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'Strongman Hill' puts columnist to the test

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AGOURA HILLS, Calif. – Running side by side up a dirt trail through the eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains on a sunny late-May morning, five men skid to an abrupt and simultaneous stop after noticing a distinctly unfamiliar sound coming from the nearby brush.

Three standout NFL defenders, an athletic, 20-something dude named "Q" and I stare at one another for a second or two, our minds spinning with scary possibilities. A rattlesnake? A mountain lion? A coyote with an attitude?

No words are spoken as each of us does a quick 180-degree pivot and starts sprinting back from where we came.

It's a good thing that we're not actually being chased by a predator, because guess who's bringing up the rear?

Welcome to my world – a world that, during that briefly frightening sequence, seemed cruelly tilted on both literal and metaphorical levels.

When I signed on to tackle "Strongman Hill" with Tennessee Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck(notes), San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes) and Baltimore Ravens pass-rushing hybrid Terrell Suggs(notes), I figured my dignity and muscles would be in jeopardy of suffering severe strains.

Getting eaten for being slow hadn't crossed my mind.

To be fair, there was much for which I wasn't prepared: from dragging an oversized tire affixed to an elastic cord around my waist while backpedaling to pushing a wheelbarrow full of sandbags up a rocky incline. Such is the lot of the middle-aged sports columnist whose typical taxing workout consists of an hour-long bike ride along unfailingly flat, paved paths, sometimes with a Clintonesque stop for lunch three-quarters of the way through the trip.

On Strongman Hill, one of my goals was to avoid losing my breakfast, at least in the presence of athletes who'd never let me hear the end of it. More important, I wanted to get a sense of the misery that these driven veterans – each of whom has played in at least one Pro Bowl and conference championship game – puts himself through on a regular basis over the offseason.

The last time I'd been stupid – er, journalistically motivated – enough to attempt something like this had occurred almost exactly 19 years earlier, when I took on "The Hill" with irrepressible San Francisco 49ers halfback Roger Craig.

Known for his high-kneed running style, uncanny versatility and tenacious workout regimen, Craig sportingly allowed me – a young beat writer for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat – to tag along with his crew on a foggy morning in San Carlos.

It turned out to be a landmark day, but not because of anything I contributed: The drama occurred when Craig, who'd adopted The Hill as a training staple on the advice of future Hall of Famer Walter Payton and later brought future Hall of Famer Barry Sanders into his workout group, began screaming in jubilation as teammate and hill newcomer Jerry Rice(notes) rolled up in a black Porsche.

Rice was right behind me as seven of us jogged up The Hill single-file, and I remember being paranoid that I was going too slow, imagining how horrific it would be if, because of my lagging gait, the world's greatest receiver tripped over my heel and broke his leg. Once we made it to the peak, briefly pausing to peer down at the tall trees below, I didn't have to worry anymore: Craig, Rice and most of the others took off sprinting down the backside of the mountain, and that was the last I saw of them until I finally reached the bottom, where Rice had already revved up the Porsche.

I'd survived, though, and I wrote a 100-column-inch feature for the newspaper, complete with a photo of the seven of us running together up The Hill. My dad still has the framed original in his office, graced by Craig's personalized signature: "Steve, your son is slow."

Nearly two decades later, and after about five not-so-brisk jogs totaling about 20 miles in the week preceding my visit to Southern California, it was time for me to push myself, just this once, for old times' sake.

It turned out I wasn't the only wide-eyed newcomer. As with Rice way back when, Suggs was preparing to do battle with the mystical Hill for this first time. The fact that "Sizzle" had, a few weeks earlier, gone there to observe a workout featuring Bulluck, Cromartie and Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney(notes) – all fellow clients of Los Angeles-based agent Gary Wichard – only heightened the big man's apprehension.

"I've been putting this off for months," Suggs said at breakfast for the benefit of fellow diners "Q" (his cousin, Quadrell Bogan), Wichard, Cromartie and me. "Can we chill awhile? Can I get another order of egg whites? I am not looking forward to this."

