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'Baby Bear' brings players pain, results

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CROFTON, Md. – The big man sits inside his parked Escalade for a good 30 minutes, speakers thumping, eyes hidden beneath designer shades.

Is Darnell Dockett(notes), the Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowl defensive tackle, psyching himself up for another grueling workout, the likes of which he and many of his current and prospective NFL peers are enduring on a regular and unrelenting basis during this highly unusual offseason?

Inside Future of Fitness, the studio co-owned and founded by strength-and-conditioning trainer Mac James, Dockett's partners-in-grind aren't so convinced.

"He does this every damn day," Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe(notes) said on an early May morning, shaking his head. "He's got to make a big entrance, you know … "

Shiancoe's playful diss draws big laughs, but his admiration for Dockett's dedication is obvious. For one thing, anyone who regularly participates in the potpourri of weight-training, metabolic conditioning, resistance exercises, speed work and hill runs conjured by James implicitly commands one another's respect.

There's also the realization that Dockett is the anti-Albert Haynesworth(notes), the talented interior lineman who regularly riles Washington Redskins fans a few exits up the Beltway. Whereas Haynesworth has been a massive disappointment whose commitment has been questioned since he signed a seven-year, $100-million deal with the 'Skins in March of 2009, Dockett has displayed no discernible drop-off in drive in the nine months since landing a four-year, $48-million extension from the Cards.

Even during an owner-imposed lockout, when the natural inclination might be to trade the weight bench for the chaise lounge, established veterans such as Dockett and Shiancoe are pushing themselves to stay in peak physical condition.

"The ones who care about their craft are gonna work out regardless," Dockett said. "When you get to a certain point, it's not about the money – it's the reputation that you have. Having a reputation as a damn good football player, that's priceless.

"You want to leave a legacy. Hey, I've got plenty of money. I've been surrounded by guys like Adrian Wilson(notes), Larry Fitzgerald(notes), Kurt Warner(notes), and I'm doing it because I want to accomplish the same type of things that those guys did. And if you let up, someone else will take your place. That's why guys like me and Shiancoe work so hard – we're surrounded by free agents trying to get into the league."

That has been especially true during this offseason devoid of organized team activities, as veterans like San Francisco 49ers halfback Brian Westbrook(notes), Redskins safety Chris Horton(notes) and Vikings safety Madieu Williams(notes) have trained at James' studio alongside NFL job-seekers like former Syracuse center Ryan Bartholomew and ex-Northern Illinois defensive end Darnell Bolding.

In past years Bartholomew, Bolding and other undrafted rookies would have been permitted to sign free-agent contracts immediately after the conclusion of the seventh round. Rookie minicamps, offseason training activities and intensive playbook study would have dominated the next several months, followed by a desperate drive to make the team during training camp.

The lockout wiped all of that away, complicating the process for those lacking job security. In Bolding's case, he seriously considered offers to try out for teams in the fledgling United Football League before electing to wait out the lockout, which he hopes will be over in time for teams to conduct full training camps. "I know a lot of veterans appreciate the time off," he says, "but I'm just waiting and waiting for an opportunity."

During the brief period in April in which the lockout was lifted by U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson (before it was stayed by the Eighth Circuit Appellate Court), the Oakland Raiders, Bolding says, "wanted me to come in for a workout. I got excited for a minute, and then the lockout was back on."

He's still clinging to the dream. "I've been thinking a lot about that decision, and I'm going to stick it out until the lockout is over," he said earlier this week. "It's a tough call. But I think in the long run it will pay off."

In the meantime, Bolding has to pay the bills. He's been working part-time at a K-Mart across the street from Future For Fitness, helping out on the loading docks and assisting customers inside the store. He's one of many prospective NFL players struggling to balance pursuit of their dreams with the reality of sustenance – and a reminder that the lockout is impacting people other than those who accurately fall into the popularly constructed "millionaires vs. billionaires" narrative.

"You can tell some of these young guys are a little bit concerned," Shiancoe said. "They're in a bind. Do they go to UFL camps or wait on the NFL? It's a dilemma. It just puts a lot of stuff on hold.

