On the surface, a CFL player's job doesn't necessarily seem all that bad. Yes, there's a constant risk of severe physical injuries that can last long after your career ends (including recent frightening information about concussions' long-term effects), and the pay isn't anywhere close to what many other professional athletes make, but some would argue that CFL players really only work from the start of June (training camps and pre-season games) through November (the end of the regular season, the playoffs and the Grey Cup). That isn't the case, though. With new free-agent signings, trade acquisitions and draft picks coming in and challenging for their jobs every year, CFL players have to remain in top physical condition to keep their job prospects alive. That involves doing plenty of work in the offseason, particularly in the areas of strength and conditioning. In his latest column for The Regina Leader-Post, former Saskatchewan Roughriders' offensive lineman Mike Abou-Mechrek (pictured above benching the 2007 Grey Cup), gives us an inside look into that world. As he reveals, it's not a particularly easy one. Here's Abou-Mechrek's description of what some of the Roughriders' players are going through right now:
Ten weeks before the opening of training camp, I always felt an increased sense of urgency. It really doesn't matter too much what you have done up until this point, because in 10 weeks you can shape your body into anything, as well as train it to behave the way you need it to in order to make that mortgage payment.
What happens on these days when no one is talking about the Riders is that the Grey Cup is being won or lost by what the players are doing in the gym. Nobody knows or cares what Gene Makowsky, Mike McCullough, Marc Parenteau and the boys are doing at Level 10 Fitness three times a week at 5 a.m. . 5 a.m.!
If you think that Dan Farthing is taking it easy on them like he does for the over-40 class he teaches, you need to have your screws checked. I have vomited on the floors of Level 10 many times, thanks to Farthing, and I hate him for it -but it made us champions.
It's not like they just started now, either. Part of being an elite athlete is committing to fitness, a healthy diet and regular strength and cardio training around the calendar. Abou-Mechrek talks about how during his playing career, he'd generally take two or three weeks off to rest and recover once the season wrapped up, but then start hitting the gym again as much as possible. He'd begin with light workouts (probably still comparable to what many of us non-elite athletes can do in the gym on any given day), then work his way up to 325-pound carries, 250-pound bench presses and 20-kg medicine ball throws before getting into the full swing of things. That's not exactly the most relaxing offseason, and it underscores just how much of a year-round profession football has become.
Of course, the sport hasn't always been that way. As this excellent ESPN.com piece by John D. Lukacs points out, intensive strength training has been a key part of football on a team-wide level since Boyd Epley's tenure at Nebraska in 1969, and it had been around in less-notable forms since the birth of the game. For many years, though, strength training was largely frowned upon, as coaches thought it would reduce players' natural speed and athleticism. That's been shown to be anything but the case over the years, though, and strength training is now arguably the most important part of the offseason.
There is still a fine line to walk with strength training, though, as it does by definition involve pushing the body to its limits. From time to time, that can result in severe injuries; one particularly bad one came in 2009 (during the season) when former USC (and current Tennesee Titans') running back Stafon Johnson had to undergo seven hours of surgery and almost died after a barbell fell on his throat during a weight-training session. More recently, thirteen Iowa Hawkeyes players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis (a severe breakdown of muscle tissues that can damage the kidneys). Both situations could reflect failures in oversight or preparation by the programs involved, or they could just be bad combinations of circumstances and luck that no one could have predicted. Both serve as useful reminders that the offseason isn't easy for football players, though, and it carries its own dangers. That's important to keep in mind during the CFL's offseason; just because there aren't any games being played doesn't make it an easy vacation period for the players.