Mirrors of Hall

Leon Hall

In an offseason dominated by the Leon Hall Achilles question that can't possibly be answered until the season, the two guys that can give the best possible guestimates surfaced in Cincinnati over the weekend with little guessing.

"I just know how he is mentally and I know he's going to be able to come back," said Ron English, the fellow California native who helped recruit Hall to Michigan and then coached him on the Big Blue's defense.

"I love Leon Hall," admitted Mike Gittleson, his strength coach at Ann Arbor. "What a great story. With his background and to come across the country and play so well and always be gracious, always be a gentleman. I think he can do it."

English and Gittleson were some of the headliners at Kim Wood's Football Strength Clinic that could have used Hall as one of its exhibits. And Hall, the Bengals starting cornerback for two playoff teams, says their approach at Michigan is a major reason he thinks he's psychologically ready to take that first snap of training camp on July 27.

A mere 257 days after he ruptured his Achilles against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.

"They definitely instilled a mindset; mind over matter," Hall said. "It helped me with football and it definitely helped my rehab. There was a certain point early on, I just had little doubt. But as soon as you get back out there and knowing what you think you're able to do, you do it well, it gives you confidence."

For the second straight year, Wood, the former long-time Bengals strength coach, arrayed an extraordinary symposium aimed at reemphasizing neck training as a major way to prevent concussions and make safety on the field a priority.

Hall is about a fourth-generation product of the school formed by Wood, Gittleson and former Penn State and later NFL strength coach Dan Riley four decades ago and populated by such graduates as Bengals head strength coach Chip Morton, University of Kentucky guru Rock Oliver, and Oliver aide Teddy Lambrinidies.

And now English, the head coach at Eastern Michigan, has to be considered a disciple, too, because he's spreading the gospel. Gittleson called English's eight-minute talk to the clinic as one of the year's biggest stories when it came to football and its training.

"That's the biggest thing to hit athletics," Gittleson said. "When a head coach in any sport says, 'Preventative sports medicine. We're going to make sure our kids are protected for the field. We don't care what they bench.' Like Ronnie said, we don't care what they squat or clean. But we care to protect them first. One guy says it, that's the tipoff."

English, 44, is what Wood likes to call an up-and-comer. Heading into his fourth season in Ypsilanti, English took a program that had one winning season in the last 19 years and led them to 6-6 last season. When Hall was a senior in English's first defense at Michigan in 2006, the Wolverines allowed the fewest rushing yards per game in the nation while showcasing their coach's hard-nosed, physical approach. The punishing style of his top corner got Hall drafted by the Bengals at No. 18 in 2007.

"Let me tell you a story about Leon Hall," said English, floating back to Hall's junior year. "That year Penn State had three receivers that were all sprinters."

The way English remembers it, Penn State went right after Hall on the first three plays with deep posts and Hall made plays on all three. On the next series the Nittany Lions gouged him a bit with short stuff and intermediate routes and English told him after the series that he had to be aware of the quick game and not to get tied up on the long ball.

"So on the next series they came out and ran a slant and he knocked it down," English said. "Then they ran an out and he was all over it. That's when I knew he was going to be a player. That's hard to do for a defensive back. That requires toughness. To believe what you're seeing and respond to it. He can do that."

So far Hall has done it with the Achilles under the daily care of Bengals rehab director Nick Cosgray and the long-term care of trainer Paul Sparling. After several successful year-long rehabs, such as quarterback Carson Palmer (elbow), tight end Reggie Kelly (Achilles), and cornerback Adam Jones (neck), Cosgray has Hall's confidence. Now that he's been bounding through a bungee cord and looking like he can play right now, Cosgray has enough confidence in Hall to run him on the new grass of the practice fields.

Sparling calls Hall a "genetic freak." English calls him "genetically gifted." He doesn't ever remember Hall being hurt at Michigan and that's because he wasn't. He didn't miss an NFL practice until the start of his fifth year and he didn't miss a game until the Achilles in his sixth season. Hall thinks Gittleson's program has had an impact on his durability, as well as the similar style of Morton's weight room in Cincinnati.

"We had plenty of hours in the weight room doing all type of crazy stuff, but I think it helped me stay healthy," Hall said of Michigan. "It's like anything else. You have to prepare and what good would it have done if I pulled my hamstring in the rehab?"

Thanks to Gittleson, Hall was aware of the neck training early and Morton has kept it going even as the NFL finds itself in what has been characterized as the "Concussion Crisis."

"I always thought the neck was big. Maybe it was because I was in Gittleson's program," Hall said. "Even before the concussion thing. Just to tackle, so you don't wake up in the morning and your neck is sore just from hitting. Sometimes just carrying the helmet when you haven't worn it for a while gets you sore."

Hall said when he arrived at Michigan from San Diego as a freshman, he was 167 pounds and had "a pencil neck" and "bird chest." When he left he was 195 pounds with an 18-inch neck. He thinks he's still at 18 inches on the neck.

"Then Chip must be doing a good job," Gittleson said.

"The neck is an important part of what Chip does. We work it every day. It's one of the stations," Hall said. "Where I've been and what we're doing now, it's worked for me."

When English arrived at Eastern before the 2009 season, he was stunned what he saw. He figured 40 of his scholarship players had some kind of head, neck or shoulder injuries that prevented them from playing his physical style. He immediately focused on the neck, calling in strength coaches Blair Wagner and Gregory Pyszczynski to make it a priority. If his players were going to play his way, English would make sure they were protected and as safe as possible.

So Wagner and Pyszczynski began charting neck size and when they presented their findings to the Wood clinic, Gittleson called the three-year stats the most extensive neck data in the country.

"The proof is in the pudding," English said. "This (past year) we had three or four stingers as opposed to 40ish. Two were pre-existing. There were two concussions and they were legitimate hits."

English is a believer because he did the exact same program his players did last year, from the week after the signing date in February to the first week of December. He says his neck grew from 16.5 inches to about 20.

"I think that building this part of the body equates to overall strength," English said. "I believe it. From doing it. Not from hearing it or looking at numbers. But from doing it."

Hall has never had a concussion. But Gittleson says you can't jump to conclusions that a big and strong neck prevents concussions.

"No we can't," Gittleson said. "And we can't stop concussions. But we can lower forces. It's simple physics."

The Wood School says neck training has been lost in the bid for dazzling numbers in the big-splash events of the bench press and squat, but they believe neck strength plays a huge role in preventing head trauma because it helps "dissipate" the forces that cause concussions.

With several former big-name players openly questioning if they would now let their children play because of concussions, English and Hall are two hard-hitters who urge caution and learn to play the right way.

English thinks some of the recent player safety rules the NFL has passed haven't helped, fearing it alters the way to teach it. He has sons 14 and six years of age and wouldn't ban them.

"I love football because of the things it teaches you," English said. "I wouldn't become concerned with them playing football. I would be more concerned about who's teaching them to play football."

Hall hopes his three-year-old son decides to play golf. But he also remembers before his mother died suddenly when he was 12, she let him play football.

"If he had a concussion or something, we'd have to see what happened, but I don't want my kid shying away from playing or doing something because I'm scared for him," Hall said. "My mom was scared for me to play football. She knew I liked to play it, but she was your typical mom. Football scared her. She wanted to put extra pads on me.

"It turned out all right. I would have hated for her to turn me down for football at a young age. That would have been unfortunate. She let me play. I figure I'll give my son the same freedom."

Now for a lot of reasons, it looks like Hall is going to be ready to play pretty soon.

If not July 27, not too long after.

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