If a workout had a fourth quarter—those last few minutes when the game is on the line—this would be it. And though it isn't pretty, it's clear that the three athletes who are in it are playing to win.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is wobbling and gritting his teeth, trying to maintain his balance atop a bench full of air while holding dumbbells by his shoulders. His former teammate, Darren Sproles, who's now with the Philadelphia Eagles, is running full tilt on a treadmill that's going entirely too fast. And Brandin Cooks, the young wide receiver who's expected to be Brees's top target this season, has a thousand-yard-stare look in his eye, knowing that when Sproles hops off, he's up.
"I had to buckle down," Cooks said later. "I knew it was going to hurt."
The three athletes spent the entire off-season training at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, where high-energy trainer Todd Durkin led them (and frequently participated) in the workouts. Exercises were grouped together and performed in non-stop circuits, building the athletes' strength and challenging their cardiovascular endurance at the same time.
"The pace is always the most challenging thing," Brees said. "Your heart rate is always about 150, sometimes eclipsing 170, for a majority of the workout. So you're constantly having to dig down deep."
Brees first started working with Durkin early in his NFL career, when he was at the helm of the San Diego Chargers' offense. He credits Durkin and his innovative techniques with keeping him mostly injury-free throughout his 15-year career. Brees said, "I've always put so much trust and faith in Todd. Every off-season when I would show up, I knew that Todd was going have some new technique that was going to set us apart from everybody else. We were going to be the trendsetters."
After Sproles signed on with the Chargers in 2005, he also joined Durkin. The running back has spent his off-seasons here ever since, even after changing teams—from San Diego to New Orleans to Philadelphia. He's short in stature and soft-spoken in public, but throughout the training, he was intense and focused, pushing the group's pace.
"Darren Sproles sets the bar for all of us really," Brees said. "He's there to take care of business. There's no goofing around."
Sproles said simply, "I was just taught to always work hard. I'm not the biggest, you know what I'm saying, so I was taught to outwork whoever you're going up against."
Last year, after the Saints drafted Cooks—Brees calls him "the young buck"—one of the first things he did was make the trip to Fitness Quest 10 to train with his new quarterback. He immediately noticed the group's competitiveness.
"Everything is a competition with these guys, you know, whether it's running from one building to the next or doing some particular exercise. If they mess up a rep, they get extremely mad and do it all over again. That's the beauty of being around these types of guys. They don't take anything for granted," Cooks said.
Back then, Cooks and Brees had less than two weeks to work together. They spent the entirety of the 2015 off-season training alongside each other. "We're getting to know each other as people on and off the field," Cooks said. "As far as the workout part of it, I've just been able to go through that grind with him and show him that I will never give up and never quit. I'm there as long as he needs me."
When Sproles hopped off the high-speed treadmill, it was time for Cooks to grind. The veteran running back challenged the young buck to run 15 miles per hour on an incline for 15 seconds instead of the prescribed 10.
Cooks jumped on and gave the sprint everything he had. Behind him, his quarterback let out a grunt as he gutted out a few more reps of Shoulder Raises on the air bench. As soon as Brees finished the set, he tried to squeeze in one more treadmill sprint for good measure.
"You know, there are probably times when all of us just wish the other ones would slow down," Brees said. "But none of us would, because none of us wants to be 'that guy' who slows down. So you crank it up and see if you can catch the guy in front of you."
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