LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Steelers linebacker James Farrior was drenched in sweat, his muscular upper body sagging from physical exertion in the sweltering central Florida heat at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
And then something magical occurred.
Farrior recovered quickly after running several “gassers” while wearing a weighted vest and pulling a parachute. The chute popped open and billowed behind him upon reaching top speed while offering 30 pounds of resistance.
Upon catching his breath, Farrior eagerly proclaimed himself ready for the next stage of the football boot camp better known as Tom Shaw Performance Enhancement.
“It’s the Fountain of Youth down here,” said Farrior, at 33 the second oldest player on the Steelers. “This is probably the biggest key to my offseason and my training program, as far as me playing at a high level. A guy my age, it takes a little bit extra. You’ve got to do a little bit more, work a little bit longer, just to keep up with the younger guys.”
Farrior, a 12-year veteran and the Steelers’ defensive captain, was the oldest NFL player who attended Shaw’s popular speed-and-conditioning camp. Having endured the camp for several years, he glided through the myriad of drills as though he was in his mid-20s.
Membership has its privileges.
“James wants to play four more years — that was our last conversation,” Shaw said. “This is the only job in the country that you’re not trying to retire. These guys don’t want to retire. They want to play as long as they can.”
Steelers flock to Orlando
Bypassing an opportunity for some rest and relaxation in the final weeks leading up to the start of training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Farrior and three of his Steelers teammates — wide receiver Santonio Holmes and cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden — made the trek to Florida in what has become an annual event.
According to Holmes, who led NFL receivers in yards per catch last season, it’s a sacrifice that more players should make.
“Coming here to work out is a lot of fun,” said Holmes, who was roundly criticized in the local media last month for saying that the Steelers conducted too many voluntary workouts. “It brings a lot of excitement. It’s way different than having to sit in a classroom all day, studying plays, watching film and then going out to football practice.
“It gives you a totally different mind-set because you know you’re coming out here with about 15-20 other guys from different teams in the NFL that want to compete a lot harder than you.
“When you have teammates, throughout practice you’re gonna get that urge to take a step back,” said Holmes, who also led the Steelers in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2007. “You don’t want to hurt your teammates. You don’t want to go too hard. But down here, you’re going to get guys working at 100 mph every time.”
Said Taylor, who purchased an offseason home in the Orlando area so he could be closer to Disney’s training base: “We all have one goal as a team. Just to have a few teammates come in and work out with each other, it definitely helps. We know how hard we work down here. I’m sure other guys are working hard wherever they’re at. Today this workout felt like a training camp day. I don’t think you can really get that from anywhere else.”
There’s little that can duplicate the heat at Wide World of Sports, which averages around 90 degrees in the summer.
“They like this heat to get the sweat going,” said Frank Beyer, one of Shaw’s assistants who is from Bradford, Pa. “We are in a huge steam/sauna bath. Hell, it’s not really all that hot yet.”
Asked to compare the weather on a typical summer day in central Florida and Latrobe, Farrior snorted his response.
“It doesn’t compare,” Farrior said. “It gets hot at Latrobe, and we might have a couple of hot days, but down here it’s humid every day.”
In addition to the unique running exercises, position-specific drills and intense weight lifting that have become staples of the program, the players also play football.
During 7-on-7 passing drills, Taylor and McFadden were often matched against Holmes, just as they will be when training camp opens July 28.
“Me and Tone go against each other almost every day in practice, and we’re doing the same thing here,” said McFadden, who’s entering his fourth season. “He’s getting better, he’s helping me get better, along with going against Ike. For us to be successful as a team, individually, we need to have successful guys also.”
Shaw a ‘speed guru’
Leading the players through their paces is Shaw, a former speed and conditioning coach with the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints and an assistant track coach at Florida State. Nicknamed “The Speed Guru,” Shaw popularized the SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction, quickness) training method.
Among the first coaches to train college players for the NFL draft, Shaw moved to Florida in late 2005 after Hurricane Katrina damaged his facility in Kenner, La., near the airport in New Orleans. He has trained dozens of NFL stars, including the past six Super Bowl MVPs.
“In New Orleans, we had a great facility, but guys were killing me because they had $6 million or $7 million facilities,” Shaw said. “Now when I recruit athletes to come train at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, it doesn’t seem like they bring up facilities any more.
“This is a $100-million facility. We’re building a 100-lane bowling alley. We have 10 full football fields. We have a full weight room. We have training rooms. The same thing they can get (with) their NFL team is here.”
On the field, Shaw’s mantra to the players is speed kills.
