Arizona gym helps NFL players thrive

ByJosh Weinfuss ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 7, 2015

PHOENIX -- Will Beatty's alarm clock doesn't usually go off early, especially in the offseason.

But he woke up at 6:30 a.m., knowing the sun would eventually come out and the air would warm up -- with no snow on the ground. That made it easy for the New York Giants left tackle to get out of bed 30 minutes earlier than he'd normally would during the season. In 90 minutes, Beatty would start to train alongside Pro Bowlers, veterans and Super Bowl champions. Mornings full of medicine balls, sled pulls, bench presses and sprints beat waking up to feet of snow in the Northeast.

"It's a mental mindset," Beatty said. "Something you have to overcome -- waking up and the sun's just waking up with you. But when you're done, you have the full day head of you. "What distraction do you have at 6:30 in the morning that would keep you from coming in?"

Beatty was one of about 23 NFL veterans who, over the course of January, February and March, made Arizona their home away from home to train at Exos, formerly known as Athletes' Performance. For varying amounts of time -- San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick all but moved into Exos starting in January -- players got up early to train with Brett Bartholomew, who barked orders at the millionaire athletes like they were weekend warriors at the local gym on a Saturday morning.

And they loved it.

"If your partner gets hurt, that's on you," he yelled during a sled drill early on a Monday morning in March.

The group, which at times included players from 16 different teams, isn't about beating each other. That's left for Sundays in the fall. During winter weekdays, they try to make each other better. For one drill, Bartholomew divided the group into small clusters to go through a rotation of exercises -- push-ups, face pulls and so on. After the players get the hang of the workouts, the vibe begins to feel like an NFL weight room. The players feed off each other. Grunts are followed by yells of encouragement. They're pushing each other to get another rep and finish strong.

But being among a group of their peers is enough motivation, especially when some are elite stars.

"It's that competition," Beatty said. "Some of these guys you got to play against. You're taking notes. You're watching them."

It's a built-in support group, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said.

"I get a group of guys who are all working to the same goal," he said. "It's cool that you have a quarterback like Kap and you got an O-lineman like (Buffalo Bills' Richie Incognito), and we're all working.

"It's almost like a team setting during the season. You got a full range of guys."

Sometimes the workout pairings are odd, if not ironic. During one rotation, Kaepernick paired with Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette. And, for few hours, the San Francisco-Seattle rivalry was on hold.

Bartholomew won't sugar coat his critiques, regardless of a player's stature. He instructed Kaepernick how to fix his form in the same way he helped a junior college football player who lucked out, getting to train with the pro group.

"When you look at human nature, people tend to bond together in groups," Bartholomew said. "One of the big things about our program at Exos is there's no real formal marketing about it. It's just about word of mouth. Those guys being able to come in and work together. That's intoxicating to them in a way that allows them to, 'Hey, I get to measure up. I get to measure up against some of the best in the league.'

"Anytime you have multiple people working together, you're gonna have a situation where you can do more powerful stuff."

Each player is on their own program led by Bartholomew and a group of three or four other trainers. So when Patriots defensive back Patrick Chung arrived five weeks after winning Super Bowl XLIX, he went through the same workouts as the rest of the group, except his reps and weight differed.

Players have several options in for training in the offseason, but they say most don't measure up to what they find at Exos. That's why Darrius Heyward-Bey said he paid $500 a week to train with Bartholomew. That's in addition to rent, bills and other necessities of living away from home.

Heyward-Bey initially signed up for two weeks. He ended up staying for a month.

"It's great because that's how it is in the NFL," Heyward-Bey said. "You got coaches who got different personalities. A guy who's not scared that you're making more money than him, way more athletic than him but you respect a guy like that because he doesn't care who you are. "His job is to get you better and push you."

By the first week of March most of the players at Exos were weeks, if not months, into their training for the 2015 season. Some were pushed by how 2014 ended. Some were pushed by age, not wanting to lose their jobs to younger players.

Dontari Poe, the Kansas City Chiefs' Pro Bowl nose tackle, will begin his fourth season in the league this fall. He began training earlier than normal "to get a leg up and kinda get some stuff right with my body."

Heyward-Bey knew after the 2013 season, his fifth in the league, he needed to make an effort to extend his career. Speed had been his calling card, but it wasn't going to last forever. He knew his future depended on the offseason, which led him back to Exos after six years away.

"It's a cutthroat business," he said.

"When we do start OTAs and we do start little practices and stuff, I literally feel like I'm better than you because I have the leg up. But at the end of the day, who knows what's going to happen. You don't know. But I can walk in feeling good. I can go to each workout knowing that I'm in the best shape of my life."