Rashan Gary explodes off the line, then uses a meaty forearm to propel the offensive tackle backward and to the right before Gary makes a quick move to the left to knock down the tackling dummy at Nike’s The Opening football camp last month in Oregon.
The move is emblematic of the talent that makes Gary, a defensive tackle for Paramus Catholic (Paramus, N.J.), the No. 1 recruit in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. The 6-4, 286-pounder has offers from more than 30 schools. If he goes on to the success that recruiting services are predicting, a lot of people could be taking credit, including his three personal trainers.
“He has a speed coach, he has a strength and conditioning coach and he has a tech coach,” says his mother, Jennifer Coney. “Rashan has me running up and down that Parkway.”
Gary’s case might be extreme, but the use of personal trainers by top-level high school football players has surged in the past decade. That rise has many high school coaches questioning the need and the effectiveness of personal trainers beyond their own high school team’s strength and conditioning coaches. Others wonder if personal trainers are using their connections with elite players to insert themselves into the recruiting process.
“The New Hustle, that’s what they call it,” said Greg Garrett, who runs Level Forty Training in King of Prussia, Pa. “How do you separate the trainers who are for real? Once I got my tax ID number, it stopped being a game after that.”
Ten years ago, Garrett was a semi-pro football player and security guard at George Washington High in Philadelphia. That’s how he met Sharrif Floyd, now a third-year defensive tackle with the Minnesota Vikings.
“The players would see me doing the offseason training and ask me questions,” Garrett said. “Sharrif and I just connected.”
Around the same time, Garrett said he began training Deion Barnes, then at Northeast High in Philadelphia, but now a rookie linebacker with the New York Jets and other athletes followed. Now, Garrett has a wall at his 2,500-square foot facility that includes hats from more than 15 NBA players, 11 NFL players and scores of college players.
One of his current players, whom he trains for free, is Imhotep Charter tight end Naseir Upshur, considered the No. 4 tight end in the 2016 class.
“For me, that’s my resume,” he said of the wall. “All the guys who have come through.”
Looking for an edge
The competition for Football Bowl Subdivision scholarships is intense. That has led to athletes often specializing in sports earlier, with year-round training and hiring a personal trainer as the next step.
Former Howard University and Canadian Football League defensive back Omar Evans often steers athletes to his trainer, Myron Flowers, of 360Fit and Performance in Silver Spring, Md.
“I think (performance-based training) is the evolution of the game,” Evans said. “Today’s athlete needs so much more. I think it comes up from trying to get better. Unfortunately (personal training) is becoming like AAU basketball. A lot of guys aren’t in it for the right reason.”
The Avalon School (Gaithersburg, Md.) wide receiver Trevon Diggs trains with Flowers because his brother, former Maryland wide receiver and Vikings rookie Stefon Diggs, trains with him.
“He’s one of the best trainers I think, in the area,” said Trevon, ranked as the No. 7 athlete in the Class of 2016 by 247. “He’s put a lot of players in the league and I felt maybe he could do that for me today. He does a little bit of everything.”
Flowers said he’s seen performance-based training grow substantially since he got into the business 17 years ago. One reason Flowers said there’s a need for performance-based training is athletes no longer get the balanced training of playing multiple sports.
“I’m 41,” Flowers said. “I grew up in a time where I wouldn’t dare ask my father to get me a personal trainer. Back then, you did all these different sports, so you did all these different activities. Things have changed and people are more specialized, but I can teach speed, I can teach strength training and I can teach skill. I’ve coached 26 pro athletes and 51 Division I college scholarship athletes. It’s like any other business. There’s a lot of people selling houses, but not that many who can sell a house.”
High school coaches see natural conflict
Bishop Amat (La Puente, Calif.) football coach Steve Hagerty said in most cases, outside personal training is unnecessary for high school football players.
“They’re all selling dreams,” Hagerty said. “It’s just one more person taking credit for where the kid is supposed to be. There are more and more people coming between the high school athlete and the high school football coach. I’ll get a call from somebody inviting me to a signing or college commitment ceremony to somebody who is on my team. It’s almost like they’re extending me a courtesy invitation and that they’ve played a significant role in this kid’s journey. They didn’t do anything. They are just a parasite.”