A half-hour later, as we parked our cars in a cul de sac outside the house of local firefighter John Quiroz and proceeded to an uninhabited area behind his property, I got my first look at Strongman Hill.

On a positive note, the incline was a relatively mild one – a semisteep rise extending into the brush which lasted less than a quarter-mile. There was another, smaller dirt hill on the opposite end. Craig and his gang, who regularly ascended at least a mile's worth of trail before sprinting down, would have scoffed at the relatively minute scale.

The bad news? This wouldn't be a traditional cardio workout like the one I did with Craig. It was far more strength-oriented, a session that the man training us (former Ravens, Arizona Cardinals and Stanford Cardinal strength and conditioning coach Ryan Capretta) described as "a power-endurance obstacle course."

Endurance, I knew I could fake. Power, not so much.

Beyond hoisting coolers full of Vitamin Water from the minivan to the sidelines of my kids' soccer games, I haven't been doing a whole lot of lifting since … I don't know … forever. By contrast, Bulluck looks like a hip-hop Popeye, Suggs is a 260-pound tormentor of quarterbacks, and I could swear I saw a statue of Cromartie when I visited the Parthenon while covering the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Suffice it to say that no one has ever accused me of resembling a Greek god. I do have a decent amount of pride, however, and let's just say that a fear of looking pathetic in front of people whose locker rooms I enter is a powerful motivator.

Speaking of fear, after our harrowing warm-up run and the sprint back from whatever lurked inside the brush – we never found out – I was handed a large mallet which I assumed was a weapon to be used against aggressive rattlers.

"No, it's not for the snakes," Capretta said, laughing. "It's part of the workout."

Soon I was standing atop a tire, raising the hammer above my head and swinging down at the rubber, then lifting it back up and repeating. The 10 reps with my right hand were passable; once I went lefty, I was a self-inflicted bloody nose waiting to happen.

I avoided that messy fate, and within a couple of minutes I was bending low to the ground and flipping a tire onto its opposite end, over and over, until I reached a set of cones about 20 yards away. Then I turned around and did another series of flips to get it back to its original location. The tire Capretta gave me was pretty big; the ones Bulluck, Suggs and Cromartie used looked like they belonged on a tractor.

I would grow to detest the presence of that tire the way some of my fellow soccer dads resent the spare tire in their tummies (not that it stops us from celebrating tournament victories with beer floats). With the elastic band harnessed around my waist, I started pumping my legs until I felt what Quiroz called the "load," then pulled the sucker about 30 yards across the dirt.

The return trip consisted of backpedaling while pulling the tire, which was considerably harder. By the time I finished that task, my quads were tingling, and I was starting to question the power of attorney I'd granted Wichard for my breakfast order (and the resulting garden-burger chunks that filled out my egg-white scramble).

"You should've gotten steak with the egg whites, like I did," Suggs said. "Then again, the steak might not stay down much longer."

Neither of us would hurl, however, and the second half of the workout commenced. I bounced a small medicine ball to the ground, caught it and threw it over my head, rotating my body around to catch and repeat. At least, that's what I was supposed to do; my focus was starting to wane, and any semblance of form went with it.

A few minutes later, Quiroz handed me a wheelbarrow full of sandbags, and I almost started laughing. Given that my wife is a former winner of the John M. Studebaker International Wheelbarrow Races at the El Dorado County Fair (OK, it was before I met her, back when she used to run twice a day and "minivan" was a dirty word), I knew I had to step up to the challenge or risk being taunted on a till-death-do-us-part basis.

Blessedly, Capretta removed three of the six sandbags before sending me up the smaller hill and, as I neared the top and began to lose momentum, he said, "OK, you're good" at the precise moment when I was thinking, This is bad.

"Remember in high school when you didn't have to do this stuff?" Suggs said after my out-of-control return trip. "You could just show up and be The Man."

Bulluck nodded. I bit my lip and thought about the dramatic goal I scored – with my face, unintentionally – for my middling prep soccer team.

