Barred from Halas Hall, Bears working out at different facilities
By Sean Jensen email@example.com March 28, 2011 9:52PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Johnny Knox and Matt Toeaina are dripping sweat, their bodies aching from a circuit of exercises Monday that concentrated on their core, grip and legs.
They’re in a world-class workout facility surrounded by professional athletes, but they’re not at Halas Hall surrounded by teammates and coaches. NFL teams were permitted to begin offseason workout programs eight days ago, but after the expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement, owners imposed a lockout that bars players from team facilities.
“You miss the interaction with teammates and coaches and stuff like that, but it’s not too bad,” Toeaina said after his workout at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park. “I don’t know what to expect, but I have to prepare for whatever.”
With negotiations between the league and the NFL Players Association at a standstill — and a key April 6 federal court date in St. Paul, Minn., next week — the typical offseason schedule already has been affected, starting with the voluntary workouts. At stake after that would be minicamp, training camp, the preseason and regular season.
Blind, self-serving optimism aside, each player has to face his reality: He can’t afford — even with no income coming in — not to work out. And while the YMCA is practical and economical, NFL players favor trainers and specialized facilities that cost anywhere from $50 to $150 a day.
That’s an unexpected expenditure, considering any player typically receives at least $100 for each voluntary offseason workout he attends at his team’s facility. Stars, meanwhile, can collect significant bonuses for attending the majority of those voluntary workouts. For instance, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Brian Urlacher were scheduled to make $500,000 apiece for attending 90 and 85 percent of those sessions.
For now, though, players are paying out of pocket to stay in shape.
Knox and Toeaina train three to four days a week at EFT Sports Performance, about six miles south of the Bears’ headquarters in Lake Forest, with founder Elias Karras. Free-agent defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Anthony Adams also train there. Matt Forte and Greg Olsen are training at Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami; Charles Tillman is at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego; and Roberto Garza, Nick Roach and Corey Wootton are at TCBOOST in Northbrook.
Bears defensive end Israel Idonije is an exception, opting to find a gym and work out on his own.
Boost in business
Karras and Pete Bommarito offer “Lockout Specials,” providing a discount from their usual rates for NFL veterans. Bommarito charges a weekly rate instead of a daily one, while Karras has an all-inclusive package that, in addition to a custom-tailored workout, includes a warmup, skill work, laser-massage therapy and a post-workout stretch, shake and meal.
“Normally, they’d be billed for everything individually, but I’m not trying to rob them,” Karras said with a smile.
Added Bommarito, “I want to give my [NFL] regulars a break.”
But these workouts are a luxury, especially for players who weren’t high draft picks or haven’t played several seasons. Former Northwestern receiver Eric Peterman, for example, serves as a part-time trainer at EFT to use the services and full-time trainers.
Bommarito, Karras and Bob Christian of TCBOOST said they have had an influx of NFL clients. Bommarito said 87 NFL players trained with him at some point last year.
“We already reached that,” Bommarito said, “and we haven’t even hit April.”
Nine more players are scheduled to come in today, he said.
Naturally, with business booming, the trainers and their employees are working overtime. And their support staff — masseuses, nutritionists, chiropractors, etc. — also are logging more hours.
In Miami, March and April are usually months Bommarito’s employees can steal a few breaks.
Not this year.
But Karras said he isn’t trying to compete with Rusty Jones, the Bears’ award-winning director of physical development.
“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Karras said. “I’m just trying to make it exciting and fun for these guys because they want to be in shape, but I also want to keep their football muscles firing.”
So Karras emphasizes drills that don’t overstress joints and use one’s own body weight.
“More movements than lifting in place,” Karras said. “These guys don’t need to be beat on.”
When the weather gets nicer, the players will do some work on a field nearby. But players enjoy Karras’ unique workout ideas, such as repeatedly sticking their hands in a bin of rice.
“I like what Rusty does for us,” Knox said. “But every trainer does stuff that is different. [Karras] does some things that I’ve never seen, but it’s fun, and it works.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that NFL players can be a fickle bunch. So trainers such as Karras, Bommarito and Christian have to be flexible and provide everything — at a first-class standard. Bommarito’s extensive “team” includes an in-house chef, while Karras has healthful meals delivered to his clients every day.
“They’re more like family to me than anything,” said Harris, who has trained with Karras for several years. “He has great workouts, [with an emphasis] on speed and quickness.”
Karras and his staff design a program for each athlete, often taking into account a player’s injury history. Toeaina is working on his lateral movement and flexibility.
“It’s real good,” Adams said. “It’s more what you need and not what you want.”
Knox realized the benefits of his offseason spent at EFT last year — he finished only 40 receiving yards short of 1,000 in 2010 — so he planned to return whether there was a lockout or not.
Asked why he wasn’t a regular at voluntary offseason workouts at Halas Hall, Knox said, “Just to get away from it for a little bit and do your own thing and get a different perspective.”
A fifth-round pick, Knox’s rookie contract included a $204,000 signing bonus, and his base salary in 2011 is scheduled to be $480,000. But he doesn’t have any problem paying for his workouts at EFT.
“It’s an investment,” Knox said. “What I do here is going to pay off in the future.”
The urgency is even greater for Adams and Harris, who are unrestricted free agents. After a new CBA is agreed upon, players without an NFL contract will have to scramble to get one.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s a part of the business,” Adams said. “You have to embrace it, and you have to be ready.
“That’s why I’m here.”