Dancing, yoga-doing football players.

The stadium scene.
Aug. 9 2005 7:21 AM

Big Men Stretching

Quarterbacks who do yoga and the journalists who love them.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Click image to expand.

In the cover story of this week's Sports Illustrated, Jeffri Chadiha unearths the "radical training methods" of NFL stars. Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius, Chadiha breathlessly reports, has experimented with "an ultimate-fighting champ [who] led him to add martial arts-style punches and kicks to his routine." Green Bay Packers wideout Donald Driver does something called "moving yoga." The Lions' strength coach makes his team do Pilates every week.

A fresh, insider's guide to the offseason habits of our favorite NFL stars? No, more like 2005's most prominent manifestation of the annual lazy-reporter chestnut: the wacky workout story. Beat writers never tire of telling us that football players improve their reflexes and flexibility by doing yoga, karate, and ballet. At this point, they might as well tell us that our heroes wear helmets.

The stories go back to at least the 1970s, when fans were informed again and again that graceful wide receiver Lynn Swann honed his skills by taking ballet, jazz, and tap classes. The genre bloomed from there. A 1985 New York Times profile of Jets receiver Al Toon noted that he had studied dance and tai chi, "an Oriental martial art." (Toon, who I guess knew easy publicity when he saw it, told the UPI a year later that ballet lessons "helped me learn to position my body to help me, quote, break tackles.") Other surprising workout regimens of the 1980s, according to various press accounts, included Herschel Walker's karate training, Howie Long's karate training, Randy White's karate training, Brian Bosworth's karate training, Freeman McNeil's karate training, and the karate training of the entire 1985 Florida State defensive line.

As the 1990s dawned, sports journalists neglected to notice that the dancing, karate-chopping football player story had become as stale as Lyle Alzado's jockstrap. From January 1990, when the Washington Post reported that Broncos wide receiver Vance Johnson studied ballet, to December 1999, when the Dayton Daily News revealed that Bengals quarterback Akili Smith's "grueling offseason" would include, yes, ballet, the coverage never let up. A comprehensive 1991 feature in the Los Angeles Daily News revealed that Randall Cunningham did ballet to rehab from various injuries. The piece quoted numerous college coaches saying they used dance as a training regimen and had done so for a long time. In other words, it wasn't news anymore.

Still, the genre shows no signs of abating. In the last few years, nearly every newspaper that covers the NFL or college football has run a story about a side of beef who swallows his pride and assumes the lotus position. In a 2004 piece about Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, the Boston Herald explained that the "oddity of football players participating in yoga, pilates and other unconventional training methods has long ago dissipated." Finally, a newspaper willing to deflate the cliché! Two sentences later: "Still, Valerie Vinatieri can be excused if she does a double-take whenever she enters the living room to find her husband contorted in front of the television." That's more like it.

Unlike the baseball and basketball guys, football guys get only one game a week to cover. We should sympathize with them. Players get arrested only so often, and you have to fill column space with something. A macho-man-turned-twinkle-toes narrative is incredibly easy to mail in, and it's the kind of puff piece that gets you in good with the players, coaching staff, and the PR department.

And I'm sure some players are using legitimately radical techniques. When it's deadline time, though, it makes no difference if the local team is one step behind local soccer moms. One recent, much-celebrated innovation, as seen in articles on Ohio State, the Seattle Seahawks, and linebacker Orlando Ruff, is that players have added "hot yoga" to their training regimens. But, you know, so has everyone else.

As a service for beleaguered sportswriting hacks everywhere, I've developed a wacky workout template for the next time training-camp news gets thin. Lead with some first-person skepticism: "Ohio State's Maurice Hall expected to encounter a little ribbing when he tried to sell his teammates on the value of yoga." After explaining the regimen—"[t]he exercises, all with numerous rules and variations, are done on a mat, an oversized ball and a spring-loaded machine called a reformer"—throw in a quote from a coach who uses the word "flexibility" a lot. "There's a lot of flexibility involved in [karate], so I thought it would probably help some of our guys that need additional flexibility," said then-LSU coach Nick Saban in 2004. End with a measure of hard-won acceptance and respect. "[Yoga is] something I used to think was a little foo-foo back in the day," said Redskins quarterback Tony Banks in 2001, "but I've heard some good things about it."

When you discover a lost tribe of dancing, yoga-doing freaks, it's best to throw in a colorful guru, too. Florida State had Yoichi Kozuma, "the 1977 all-Japan full-contact karate champion," Syracuse had Greg Tearney, "a seventh-degree black belt who's been teaching Okinawan karate for 24 years," and the 49ers had George Chung, "who was inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame in 1983." If there's a lady involved, even better. The Cleveland Browns' ballet mistress of the early 1980s was described by an AP reporter as a "lithe, athletic figure." Not terribly unusual for a professional ballet dancer.

If you don't care to follow my advice, simply study Ivan Maisel's "Crouching Tigers," a recent ESPN.com story on Memphis' preseason yoga regimen. It's a genre masterpiece that leaves no part of the formula uncovered, from the shame of getting out-pretzeled by a bunch of girls to the hard-nosed sensei with the heart of gold, in this case a "befreckled 'yoga lady' with the smile of a kindergarten teacher and the pipes of a Parris Island, S.C., drill instructor."

"Anyone who thinks yoga is for sissies doesn't play football for the University of Memphis," Maisel writes. Or, he neglects to add, for any other football team in the last 25 years.

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