Eventually, I snapped out of my daydream. It was time to pull the tire once more, and this time my forward stagger coincided with Cromartie's backpedal. I was so focused on my own misery that it belatedly occurred to me that danger was afoot. Since Cromartie, who was hobbled by a broken hip throughout '08, doesn't actually have eyes in the back of his head (it just seemed that way to Peyton Manning(notes) during the cornerback's breakout '07 campaign), it was incumbent upon me to avoid a tire-to-tire or, worse, tire-to-athlete's-leg collision.

I swerved to the left and Cromartie and his tire passed without incident. Had there been an unfortunate crash, my already contentious relationship with San Diego general manager A.J. Smith would have gone to DEFCON 2.

Next I ran up the hill with the tire attached, at which point I announced to the group, "That's it. I'm done with the NFL. I'm going back to my keyboard."

It was a premature declaration. There was still a blocking sled to push across the dirt, followed by a tire-tossing session and a lot of laughs with my brothers-in-arms (jellylike limbs, in my particular case).

"Look at Cro go," Bulluck said as Cromartie flashed up the hill with the tire in tow as a seemingly incidental accessory. "I'll bet he could beat Philip Rivers(notes) in a 40 with the big tire on."

Everyone smiled except Cromartie.

"I could beat him," he said matter-of-factly. "But trust me, he doesn't want to race."

"He'd talk some trash, though," Suggs said, laughing, and then Bulluck told a story about the Chargers quarterback addressing him with an F-bomb during San Diego's victory over the Titans in the '07 playoffs – and wisely apologizing before the next series.

A few minutes later, Bulluck turned serious.

"Up here is where you get that edge you need to keep getting better," he said to Suggs. "It's not about pleasing a coach or being better than the guy next to you. You're competing against yourself, and the only limit is how far you're willing to push."

Suggs shook his head in agreement, then turned to me and added: "People think we've got these easy jobs, that we just show up on Sundays and do our thing. They don't see what we put into it in the months leading up to that moment. Here it is in the middle of the offseason, and we're up here pushing ourselves to the limit. I wish I could just chill and rest on my laurels, but it never ends. I like being on top too much."

We walked down to our cars and encountered two more masochists – Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who played at nearby Oaks Christian High School, and former St. Louis Rams practice-squad running back John David Washington(notes), whose father, Denzel, resides metaphorically atop Hollywood's highest hill.

"It's brutal up there," Clausen said, gesturing toward Strongman. "But hey, you've gotta do it."

Our crew reconvened at Capretta's nearby facility, Proactive Sports Performance, where the proprietor put the athletes through an hour-long weight-training session. I passed on the heavy lifting, instead whipping out my pen and notebook and talking football with each of the dedicated defenders in my midst.

Yeah, I know, it sounds kind of middle-aged-sportswriter wimpy. Somewhere, I'm sure, Roger Craig is bowing his head – and lowering his knees – in disappointment.

What can I say? Sometimes fingers need exercise, too.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Ryan Leaf will soon replace Michael Vick(notes) as the world's most famous incarcerated quarterback … The next time Tom Brady(notes) and his wife, Gisele Bundchen, go kayaking in the Charles River, they'd be wise to invite Nomar Garciaparra and Mia Hamm to join them. … If Andre Rison delivers on his plan to come "out with my own hall of fame," the induction ceremony and accompanying parties will be a lot more lively than the festivities in Canton.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. In an effort to upstage Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who said that he and quarterback Carson Palmer are "like Brokeback Mountain", Buffalo Bills wideout Terrell Owens(notes) insisted that "Trent Edwards(notes) and I are like Harvey Milk and that dude with the mustache."

2. Upon learning of Hattiesburg, Miss., native Tim Floyd's resignation as USC basketball coach, a member of Brett Favre's(notes) inner circle booked an extra room at the Midway Motor Lodge in Green Bay for the weekend of Nov. 1 saying, "A stand-up guy like Tim needs a nice place to lay his head at night."