“The No. 1 thing is we try to enhance speed and explosive power,” Shaw said. “We try to work on vertical jump and standing long jump. The more explosive you are, the more powerful you are, there’s a good chance that you’re still going to be able to keep your speed. Every technique that we work on is to increase explosiveness.”
Shaw was asked about the number of Steelers he trains – more than any NFL team.
“The Steelers have a really good program, and they always have,” he said. “Garrett Giemont is a really good strength coach. It’s just I give them an opportunity to get away, to come to Florida, to come to Disney World with their families. They work out, they do everything they can to get better as football players during the morning. In the afternoon, they get an opportunity to go to the different theme parks. That’s the big thing.”
Farrior adds longevity
The amenities are nice, but hardly the only attraction. Players train with Shaw because his system produces results.
“I feel like it extended my career and enabled me to play at a high level throughout the whole season,” said Farrior, who started all 16 games for the fourth time in five years while leading the team in tackles the past two seasons.
“I feel like when I’m down here, I get in tremendous shape, and my body’s always at its best. Tom does a good job of not overworking us. When we go to training camp, we’ll be in our best shape.”
In addition to those Steelers currently training with Shaw, Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison was expected to join his teammates at Disney World late last week.
Other Steelers who have trained with Shaw include wide receivers Hines Ward, Dallas Baker and rookie Limas Sweed, linebacker Larry Foote and safety Anthony Smith, who is expected to return to central Florida to work out before the start of training camp.
In a surprising revelation, Shaw said former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart was a visitor a few months ago.
“At the beginning of the offseason, Kordell came down because the Atlanta Falcons told him to get in shape because they were looking for somebody,” Shaw said. “Kordell came down and worked out for four weeks.”
Stewart didn’t sign with Atlanta. But the fact that he sought out Shaw after being inactive for several years speaks volumes about Shaw’s reputation among NFL players.
Impressive list of players
Among the players working out last week at the Wide World of Sports complex were Minnesota safeties Darren Sharper and Michael Boulware, New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant, Jacksonville fullback Greg Jones, Buffalo cornerback Ashton Youboty, Carolina cornerback back Ricardo Colclough (formerly with the Steelers), Minnesota quarterback Tavaris Jackson and St. Louis tackle Alex Barron.
“This is my eighth year working with coach Shaw in the offseason,” Sharper said. “I came here before my fourth year in the NFL. The end result was that I had a great season and went to the Pro Bowl, so I was pretty much sold.”
Sharper’s success resulted in Farrior, a long-time friend from their native Virginia, joining him to train in the offseason.
Holmes and McFadden began training with Shaw upon leaving college and preparing for the draft. Taylor has trained with Shaw since he was in the sixth grade.
“To me, (Shaw) is the best,” said Taylor, who led the Steelers in interceptions and was second in tackles last season. “He always comes up with something new, year in and year out.”
Shaw’s methods differ from other trainers. A former sprinter at Central Michigan, he has a master’s degree in exercise physiology. He puts players through a battery of drills that are position specific.
Then there’s the running. Shaw’s players run wearing vests weighing between 17 and 22 pounds. Running with a parachute ensures that players assume a forward lean while remaining on the balls of their feet. The goal is to prevent hamstring pulls while preparing players for the rigors of training camp two-a-days. Lifting weights after the workouts helps prevent injury.
“We have the total program,” said Shaw, a native of New Port Richey, Fla. “We do the running drills for speed. We do the football-specific stuff. And then we lift weights. The whole reason you go to the weight room is to keep guys from being injured.”
Said Holmes: “A lot of people think we just go to coach Shaw, work on our running drills and go home. It’s probably something that nobody sees us do, use weights, but we get in a group and really work our tails off. I felt drastic improvement after my (last) year in college to my first year in the NFL after working out with coach Shaw. I’m going to continue training with him every year that I can.”
Speed-and-conditioning coach Tom Shaw describes what the four Steelers players, who trained with him last week at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, are working on for the 2008 season:
Linebacker James Farrior
‘He’s decreasing body fat, but he’s maintaining his explosive power and maintaining his speed.’
Receiver Santonio Holmes
‘We’re working on trying to strengthen his hamstrings and his (quadriceps) and his hip flexors, so he doesn’t have leg problems. He’s going to run routes all during training camp and then all through the season, so he’s got to get stronger.’
Cornerback Bryant McFadden
‘B-Mac is looking to start. He’s looking to become a millionaire this year. Hopefully, he’ll have an opportunity to prove that he can take over. That’s his goal.’
Cornerback Ike Taylor
‘He’s working on being explosive, maintaining his body weight because he has a metabolism that’s so fast that he loses weight real quick. We’re trying to keep his weight up, and we’re trying to get him to catch the ball better. We’re working on his hands.’