Strong sequel

Chip Morton

Kim Wood and his revolutionary band of strongmen have pulled off another coup.

He arrives to speak at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center Saturday morning in the person of Eastern Michigan head coach Ron English, just in time for the final day of Wood's second annual strength summit that bench-pressed the future last year and gave rise to this year's event in Cincinnati barenakedly known as "Football Strength Clinic #2."

"Yeah, I know. It's a pretty simple name; but that's the way this thing is," says Wood, Paul Brown's strength coach and, at just a few weeks shy of 67, still one of the consciences of America's weight rooms. "We just get coaches together and have a dialogue about what people in the sport should be talking about."

Last year against the backdrop of the mushrooming concern for violence in the game, Wood gathered his fellow pioneers of football strength training, such as Michigan's Mike Gittleson and Penn State's Dan Riley, to reemphasize to a younger generation the importance of neck and upper back development in the safety of players at every level.

Now they reconvene in the heat of the concussion debate ignited by lawsuits against the NFL and fanned by last month's suicide of future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau.   

Bengals head strength coach Chip Morton and assistant Jeff Friday also plan to attend the summit of strength with Morton eagerly eyeballing the info on that has been mined since last year after he implemented more extensive neck workouts in the just-completed Bengals offseason program.

"There's no question that the goal of training and the goal of equipment manufacturers and the goal of the people who design the fields, whoever it is, is to keep our players safe at every level," Morton says. "This week we want to look at what people are measuring. What are people looking at beyond sets and reps and exercise? What markers are there as guys progress from injury to back on the field?"

In English, Wood has nabbed a highly-regarded head coach speaking the same language. Best known in these parts as Bengals cornerback Leon Hall's secondary coach and later defensive coordinator at Michigan, English has caught Wood's eye.

"To get a guy who is a head coach and a real up-and-comer who comes in to say the safety of his players is a priority and he is really doing what he says when he tells mothers he'll take care of their kids, that's important to get in this day and age," Wood says. "He's running a preventive program and we're going to break it down."

He says English's EMU staff is going to show how they practice want they preach because, as Wood says, "We don't want to preach. We don't want to talk about it. We just want to show it."

Wood, an early, relentless and vocal foe of steroids, has plenty of disciples after his 28-year run (1975-2002) in charge of the Bengals weight room as what is believed to be the first full-time strength coach on an NFL staff. Morton, who also worked for Riley, is one of them. They are the only two head strength coaches the Bengals have had. And Wood is so familiar with Gittleson's research that he and Hall often talk about him during a break in the weight room.

"We learned at their feet, so for us the neck was always a big part of the training," Morton says. "Across the board now it's got heightened attention. There's an increased awareness. The guys from our coaching tree were always pushing the neck. Now the rest of the world is catching up."

Ray "Rock" Oliver, the University of Kentucky iron man who works all seasons in Lexington as the Wildcats strength coach, is another Wood graduate who also worked with Morton and the Bengals for six seasons. The rest of the world, he says, has been so wrapped up lately in numbers for the squat and bench that the neck has been cut off.

"It's OK to have 16 power racks in the weight room, but you should also have 16 neck machines," Oliver says. "When we work the neck at Kentucky, it's serious business. There's no music. There's no laughing. There's nothing funny about a broken neck."

Wood believes a strong neck is the key ingredient in fighting concussions because it can act as a shock absorber and suck trauma away from the brain. He has long held developing the muscles of the neck and upper back "dissipate" the forces that can cause concussions.

"Increase the size and stability of that (neck) column," Morton says. "Focus on the cervical area by developing the musculature so it can better absorb the contact."

Morton has always isolated a station to work the neck and trapezoid muscles when players go through workouts. But he expanded it for this year's offseason program that began April 16 and ended Friday when the rookies left. He figures each station (neck and traps, hips legs and lower body, upper body, grip) takes about 20 minutes.

"We've added more variety into our (scapula) elevation," Morton says of the shoulder blade.  "We've got a shrugging motion, a rowing motion for our scap retraction and we push the scapula down for scap stability. We're focusing on scap stability and mobility and stability in the thoracic spine."

The clinic's eclectic surroundings match the man. How many strength coaches walk around with a New York Times in one hand a biography in the other? Wood does and it was Thursday's cover story in The Times that had him down. Men of pro football whose courage and talent he truly admired openly wondering if they would let their children play because of the results of head trauma.

Wood did and would again let his child play. John Wood played at Michigan and he'll speak this weekend as an expert on combat grip.

"But I would only let him play if he was prepared," Wood says. "And that's what this weekend is about: how to best prepare players to be safe in what is an inherently violent game."

The word is getting out. They are smack in the middle of current events. But that's not luck. As Morton says, "These are smart guys."

Last year the clinic drew about 150 coaches on all levels after only about 30 pre-registered and this year 90 already have signed up before it starts Friday night. More NFL teams are showing up. This year Vikings head strength coach Tom Kanavy and Lions assistant Ted Rath are on the list.

This remains Grassroots 101. Along with John Wood, Wood's daughters (Becky, Alyssa and Jackie) are taking care of the details, from the video screen to keeping the top floor cool. He had to order more food from The Proud Rooster, but he kept the fee for coaches on all levels at $25 because "this just about the game."

Oliver is all in and set to speak Friday night.

"It's like speaking in front of the signers of the Declaration of Independence," says Oliver, who says he won't be nervous in front of his mentors. "Nah, those guys brought me up."

They still are.

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