There is nothing unusual about seeing NFL players on the University of Minnesota campus this time of year.
For the past four years, Cardinals standout receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. and strength and conditioning specialist Bill Welle have organized offseason workouts at the Gibson-Nagurski complex for players to have a place to stay sharp after NFL offseason activities finish and before training camp commences.
This year, however, the work has taken on a different level of importance.
The NFL lockout means teams could not hold any offseason camps or communicate with players, leaving the athletes responsible for their own conditioning. When the owners and players will resolve their labor differences remains uncertain, but once they do, players will have to quickly report and, in some cases, absorb new information in a short time.
"Guys are using this as their minicamp or training camp," said Welle, who is Fitzgerald's longtime personal trainer and runs Minneapolis-based Welle Fast Elite Sports Training, which leases the field. "Get the speed and agility training in and then also get some functional stuff on the field just to get [in] that football shape. Guys had better be doing something."
Fitzgerald, a Minneapolis native, began his workouts on the university campus about a month ago. He invites a variety of pro and college players to take part in on-the-field sessions that run for two hours each morning on the outdoor practice fields and are conducted every weekday except Wednesday, when the quarterbacks and wide receivers do route work.
Welle has devised a plan that emphasizes a different skill each day. Monday is for speed, Tuesday is change of direction, Thursday is acceleration and Friday often returns the focus to speed. Conditioning work -- which last Thursday called for players to run the length of the field 16 times in the heat and humidity -- is followed by route running. Defensive backs work against the receivers.
"It's very important," Redskins safety O.J. Atogwe said. "Beyond just doing your personal work, any time you can get with other guys of your athletic ability and work with them, they are going to push you and make you work harder. Also the field work that we are getting out here is top-notch because you are going against great competition and you're honing your skills."
Big turnout at U
Thirty-plus players attended last week, including quarterbacks Adam Weber, the former Gopher who was not drafted in April, and soon-to-be former Viking Tarvaris Jackson; safeties Craig Dahl of St. Louis, Malcolm Jenkins of New Orleans and Nick Schommer of Tennessee; wide receivers Jaymar Johnson of the Vikings, Laurent Robinson of St. Louis and Tiquan Underwood of Jacksonville, and former Gophers tight end Matt Spaeth, who is now with Pittsburgh.
Johnson said he is hoping to see some of his Vikings teammates, including receiver Bernard Berrian, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and possibly quarterback Christian Ponder, show up in coming weeks. Ponder was drafted 12th overall by the Vikings in April and has spent much of his time working at the IMG Madden Football Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Players are free to come and go as they please, and they are not charged.
Fitzgerald and Welle held similar workouts for seven weeks this spring on the Arizona State campus.
"It's unfortunate some guys are taking this lockout as a break, some guys are preparing," Fitzgerald said, very aware that not everyone will return in top shape. "I just want to make sure that I'm one of the guys that are preparing, and my teammates that want to come out and work, they are more than welcome to come."
Johnson, who spent all of last season on injured reserve after breaking his thumb in the exhibition opener, has spent the spring and summer working out at the activities Fitzgerald organized. Johnson knows others aren't putting in as much time.
"That's what I'm hoping on. ... I've got friends who play for different teams," Johnson said. "A lot of them are not going as hard as they should, though. ... If they do work out, they're working out by themselves and not going against a lot of people like we're doing, pressing each other and things like that. I'm using this [as a way to get ready]. This lockout is going to hurt a lot of people and it's also going to help a lot of people."
Thumbs up from Carter
Last Tuesday, former Vikings wide receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter made an appearance. Welle is the co-founder of Carter's FAST program, which is a sports performance training center in Boca Raton, Fla., and Carter has made frequent appearances at Fitzgerald's workouts to assist. Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin also helped last year.
Carter acknowledged the added importance of these workouts.
"The person that doesn't have to work on their conditioning once they get [to camp] has a huge advantage," Carter said. "You can learn more, the more duress you can handle. You can think clearer. The more exhausted you are, you're more trying to hang on. So the guy that's in shape is going to have the ability, with all these new coaches and new systems and new quarterbacks and all of that, to be better faster."
Fitzgerald also brought in longtime NFL wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan for three weeks to help with instruction. Sullivan also spent time at the workouts in Arizona.
"We try to run this with the conditioning and the throwing and keep it so that we're doing things that relate to football," said Sullivan, who was with the 49ers last season. "Then there's [weight] lifting going on. Larry's really the guy that gets the credit for keeping it all together and making it work like it works. He does a great job, and guys respond to him and come to him. He gets a lot of guys to turn out and he works his butt off every day and he's a great example for guys to see."
Ordinarily, Fitzgerald would wrap up things at the university late this month and then head to training camp. But this year's conclusion is far more open-ended.
"This is a nice outlet for guys to be able to come over here, get together, get some of the camaraderie that we're missing in the locker room," Fitzgerald said. "I think that's one of the things that I miss most about not being at work is just having an association with your teammates, seeing how their families [are], that type of stuff. So we get that out here. ...
"Until they call us back, I'll be here. I'll be here in Minnesota."