As you may have seen, the Denver Broncos’ offseason workout program has begun. And while it’s become routine to this part of the offseason every year now, this is so different from what it used to be.
Naturally, this has to do with the continued development and study of athletes, performance and preparation, and the current time is great. But, once upon a time, it was not so.
Now, the players always seem to be around in the offseason, but when I began working for the team in 1978 it was not so.
I can recall defensive end Lyle Alzado stopping by my 5700 Logan Street office to say hello — I expressed surprise at seeing him, even saying, “Wow, Lyle, what are you doing here?” It was just such a surprise to even see a player in the offseason.
The Broncos, like many NFL teams, had a basketball team, with a number of players going to smaller communities within the state to play local high school teachers, firemen, etc., to make a little money and to “stay in shape.”
Can you imagine this now? An unsanctioned activity that possibly could result in a player being injured? But it happened all the time, in just about every NFL city.
That was back in the days when football players and baseball players primarily hunted, fished and played golf to stay in shape in the offseason.
I was once talking with the late Gene Michael of the New York Yankees, and he said, “Heck, Jim, I played in the era before we had muscles!”
Now, everyone lifts weights. Once upon a time, no one did.
Stan Jones, the longtime defensive line coach for the Broncos, was also our “unofficial” strength coach.
Stan made the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his fabulous career as a player with the Chicago Bears, where he was an early proponent of weightlifting in the offseason. As neither the Bears nor any other team had a weight room at that time, Jones went to lift wherever he could, including at some of the seedier parts of the Windy City. This led to some of his Bears teammates asking Stan what the heck he was doing, and some could just not believe he was lifting weights with that regularity.
At one point, I recall that he put a sign up at the Broncos that rings just as true today: “Strength is not permanent. It is temporary and you must continue to develop it.”
In fact, Jones built himself up to around 290 pounds during his playing days, but when he retired, his knowledge of the body led him to drop down to 220, “which is far more normal for my size and age,” he told me.
Before we ever had a weight room, we had a first-round draft pick from the University of Colorado named Bobby Anderson, and when other teammates were doing much less rigorous activities, he would go over to Mile High Stadium every day and run up and down the south stands steps. 56 rows up, 56 down, over and over, five days a week. Bobby had great muscular development and his cardio was tops on the team.
Even as recently as during the 1990s, when we had weight rooms that were considered sophisticated (for the time) but which still did not feature much in the way of offseason programs, I remember that Ring of Fame linebacker Karl Mecklenburg would take his family to the beach in South Carolina before camp. And while they played on the beach, Karl ran on the beach. He explained to me his belief that running in sand made his legs work harder and prepared him for the rigors of training camp.
Of course, player development programs and the positive work of the union have combined to make more sophisticated offseason programs.
Also, we have to take into consideration that coaches today are much more in tune with the physiology and how to get the most out of the human body.
Beating up your players in the offseason now seems so counterproductive, but it was not always so. I can remember that whenever the players took the field, from training camp to mini camps, everyone wore full pads and there was always hitting.
But a full century passed from the start of the NFL to today, and thought developed as well as size and physical prowess.
And let’s not forget about nutrition.
Today, the Broncos have a state-of-the-art cafeteria and full time chefs preparing meals for the players, coaches and staff.
I can remember the days of the food trucks stopping by at lunchtime and guys buying a prepared sandwich and a soft drink, or nothing at all.
Or the days of advancing Los Angeles when the Raiders played there and standing at the curb with the likes of Howie Long and Marcus Allen, dressed in pants and pads, ready for the afternoon practice, and standing in line to buy an egg salad sandwich.
It was in the Mike Shanahan era that the Broncos first had prepared meals. Mike explained to me that having prepared meals on premises was healthier, more likely to be consumed — as opposed to a bunch of players driving to the nearest fast-food place, or skipping lunch altogether — plus, the more time guys spent together at the facility, the more likely they were to develop bonds as a team and talk football.
We were already providing lunch for the players when Mike first suggested breakfast also. He was met with some initial opposition because of the financial burden, and so for that first season, Mike Shanahan paid for breakfast himself. Yet another reason for him to be in the Hall of Fame.
So there have been a lot of changes in pro football over the last 100 years, and not just on the field.
The study of the body, including lifting and nutrition, continues today and now the offseason is as big as the season itself, in terms of preparing our players to be among the greatest athletes in the world.