For NFL players, COVID-19 has turned training upside down

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images   Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images   Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images /

Phone apps, garages and 100-yard tracks.

Welcome to training for NFL players in 2020.

With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the globe, sports have largely ground to a halt. A few have begun the process of playing again. Still, the road back has been both long and uncertain.

For the more than 2,700 NFL players currently on active rosters, they haven’t needed to worry about games — yet. They’ve been concerned about staying fit.

“When all the gyms shut down, just not having all the equipment I’d usually have (was the biggest challenge),” Houston Texans tight end Darren Fells told FanSided during a June phone interview. “I had to improvise, doing a lot of resistance band stuff. It was interesting. I’m usually in a squat rack or on the bench press. That was the biggest change.

“I’m fortunate enough to have turned my garage into a gym and have all the equipment I need, but that was the biggest challenge. As of now, not going into the facility and working out with teammates, having a consistent field to go to and have catch passes from quarterbacks.”

With every state across America closing gyms and fitness centers for long stretches, athletic trainers and their clients have scrambled to find solutions. For some, portions of their houses have been turned into workout rooms. For others, especially those who live outside of their team’s city, the ability to work out regularly has been a bothersome chore.

Still, NFL teams have pushed forward. In talking to multiple league sources for this story, FanSided learned a bevy of organizations created workouts for their players on apps, in some cases trying to simulate OTA and minicamp schedules.

When FanSided asked a current NFL general manager whether he was confident players would return to the team in shape, there was cautious optimism followed by reality.

“I think that’s a case-by-case basis. If you have a self-starting, competitive player, he’s put himself through the regiment. People forget we do this every year. We let them go for six weeks and there isn’t a lot of carryover from what you accomplished in May and June. They leave and go on a two-week cruise or whatever, and they have to get themselves in shape anyway. … I think you’re going to have to brutally assess your players more than ever come training camp.”

For all 32 teams, the offseason has been a dizzying array of new norms. The same can be said for the players, who are desperately trying to avoid what took place after the 2011 NFL Lockout, which ran 14 weeks from March through late July.

That summer, there were 10 torn Achilles injuries in the first 12 days of training camp, according to the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. In the two prior seasons, there had been an average of eight Achilles tears for the entirety of each year.

The campaign was so marred by hurt players, Bleacher Report published a piece entitled The 50 Most Unfortunate Injuries of the 2011 NFL Regular Season.

Running backs were particularly impacted, with Jamaal Charles (torn ACL), Rashard Mendenhall (torn ACL), Adrian Peterson (torn ACL), Knowshon Moreno (torn ACL), Mark Ingram (sprained toe), Felix Jones (high ankle sprain), Mikel LeShoure (Achilles) and Peyton Hillis (hip, hamstring, elbow) all missing large chunks of the year with ligament and/or joint injuries.

In talking to sources, each brought up the lockout without prompting. All seemingly agreed 2011 was a more dire situation, with teams not allowed to contact their players throughout the labor talks. And while the coronavirus is a troublesome issue for myriad reasons, both trainers and league personnel agree this is a lesser test than a decade ago, although still a formidable one.

“If you look at the lockout, injuries were up about 30 percent overall,” Bobby Stroupe, the founder and president of ATHLETE Performance Enhancement Center (APEC), told FanSided. “This is a slight bit different, however. I think we have a chance of doing better this time around. Hopefully athletes are more educated and taking it more seriously. I think it’s been a full-court press from NFL staff and advising athletes to stay ready for the unknown. All signs point to an increase of point and soft-tissue injuries. We need to do everything we can to mitigate it.”

While Stroupe voiced his concern, others downplayed theirs. Fells, entering his seventh NFL season and second in Houston, isn’t stressing about taking the field come late July.

“Being a vet I know what to expect for OTAs and camp, but talking with people during lockout time, they said that was the biggest issue,” Fells said of increased ailments. “When it was over, there was the spike in injuries and the biggest reason was guys weren’t doing football training. Our team told guys to do football-specific drills to get ready for the season. That helps with certain guys.”

Pete Bommarito, owner and president of Bommarito Performance Systems in Florida, was firm in his belief players won’t succumb to a higher injury toll. He cites the work of NFL training staffs, many of which provided plans which are combined with Bommarito’s regimens.

“Absolutely not,” Bommarito said of injury numbers spiking. “I don’t think so at all. These are professionals. It’s a matter of being resourceful and being with professionals who are resourceful. We have guys coming back doing everything they would normally do in June. Guys would normally be in OTAs and they are simulating those motions full-speed.”

For Bommarito, whose company trains with approximately 250 NFL players per year, the experience of continuing on through the pandemic has been a study in adaptation.

Normally working out of massive complexes in Davie and Aventura, Florida, Bommarito’s buildings were shut down from March 15 through April 30, with the exception being the track behind the Davie facility.

