The Woodstock of football strength training got underway this weekend in the third floor auditorium of the Clifton Cultural Center in Cincinnati and while the marquee names were there at the creation, it is in rooms like this where they are quietly shifting the strategy of NFL and college weight rooms.
"The neck is the most vulnerable, the most exposed," said former San Diego State strength coach Nathan Poole, the former Bengals special-teamer for two seasons from 30 years ago. "By trying to develop muscles in and around the neck, the hope is it can avoid serious injury. It's the new direction of where football strength training is going."
But as the 150 or so that attended Friday night's opening session of "The Legends Clinic" were reminded, it isn't all that much different from where they've been. Kim Wood, the NFL's first full-time strength coach when Bengals head coach Paul Brown put him on his last staff in 1975, took them on a virtuoso two-hour historical tour of strength training in football with the help of a slide presentation and that pure Woodian brew of iconoclastic verve and encyclopedic memory fraught with research and names.
Who else could start off a lecture with a picture of "The Cincinnati Strong Man" from the turn of the 20th century, Henry Holtgrewe, and throw in polio pioneer Albert Sabin's Clifton address?
As he usually does, Wood says what everyone knows but is hesitant to say: The rise in brain injuries is a huge problem facing football and the strength coaches are the ones that have to meet it with fresh ideas and approaches that can't be afraid to challenge the establishment. The belief is that a stronger neck cushions the movement of the brain in the skull and cuts down on concussions.
"It's a gut check," he told them.
Wood and the legends he has called in this weekend have no trouble tweaking convention and that's why there is going to be so much focus on the neck, an emphasis that has been lost in the last decade or so. Penn State's Dan Riley and Michigan's Mike Gittleson, along with 14-year NFL strength coach Mark Asanovich and Dr. Ben Oldham, a 35-year SEC official, aren't the only ones who signed up. Also in the house are names like Ellington Darden, strength training's most prolific author, and Jim Flanagan, the guy Wood calls Nautilus guru Arthur Jones' right-hand man.
"Look around at these guys, meet them," Wood said. "This is the last time you're going to see all these guys who said they were there at the beginning and really were."
And then there is Michael Anthony Muñoz. Muñoz, the Bengals Hall of Fame left tackle that Wood introduced as the greatest offensive lineman of all time. Muñoz is a member of the NFL players advisory safety board, otherwise known as the Madden Committee, and is eagerly awaiting the clinic's videotape so he can sit down with the membership to discuss it.
"I'd be curious to see out of all the teams how many strength coaches have it as a priority where the neck is worked as hard as the biceps with curls and bench presses," Muñoz said after he popped in for Wood's lecture. "You can't prevent it, but I think smart training, training the total body, not just the arms and legs, cuts the risk down. Just like the training they're talking about. I know when I was playing and I know it was a long time ago, you cut down the risk in the weight room, but guys were getting big and strong."
Muñoz played from 1980-92, an era that began when his athleticism and strength was an anomaly. By the time it ended, other offensive linemen were studying his habits that included four-mile runs after practice. The neck had been worked as much as anything else.
"You talk about the forearms and the hands and the neck. I can't begin to tell you how much neck and shoulders I did," Muñoz said. "It's funny because now you hear core training. These guys were doing all that stuff back then. It wasn't magnified. It was just overall body training. You did the neck like crazy, the overall body. I think it was huge."
Muñoz and Wood have stayed close for 20 years after Muñoz's last snap, so listening to Wood on Friday night was no different than a 1983 bull session at Spinney Field or last Sunday night's conversation they had at an event for Muñoz's foundation.
"I could sit and listen and talk to Kim for hours," Muñoz said. "As long as I've been with him, I always learn something new. It's a great way to hear stories."
Wood was at his best Friday night, with his kids' help. Daughter Jackie made the newspaper-magazine maven look actually technically competent with the computer while her sister Becky ran registration. Son John, a former Michigan defensive lineman who is a football combat grip strength expert and a speaker on Saturday, was the troubleshooter.
"Football has given me everything," Kim Wood said. "I want to do what's best for the game and the players. I think we all do."
That's why he started at the beginning with the iconic picture from the beginning of the 1960s that used to hang in his Bengals weight room. Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik celebrating over knocked-out-cold Giants running back Frank Gifford after the hit that put Gifford out of football for a year with a severe concussion on what Wood calls a legal chest-to-chest hit. And he supplied more angles of the hit than Oliver Stone had on the Kennedy assassination.
For Wood, it represents why he loved it all growing up in Barrington, Ill. Clean play, the passion, the talent, the physical toughness with grace under pressure. But, as he admitted Friday night, he has more feelings about Gifford than he used to.
"To be honest, back then I felt more happy for Chuck and didn't think much about Frank. Look. Frank's dead," Wood said at the picture on the screen. "But I care as much now about Frank as I do Chuck."
It's a vicious game. But as Wood says, "We've got to get them ready to play it," and that means paying attention to the head and neck.
For years, the colleges and pros didn't pay much attention to anything. Wood detailed the tension that ran through coaches and the muscle man industry for decades and still exists. A lot of football people saw the gym guys as whacky, quick-fix, headline-seeking charlatans more worried about themselves than the team. Wood recalled that when Woody Hayes approved a universal weight system at Ohio State, he warned it would be ripped out if he saw a player combing his hair in front of a mirror.
The young guys got some surprises in Wood's lecture.
Pete Dawkins won the Heisman Trophy in the late '50s, but had to keep his weightlifting a secret in his West Point barracks. The first football player to use strength training was Hall of Fame lineman Stan Jones, who played from the mid '50 to the mid '60s. The Chargers of the early '60s were the first pro team to heavily use a strength coach, but Alvin Roy is best remembered for pioneering steroids according to recent research.
The gems kept coming, but Wood's message was as clear as the Bednarik hit: keep it clean. Do it the right way. And he traced how Nautilus got a foothold in the game because its systematic approach organized strength training for coaches like Paul Brown and took it out of the body-building gym mentality.
Wood himself was on the ground floor with Jones and he turned his own company, Hammer Strength, into a major worldwide business. The move to the Nautilus approach of systematic strength training sparked debate and factions in the industry, but Wood is the one who has the legends.
"There's a lot of knowledge in there," Muñoz said. "A lot of guys that have been accepted and have great track records."
The Wood-Riley-Gittleson tree has spouted down through the years and the branches are hanging in Clifton. University of Kentucky strength coach Rock Oliver and assistant Ted Lambrinides, Wood disciples, were there. So was Gittleson grad Kevin Tolbert, the Stanford strength coach that has followed coach Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers. John "Mother" Dunn, the Ravens guru who came out of Riley's factory at Penn State and has been an NFL fixture for a generation, checked in. Riley, Wood and Dunn combined to mentor current Bengals strength coach Chip Morton.
And Poole, the Louisville DB that played for the 1979-80 Bengals and had a return for a TD Wood still raves about. Poole, 55, has built a personal trainer business in San Diego (where he once did the impossible and got Reds outfielder Kevin Mitchell into the gym a few times in the early '90s), but would like to get with a college or pro team because "I love football," he said.
"You'd have to say Kim was the reason I made this my career," Poole said. "I didn’t know how (cutting edge) it was back then, but you know when you're around somebody unique."
He brought his business card, because Wood said so on the flyer.
"Strength people are coming from all over the country (and the world!)," it said. "There is nothing for sale here ... there are no facilities to show off. we're coming to talk strength training ... and we're going to face up to the big issues."
Hold on, Jackie. You may have to add this meeting to his history slides.