slow, but after 10 yards, I was completely upright and moving quickly. It felt good to reach top speed. I smiled as I passed DeFranco and his stopwatch.
DeFrancobroke the news: "4.9."
"You're a lot faster than that," he added, "but your start sucks. It's slowing you down." That smile on my face didn't last long.
The key to a great start, DeFranco told me, is to set your feet as close to the line as possible, while maintaining a front-shin angle of about 45 degrees to the ground, with a back-shin angle slightly above parallel to the ground. My front shin had apparently been at 90 degrees, a big no-no that popped me up and slowed me down.
I should've pushed back into the ground, allowing me to fire out instead of up. I also didn't know to keep my hips slightly above my shoulders, with one hand on the ground slightly behind my shoulder. My other hand should've been placed at my hip, with my elbow at 90 degrees and my hand open.
Anything else? Okay, yeah, I'd neglected to tuck my chin down toward my chest.
I never knew sprinting could be so damn complicated.
DeFranco's coaching made a huge and immediate difference. Five minutes later, I ran a 4.75. Not great, but not bad either. Imagine what I could do with eight weeks of coaching and practice.
As I walked back to the group, I asked Brad Lester, a running back from Auburn, if DeFranco had helped him get faster.
"The first time I came in, I ran a 1.82 on the first 10 yards," Lester said. "We made a couple of technique changes, and it was down to 1.75 in five minutes. Right now it's down to 1.65, and I still have a few more weeks of training to go."
Out of anyone here at DeFranco's, Lester may have the most to gain. Previously ranked as the number-three running back in the country, he suffered a major injury last fall, at the beginning of his senior season.
"I jumped off the ground, got flipped over and landed head-first," he told me. "My whole neck went numb. I had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. The doctors said I had some nerve damage, and I needed to sit out for a couple of weeks."
After that, Lester's pro stock plummeted, and he wasn't invited to the Combine.
That leaves him with one all-or-nothing shot. Major colleges host a Pro Day, when NFL scouts visit the campus to watch players perform the Combine tests. If he makes a strong enough impression on Auburn's Pro Day on March 10, he might yet hear his name called in the five-round NFL draft on April 25 and 26.
This type of client isn't new to DeFranco, either.
"I've only been on my own for six years, and would say maybe 15 to 20 guys have been drafted. My guys actually make the NFL roster, though. Miles Austin (#19, Dallas) didn't even get invited to the Combine, let alone get drafted. But he walked on at the training camp and did so well he's now the starting kick returner for the Dallas Cowboys."
"Look at fitness boy over there! Get it!"
The morning after the sprints, I woke up, got out of bed, and nearly fell to the floor. It was like a hangover in my legs. I couldn't remember the last time my lower body had been this sore.
I checked my schedule and realized we'd be doing the vertical-jump test, along with heavy box squats. Shit. I had a quick breakfast of oats, Metabolic Drive, and blueberries, packed the secret-weapon formula that my boss had entrusted me with, and grabbed a double espresso.
When I got to DeFranco's, I noticed the gym was more crowded than the day before. Three NFL players, who are also DeFranco clients – Anthony Cotrone (#44, Jaguars), Lance Ball (#27, Colts), and Vinny Ciurciu (#54, Vikings) – would be joining us on the squat workout.
As if I didn't already feel like the odd man out.
I glanced at the white board, where DeFranco had written the training program. Next to my name, someone had scribbled, "Bring it, Meat." Maybe I wasn't such an outsider after all.
After our warm-up, as I feared, DeFranco told me to go first on the vertical jump. The test measures the difference between the highest point you can reach while standing flat-footed and the highest point you can reach at the peak of your jump. Unlike the running tests, this is something I'm comfortable with. I hit 33.5 inches with no coaching.
"Not bad at all," DeFranco said. He gave some cues for my next jump:
- Static stretch the hip flexors.
- Reach overhead and come up on my toes like an Olympic diver.
- Descend as quickly as possibly before the jump.
- Instead of slapping at the sticks on the measuring pole, which wastes energy, touch them as lightly as possible.
Five minutes after my first jump, I hit 34.5 inches on my second. That's where the fun ended. Next came box squats with chains (six sets of two reps), followed by Bulgarian split squats, heavy-band good mornings, and a killer ab circuit.
The Rest of the Plazma Story
After the workout, I snuck off to the corner to mix up my secret Plazma formula, the one Tim supplied. I was trying to be subtle about it, but that's hard to do when your entire lower body feels like it's been flattened by road-paving equipment.
In other words, I wasn't subtle enough. One of the guys asked me what I was drinking. Then DeFranco asked to see the bottle, and I had to watch, in horror, as he read the list of ingredients. I'd been sworn to secrecy, and now everybody in the gym not only knew that Plazma™ exists, but they also found out what's in it.