For many players, however, their relationship with their personal trainer is more enduring than with their high school coaches.
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt played high school football for Pewaukee, Wis., then for Central Michigan, Wisconsin and the Texans. Yet, when he went to the ESPYS recently, among those he brought with him was his longtime personal trainer, Brad Arnett.
“It’s incredible to see where I’ve come and the journey that I’ve taken and I’ve been so fortunate that I get to share it with the people who helped create me,” Watt said. “My trainer who I’ve been with since my sophomore year in high school is with me this week, my buddies from back home, my family.”
Many trainers aren’t shy about getting involved in the recruiting process.
Garrett held a signing party last February at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant.
“My first signing party, we had about 120 people there,” Garrett said. “Last year, on National Signing Day, we had 27 signees and 350 people. Most of them paid for their own food, but I paid for the VIP section. I ordered 500 wings. This year, I’ll have to move the whole thing to (the larger) Chickie and Pete’s. It’s going to be huge because of the athletes.”
Flowers, who played at North Carolina Central and in the CFL, said he feels he can help high school athletes and parents deal with choosing a college.
“I help by educating the parent on the recruiting process,” Flowers said. “We have a parent panel at our football camp that talks to parents about recruiting. A lot of times, if there’s somebody like me in the room when a coach comes recruiting, he has to pull out script two because I know what’s in script one. You have to ask questions like, is there a dentist my son can go to?”
Centennial (Corona, Calif.) coach Matt Logan said he’s concerned that even good personal trainers could over-train athletes.
“I’m seeing guys who are hurt during the summer, before football even begins,” Logan said. “That shouldn’t happen. Most of the big high schools already have strength and speed programs, so having a personal trainer is unnecessary. A lot of those trainers are just hoping they’ll get an athlete who makes it big. They won’t charge him, but they will charge all those other guys who don’t have a shot, telling them, ‘Train with us and you’ll be like that guy.’ ”
Dewayne Riggins, who is one of Gary’s trainers, said he’s surprised when he gets pushback from high school coaches.
“Why wouldn’t they want to see their player get better, no matter who’s training him?” Riggins said. “I’ve had coaches, after I helped one of their players get bigger and stronger, tell the player to quit using outside trainers. Sometimes, I think for high school coaches, it’s all about control and taking credit. I’ve been doing this for too long to care about that.”
The trainers say incoming high school players benefit in more ways than one with working out and connecting with college and pro athletes.
“My business is based off referrals and wanting to be great,” Flowers said. “If you surround these kids with great common interest people, the success is going to rub off on them. If you have a group of pro, college and high school athletes and these guys are all training together, the high school players are talking with guys who are playing at a high level. There are all types of things you can learn from just being around these guys, it’s great knowledge. You can ask a Vernon Davis, ‘What are some of the things I need to look out for in recruiting?’ or ‘What did you spend your first check on?’ ”
Hagerty said parents would be better served spending their money elsewhere.
“I’ll get parents who ask me if they should hire a personal trainer,” Hagerty said. “I tell them, if they have those type of resources, they should put their kid in a SAT preparation course.
“These guys are like tutors who take no responsibility for an end product. If a kid wants to hire a sports tutor, that’s great. The bottom line is it may help them with their confidence, but it doesn’t help them with landing a Division I scholarship.”
St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) football coach Roger Harriott has also coached at Florida Atlantic and University (Fort Lauderdale) and said personal trainers may occasionally have a place, albeit a small one.
“Personal performance trainers are typically utilized by players in need of individual instruction, because their team may not have an organized off-season program in place,” Harriott said. “I’m not entirely opposed to this form of individual training, but I’m a strong proponent of team training. In my humble opinion, I believe that it is more advantageous for players to work out with their coaches and teammates, in a collaborative, unified setting, if possible.”
Coney sees her frequent trips to take Gary to trainers, like his unofficial college visits, as investments that are paying off with a college scholarship.
“My husband and I talked and that little college fund that we had, we don’t have to have it now,” Coney said. “That’s what we’ve been using.”