"A lot of guys, they work at regular jobs. Not everyone has a million dollars. A lot of rookies out there are barely making ends meet. They've got to pay for trainers and incorporate workouts into their jobs. Some of these rookies, they don't have any money. They can barely afford to pay their damn rent."

Then there is the story of another James client, journeyman tackle Jacob Bender(notes), a 2007 New York Jets sixth-round draft pick still struggling to stick on an NFL roster. Bender, who last suited up in an NFL game in 2008 (for the 49ers), has had practice-squad stints with the New England Patriots, New York Giants and Panthers and signed a "future" contract with Carolina the day after the 2010 season ended.

In a normal year Bender would have spent much of his offseason in Charlotte participating in OTAs and minicamps and subsisting on the limited income provided by the Panthers under the terms of the expired collective bargaining agreement. Instead, he's back home in Maryland working seven days a week to help keep the family's sign-installation business afloat and sneaking in workouts with James when he can.

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Jacob Bender takes a breather during a training-camp practice with the San Francisco 49ers in 2009.
(US Presswire)

"I've been on practice squads the last two years, so unfortunately I wasn't able to create a big lockout fund like some of the guys," Bender said. "The lockout sucks because I want to be practicing. I want to get better. But it's just hard. Real hard."

Bender's father, Mike, is a longtime truck driver who retired because of back problems and is now afflicted by motor-neuron issues, rendering him unable to work. So Jacob Bender, along with his brother and a friend, has been pressed into service as a sign-hanger – not an ideal set of circumstances given that, until very recently, he had a fear of heights.

Each day, Bender wakes up at 6 a.m. and sets off to hang the banners or signs (lighted, street, commercial) that are on that day's schedule. In late April, on the morning before his 26th birthday, Bender was digging holes alongside Highway 301 in Crofton, lifting a pair of 12-foot poles to wedge inside of them and thinking to himself, Man, this sucks.

At least that job was in Maryland, allowing him to finish in time to get to Future in Fitness to join James' afternoon workout group in progress. Over the past several months Bender has spent numerous days installing signage for new Metro stations in Virginia (one of them, in Loudoun, is close to the Redskins' training facility), meaning he can't begin training until 7:30 or 8 p.m.

"I don't care if I've got to stay late – I will always open the gym for this guy," James says of Bender. "He's trying to make the Carolina Panthers, but this guy is proving that family is more important. His mom needs food on the table. Where do they get kids like that? You ask yourself, 'Would you do that?' Those are the type of guys we need to be talking about in the NFL."

Though Bender has not be able to devote his focus to football, he believes he'll report to Panthers camp with a maniacal level of motivation.

"I feel like I'm operating with even more of an advantage," he said. "This is the first offseason I've had to work since I've been in the NFL. I've got that motivation saying, 'I ain't doing this for the rest of my life, that's for certain.' I've just got so much drive."

Another issue for the 6-foot-6 Bender is trying to maintain his 315-pound playing weight, no easy chore when one spends the bulk of his day doing manual labor in sweltering temperatures. "He needs 6,000 calories a day," James says. "[Shiancoe] recently hired a chef to help keep his weight up during the season, and he paid for the chef to come out for a month and cook meals for Jake, and the facility paid for a second month. I'll do anything I can to help this kid."

Says Bender: "If I didn't have Mac, man, it'd be hard."

As much as James is appreciated by those he trains, he's also reviled with amusing regularity. A bulletin board in the studio has quotes scrawled on it like "I Hate His [expletive]' – the source of that statement, clearly, is one of the players he has pushed to the brink of exhaustion.

Nicknamed "The Baby Bear," James toted the rock for Division III Salisbury State in the mid-'90s despite the fact that he makes Darren Sproles(notes) look like Adrian Peterson. "I was a 5-2 running back," James said. "And believe me, I constantly had a chip on my shoulder."

In that sense James can relate to Bartholomew, of whom Shiancoe says, "I've never seen a rookie this damn strong. Look at him lifting over there: He looks like he's got a little stick on his back, and he's doing 185-pound sprinter squats. The dude is like an ox."

Yet Bartholomew, regarded as raw by NFL talent evaluators, is one of the many rookies left in limbo after his name wasn't called in late April.

"Ryan was the No. 1 offensive performer [in the bench press] at the combine but went undrafted," James said. "As his trainer, I remind him of that every day. I tell him, 'There's 254 guys they think are better than you.' He's got a huge chip on his shoulder."