Stars such as the Kansas City Chiefs’ Chris Jones showed up daily despite the pandemic, running on the three-lane, 100-yard track to maintain fitness despite the hard surface being tougher on bigger bodies than the comparatively smaller ones.

There, some equipment such as dumbbells, kettlebells, trap bars and resistance bands were brought outside, allowing for 10-15 feet between stations.

After phasing into normalcy, indoor weight rooms opened up on May 25, with doors open, social distancing enacted and fans humming.

The key for Bommarito’s players? Organization, sanitation stations and pool work, as motions can still be completed without a full weight load stressing the joints.

Bommarito also offers a training app, allowing players to keep a routine in random parks and fields near their homes during quarantine periods and social distancing guidelines.

“We have virtual workouts,” Bommarito said. “Some guys are very visual so they signed up and did athlete workouts on Zoom and then upload it into our system. They could join groups and look at 12 workouts and us executing the workout. That way they see it and not an app telling them to do three sets of a trap bar deadlift.

“Sometimes, they would set the camera up in their house and we would coach them as they go through the exercise. Or, we would put the program on the app and just follow it. Sometimes, we have them videotape key things and send it in and we critique it. We do a lot of that anyway, they sign up for the program and do it in-season. A lot of players are already used to this.”

In many situations, players have been sending workout videos to their respective teams. The result has been increased communication on what needs to be done before camps open in the final week of July.

However, keeping fit during the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t been universal.

Based in Tyler, Texas with a second facility 157 miles away in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, APEC works with 70 NFL players in some capacity, including Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Cleveland Browns first-round pick, left tackle Jedrick Wills.

While some of APEC’s athletes kept themselves in fighting trim, other struggled without their typical regimens with the facilities shut down for 10 weeks.

“We had seven people pass out over Monday through Wednesday in the first week (back),” Stroupe said. “Two completely passed out and the other five were faint. (We had) an intelligent approach, it wasn’t hard work. …We have to be careful, all of us, making no assumptions to the integrity of their joints and energy systems.”

From Stroupe’s perspective, the principal challenges are many.

In a normal offseason, players train from February through mid-April before going into team activities. After minicamp ends, it’s six more weeks of training on their own. At APEC, the first block of workers are focused completely on health as players recover from a demanding season.

The health of tissue, joints, full range of moment, stability in every joint, mobility and flexibility in tissues take priority. Once feet are working again after bring in cleats for months, strength standards are rebuilt, before moving into power, speed and high-velocity movements.

While some players were able to keep themselves on a regimen throughout the coronavirus’ first wave, others fell behind. For the latter, it has been a race to catch up, leading to problems of overexertion.

“They need to be consistent,” Stroupe said. “They can’t make up all this conditioning in two weeks. Tissues have to adapt over a period of time. Your ligaments and tendon structures you can’t feel, you need time to adapt and be ready for the demands of the season from a velocity and contact standpoint. You can show up, look good, have low body fat and not be prepared.

“It’s a scary feeling when you’re watching guys on a screen and you don’t see the technical way they are executing 100 percent of the time. … When that’s taken away, that’s terrifying. Even with all things perfect from their side, there’s still risk here. I know NFL and NBA teams I’ve spoke with, they are taking extra precautions.”

In that vein, each player has weighed the risks. In the case of Fells, he has largely stayed away from large groups due to having two children under the age of five, and a mother-in-law within close proximity whom he sees often.

Instead of the Texans’ world-class facilities, Fells has been working out on a 70-yard patch of grass in his neighborhood in Arizona. The good news? The two-hour commute he once endured in previous offseasons, going between the gym and Basha High School, has been reduced to a quick walk outside.

A typical day for Fells begins at 4:30 a.m. with a two-hour workout before the Arizona heat drains his energy. If there’s position-specific work to be done, the veteran tight end sneaks outside during his son Aiden’s two o’clock nap before coming back to enjoy family time.

Throughout it all, Fells has continued to stay in close contact with the Texans. Houston is one of the many NFL teams aiding its players with an app, along with a variety of other resources. For players in Houston, trainer Geoff Kaplan has allowed players to use the equipment in his backyard for workouts.

While Fells hasn’t made the trip to Kaplan’s house, he’s utilized other avenues provided by the Texans.

“They actually had a nutritionist call us to see if we needed anything shipped out to us,” Fells said. “They sent us goals and how to maintain with meals and things like that. Our trainer contacted us, letting us know he has companies that can send us equipment if we need it, if we have space. … He had an app as well that we could log into.”

On July 28, the NFL will open 32 training camps across America. Optimism will run high, but so will fear after the most abnormal offseason in league history.

Staying in shape this offseason was unlike anything previously seen in the NFL.

Shortly, we’ll find out how effective the technology and adaptive measures were for thousands of players attempting to live out their dreams.