3. Responding to FOX information man Jay Glazer's new MMA-style training venture, SI's Peter King announced he would conduct colonoscopy-prep workouts with soon-to-be-38-year-old Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes).

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Despite his unfortunate decision to attend the second-most prestigious school in the University of California system, Drew Bennett(notes) is one of my favorite NFL running mates and I want him in the league as long as possible. Yet I don't think it's mere self-interest that has me wondering how a guy who was a consistently productive receiver until an opening-game foot injury derailed his 2008 season can't find a job as a No. 3 or No. 4 wideout in a league full of teams clearly lacking at those positions. Two years ago the St. Louis Rams signed Bennett, who'd led the Titans in receiving the previous season, to a six-year, $30-million contract a few days into free agency. Now Bennett, 30, is generating all the buzz of "According to Jim."

"It's so funny how fickle this league is," Bennett says. "Two years ago, I was a hot free agent, and now it's June and I don't even have a job yet." After catching 33 passes for 375 yards as the Rams' No. 3 wideout in '07, Bennett moved up to No. 2 when the team released all-time leading receiver Isaac Bruce(notes). But he broke his left foot while catching a four-yard pass on his second play from scrimmage in last season's opener against the Philadelphia Eagles and was later placed on injured reserve. The Rams released him in February, and though Bennett says he's now "healthier than I was two years ago," his only visits have been to Cleveland (the Browns' interest suddenly cooled after a seemingly positive response to his workout), the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee – and no signing appears imminent. That seems strange, given that Bennett missed only five games from 2004-07 and, during his past 60 games, has more receiving yards (3,101) than all but four players projected as their teams' No. 2 receivers for '09 (Anquan Boldin(notes), Lee Evans(notes), Laveranues Coles(notes) and Wes Welker(notes)). He is a tall (6-5), rangy target with a history of moving the chains—158 of his 217 receptions from '04 through '07 went for first downs, all of which would seem to make him a viable No. 3 receiver for some team in need of one.

So where are the Colts, who have Pierre Garcon(notes) and Sam Giguere(notes) penciled in behind starters Reggie Wayne(notes) and Anthony Gonzalez(notes)? Or what about the Chicago Bears (Rashied Davis(notes), Earl Bennett(notes), Devin Hester(notes)) or New York Giants (Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon(notes), Sinorice Moss(notes), Hakeem Nicks(notes), Mario Manningham(notes))? You're telling me the New York Jets (Jerricho Cotchery(notes), David Clowney(notes), Brad Smith(notes), Chansi Stuckey(notes)) couldn't use a savvy, experienced veteran in the mix? Really? Steelers? Raiders? Bucs? Packers? Jags? Hello? "I sort of get it," Bennett says. "The Rams had two terrible years when I was there. Not only did I break my foot on my second play of the first game, but I was on one of the two worst teams in the league. It's not a great sales pitch." At least Bennett's sense of humor hasn't slipped. "I'm thinking about Willie Mays Hayesing it," he says, referring to Wesley Snipes' 'Major League' character. "Maybe I'll just show up at someone's camp and see how long it takes for them to kick me out."

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Oaks Christian (Calif.) High quarterback Nick Montana, who gave a verbal commitment to attend Washington in the fall of 2010. If Nick is half as good a quarterback as his father – a Not-So-Average Joe I covered back in the day – the Huskies will be very fortunate. If nothing else, I learned a long time ago that Nick is the kind of guy who'll let it all hang out.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Like its women's counterpart a week earlier, the Bears' men's crew finished a close second in the race for a national championship, losing by less than a second to Nick Montana's future school in the varsity 8-plus grand final at the IRA Regatta last Saturday. Cal came out on top in the varsity 4-plus final and finished second to the Huskies in the overall team standings. On Tuesday a Golden Bears baseball player was picked in the first round of the MLB first-year player draft for the third time in four years, with junior center fielder Brett Jackson (31st to the Cubs) joining recent No. 1s Brandon Morrow (Mariners '06) and David Cooper (Blue Jays '08). Junior second baseman Jeff Kobernus (Nationals) and junior pitcher/designated hitter/outfielder Blake Smith (Dodgers) went in the second round. Meanwhile, alums Peter Tomasulo and Charlie Wi won sectional qualifying tournaments and will compete in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black – a public course I once roamed with a distinct lack of subtlety – next week. Finally, here's a Cal freshman who, with help from some classmates, has organized a prom for teens with cancer to honor his late friend, Shiri Gumbiner, who would have been his prom date. The event takes place Friday, June 19, at the Regency Center in San Francisco.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Nobody Fox business

ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS

Newly hired Reading manager Brendan Rodgers is already talking big, telling the team's website, "I came here with the ambition to get into the Premier League, simple as that … I'm really looking forward to pushing this club to its maximum, to my ambition of taking us into the Premier League." Can he pull it off in his first season? Bet365, the Royals' official online bookmaker, has Reading as a 9-2 shot to win the Football League Championship in 2009-10, behind recently relegated Premier League sides Newcastle United (5-4), West Bromwich Albion (7-4) and Middlesbrough (9-4) and holdovers Ipswich (11-4) and Sheffield United (10-3).

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Rex Ryan's entry into the NFL coaching world has been about as subtle as a Rage Against The Machine riff. In the months since the Ravens' rabble-rousing defensive coordinator was hired to replace Eric Mangini as the Jets' head coach, Ryan has cultivated a "swagger-licious" persona that shows no signs of abating. From his call-out of Pats coach Bill Belichick to his recent back-page-quote throwdown with Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder(notes), Ryan is acting like a man who's ready to rumble (and, yes, I love every second of it). In that sense the Son of Buddy may have more in common with a plucky pop singer who has assumed the name of a feminine color than he realizes. Here's Sexy Rexy on his imaginary stage, to the tune of "So What:"

Na na na na na na
Na na na na na
Na na na na na na
Na na na na na

I guess I just lost my scatback
I don't know where he went
So I'm gonna change the subject
And mess with Bill Belichick (yup)
We've got a brand new attitude
And we're not gonna be uptight
I'm gonna talk some trash, y'all
I wanna start a fight

Na na na na na
I wanna start a fight
Na na na na na
I wanna start a fight

So,
So what I am a head coach
I got my headset
And I can say stuff
And guess what
I'm havin' more fun
I am the Hot One
Stand back and hand me the mic
I'm so psyched
And I'm yoked
And you're a joke so
So what
I am a head coach
I got my whistle
And I will blow it tonight

Unh Check my bro Uohhh

The waiter just took my table
And gave it to Tommy Coughlin
(Damn!)
I guess I'll go sit with Tomlin
At least his ride's got phat rims
(What?)
Stirring it up with Channing Crowder
Delivering sounds that bite
Bart Scott(notes) has got my back, though
He's gonna start a fight

Na na na na
He's gonna start a fight
Na na na na
We're all gonna get in a fight

So,
So what I am a head coach
I got my headset
And I can say stuff
And guess what
I'm havin' more fun
I am the Hot One
Stand back and hand me the mic
I'm so psyched
And I'm yoked
And you're a joke so
So what
I am a head coach
I got my whistle
And I will blow it tonight

It wasn't fair
My dad got fired
He punched Gilbride and that's alright
Now he's reborn

And in New York
The Big Apple, I'll take a bite

So,
So what I am a head coach
I got my headset
And I can say stuff
And guess what
I'm havin' more fun
I am the Hot One
Stand back and hand me the mic
I'm so psyched
And I'm yoked
And you're a joke so
So what
I am a head coach
I got my whistle
And I will blow it tonight

No no
No no, won't stop talkin', that's right
I'm in your ear
I'm gonna show you the light
Outta sight
Not out of mind so

So what
I am a head coach
I got my headset
And I'm heading for a fight

Ba da da da da