On a positive note, Bartholomew would have no trouble lifting the chip and pushing it up one of the steep grass hills on which he and his workout partners are pushed through various conditioning drills by The Baby Bear.

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Darnell Dockett participates in the hammer drill during his workout.
(Photo courtesy Mac James)

James isn't merely an old-school drill sergeant. He applies plenty of sports science to his training sessions, which also feature grueling exercises such as pushing a Prowler sled loaded up with 250 pounds 25 yards across the pavement behind the studio. Players also take turns whacking oversized tires with a hammer, running 'gassers' in the extreme heat and carrying sandbags while completing various agility drills. And James videotapes most of them, then studies the footage to help the players improve upon their form.

"We do some wild [expletive] in here," Shiancoe said. "Like hauling a 50-pound sandbag on your chest while running up a hill, or running shuffle drills up and down the hill with a 30-pound bag. One thing about Mac: He will get you to do what you don't want to do. A week later, you'll be glad you did. But not during that week."

Interjects Dockett: "Then he'll hit you with that guilt trip: 'Everybody else is working. We need to be better.' And we fall for it every time."

Wearing blue mesh shorts with a Dallas Cowboys star logo, a grey "Raiders Equipment" shirt lifted over his dreadlock-covered head, Dockett continues his playful rant about James' demanding style. The extra time at Future of Fitness, Dockett believes, will better prepare him for the rigors of an NFL season – but it won't help his team rebound from a disappointing 2010 campaign that followed a pair of playoff seasons, including the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance in February of 2009.

"No, the lockout's not helping us," Dockett said about the Cardinals. "The faster we can get back to work, the faster we can get our [expletive] out of last place. If you're a team like the New England Patriots and you go to the playoffs every year, maybe you don't mind the time off. But we're in a different situation.

"We don't have a quarterback, and we've got new people at new positions. We're missing OTAs and we're falling behind."

Shiancoe's team is in a similar predicament. The Vikings, following an overtime defeat to the Saints in the 2009 NFC championship game, commenced a miserable campaign that caused coach Brad Childress' firing and (finally) drove quarterback Brett Favre(notes) to call it a career, and mean it. The lockout has thus been a major drag for Childress' successor, Leslie Frazier, a pair of new coordinators and two untested quarterbacks, first-round draft pick Christian Ponder(notes) and second-year passer Joe Webb(notes), among others.

It's enough to make an accomplished pass-catcher pout, but Shiancoe, who caught a career-high 11 touchdown passes in '09, isn't having any of that. Like Pete Townshend, he works off his frustration in the gym.

"I've never been this fast, this strong, this muscular," Shiancoe said. "I've never been pushed to this level in my life. Forget going out – my nights are full of nothing. I'm spent."

Like Dockett, Shiancoe is driven by an immense personal pride in his reputation and legacy. On Saturday, he'll demonstrate his determination to give back by hosting a free football camp for kids entering grades 7th to 12th at Morgan State University, his alma mater.

Drafted by the Giants in the third round in 2003, Shiancoe spent his first four years backing up Jeremy Shockey(notes) before signing a free-agent deal with the Vikings and becoming one of the league's more productive players at his position. He credits former teammates Shockey, Tiki Barber and future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan with helping him learn that "you can't stay the same – you always have to try to get better."

It's a lesson that Shiancoe hopes to impart to his less-experienced Minnesota teammates once the lockout ends, and he's convinced he'll start the season more prepared to succeed than ever before.

"In football, confidence has to do with success," he said. "If you know you're working out harder than the other guy, creating that iron will, not taking days off, creating that tunnel vision, it's a big advantage. It creates a mentality, a willpower, almost like an instinct: 'I can't be stopped.'

"Look at Dockett. It's human nature not to put forth the same effort when your back's not against the wall, but he's doing it anyway, and then some. That sends a good message for someone who just got paid, and with good reason. They invest a lot in you. You have to hold up your side of the bargain. It'd be disrespectful to our teammates, organization, fans, and even yourself to expect anything less than the very best you've got."

It would also incur the wrath of the Baby Bear – and no one in Crofton wants that to happen.