Worse – they wanted some of it.
I slunk away from the group, called Tim at the Biotest offices in Colorado, and explained the situation. He agreed to send DeFranco and his athletes enough Plazma and Surge® Workout Fuel to last through the Combine.
Luckily, they wouldn't be able to reap the benefits until I was safely back at home.
"So, how am I doing?"
It was a question I'd put off asking, but since DeFranco and I were driving from his gym to the turf at Overtime on Thursday morning, I thought it was a good time to ask.
"I think you surprised a lot of the guys," he said. "They all thought you were a fitness model."
He continued: "The gym's funny. You're the new guy coming in, and everyone sizes you up. If you bust your ass, you earn their respect. But if you start talking shit too soon, or don't put the work in, they won't talk to you at all. You did the right thing. You came in, kept your mouth shut, and put in the work. That's when the camaraderie takes place, and people start pushing you to get better."
When we got to Overtime, Greg Isdaner was already there, foam rolling and complaining about not having any chewing tobacco. "You walk into a store here and nobody knows what the hell you're talking about."
"You should just take a big dip and spit all over the field on your shuttle test," DeFranco suggested. "That'd set you apart."
But after watching Isdaner run the 20-yard shuttle, it was evident he didn't need expectorants to make him stand out.
To run the shuttle, you mark off a space that's 10 yards wide, and start in the middle – five yards from each end – with one hand touching the ground. You sprint five yards, touch the line with one hand, then quickly reverse direction, sprinting 10 yards to the opposite line. Touch it with your hand, then sprint back to the middle, where you started.
Isdanerran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.4 seconds. I also ran it in 4.4 seconds, which sounds great until you consider that Greg outweighs me by 140 pounds.
"Now this is more my style."
On Friday, I was happy to be back in DeFranco's gym. That's because we'd be doing the 225-pound bench press test. This one's simple: one bar, four plates, as many reps as you can grind out with good form.
I'd been eyeing DeFranco's Wall of Fame since I arrived, memorizing the best lifts and vertical jumps ever performed in the gym. The house record for a college male under 220 pounds is 24 reps. With 25 reps, my name would go up on the wall.
When it was my turn, I took a hand-off from DeFranco and started cranking. I made it to 13 before I briefly rested at the top. Unlike our training sets, there's no rule against pausing here. I heard nothing but encouragement from the athletes crowded around the bench.
I took a deep breath and started again, this time making it to 18 before stopping.
"Get it! Push that fucking thing up!"
Each rep was harder than the one before, and I knew I was getting close to failure. I locked out number 22 and got ready for 23. I lowered the bar, drove it off my chest... and got it halfway up before the bar stopped dead. DeFranco helped me rack it.
It wasn't a record, but it wasn't bad.
On the flight back home, after I'd said goodbye and thanks to DeFranco and his athletes, wishing them all good luck at the Combine, Pro Days, and everything that comes after those tests, I found myself wondering how much of this experience I could bring back to my gym in Missoula, Montana.
If I can somehow bring a fraction of the energy, work ethic, camaraderie, and sense of purpose to my own workouts, with my own training partners, I'm going to accomplish some big things.
How I Compared
The results of the Combine were posted on several websites. Two of DeFranco's athletes – linebacker Brian Cushing and former Syracuse fullback Tony Fiammetta – were the top performers for their positions in the bench press. (Each got 30 reps.)
Naturally, I wanted to see how I compared to the NFL prospects. Since I'm 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, I figured I came closest to the running backs. And as it turns out, I wouldn't have completely embarrassed myself.
Bad news first: My times of 4.75 seconds in the 40-yard dash and 4.4 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle would've been the worst of the guys listed as running backs (who I could find scores on both the 40-yard dash and the 20-yard shuttle). I would've needed to run a 4.68 40 to tie for last, and 4.57 to get to the middle. On the shuttle, 4.29 seconds would've gotten me into last place, and 4.19 would've placed me around the middle.
Still, I took solace in the fact that those events were based on technique as much as raw ability. With a few more weeks of training, who knows?
My vertical jump of 34.5 inches would've beaten three of the 15 guys on the list who took the test. (Not every athlete at the Combine does every test.) And of the 23 running backs who tried their luck with the bench press, I would've topped 12 of them with my 22 reps.
All in all, I did pretty well, a "fitness model" against some of the most promising athletes in the country. Granted, I got a whole lot of help from the Surge Workout Fuel and the Plazma, but hey, I needed an edge – a big edge – against these guys. The guys I trained with all got their supply as I was leaving, and from what I've heard from Tim, they're all hooked on the stuff.
Anyhow, a few more weeks of training and coaching and I might've been an actual contender... in the gym, at least. On the football field? Like I said, I have no delusions.
But it sure is fun to throw yourself into the mix with some tough competition and discover that you can hold your own.