Hi-ho, hi-ho! Back to work NFL players go on their own

Work, work, work. Even during a lockout.

Right about now, many NFL players normally would be preparing for offseason workouts at their teams' facilities. Nothing more complicated than lifting weights, running, stretching, massages.

But this hardly is a normal year, and with the league having locked out the players, those practice venues are off limits. And if March isn't the most critical time for pro football -- we're still nearly six months before the 2011 season is slated to kick off -- as the labor stoppage continues, the need for teammates to gather together will grow.

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Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme met former Cleveland teammates punter Dave Zastudil and safety Nick Sorensen at a local recreation center Tuesday. The trio spotted for each other while lifting weights and spent time between sets discussing family matters and the labor situation as some of the gym's members took note of the celebrity visitors.

Wide receiver Greg Camarillo of the Vikings got an LA Fitness membership in Miami.

"I've been trying to fit in with the regular gym-goers, which is interesting because I'm trying to work out to create physical strength and stamina while other guys are trying to work out to look good in the mirror," he said. "There are guys in there for two or three hours without a single drop of sweat on them. I'm curious what they're up to, but it works."

For NFL veterans, meanwhile, getting fit is part of the job.

"Every player understands what is involved in our profession," said Colts center Jeff Saturday, a member of the NFLPA's executive board. "We have to be working out and staying in shape. However, how players decide to do that is their individual right."

They are doing so at places such as St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis and Elite Performance Factory in Westlake Village, Calif., which have been planning for just this scenario since last August -- seven months before the lockout.

St. Vincent, a hospital-affiliated facility, began upgrading its equipment to replicate the inside of an NFL complex, particularly when several teams visited SVSP as they evaluated training bases they could recommend to players.

Most important to Ralph Reiff, the director of St. Vincent, is providing a venue that makes the players comfortable and fits the medical needs of those rehabilitating injuries.

"We found out for the players, much like any other citizen who loses a job in the United States, there is a lot of anxiety in that," Reiff said. "Not only the loss of revenue, but the change in lifestyle and disrupting of the daily pattern. He can't go to Lambeau Field to work out or to the Colts' complex to get treatment, and there's some anxiety around that. Things that were under control in your life are now out of control. We have tried to make that transition easy in a very uncertain environment."

Reiff said 11 NFL players were at St. Vincent earlier this week, including Patriots receiver Deion Branch, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett and Panthers punter Jason Baker. He also has noticed an increase in players coming off season-ending injuries.

"With the lockout, the medical staff and anyone who receives compensation from the team organization, they can't have any contact with the athletes," Reiff said. "So the athletes who would typically be going in for medical care on a daily basis can't do that anymore. They had to find alternative locations to do it."

They've found those locations across the country. Outside Los Angeles, former NFL tight end Billy Miller runs Elite Performance Factory, which regularly has the likes of Reggie Bush, Marques Colston and Keith Rivers on hand. Miller talked to one NFL organization he declined to identify about sending all of its players to his facility for workouts during a lockout.

"I am a guy who was in the NFL, and so I know the things that apply directly to football," Miller says. "That is what the guys see here, that we know what is functional weight lifting, for example, or we know how to prevent injury, and it shows in the things we get them to do on the field."

A bigger challenge will come if the lockout lasts into the spring, when minicamps and organized team activities would have occurred. Without them, the players are on their own to get familiar with each other and the playbook.

And if that playbook is new because the coaching staff has changed (see Denver, Cleveland, San Francisco, Oakland, Minnesota, Carolina, and Tennessee), the obstacles are increased.

"We're behind the 8-ball more than other teams," Browns safety Ray Ventrone said. "I got to meet coach (Pat) Shurmur, but other than that, we were not able to attain any information from the coaches as far as new schemes and whatever they want to do on defense or on offense. Players aren't allowed to communicate with the teams, so all the teams with new coaches especially are at a disadvantage."

Ventrone expects a group of Browns to get together in Cleveland for workouts as soon as it becomes clear this will be a lengthy stoppage.

"I think it would be very helpful for our team," he said. "We have a young QB in Colt McCoy, it's always good to get the timing down on offense, and to understand what kind of coverages we will be playing on defense. Even a few days here and there during the lockout, it would be a good thing."

Also a somewhat dangerous thing, because the players are responsible for insurance against injury, something the clubs take care of during minicamps, OTAs, training camp and, naturally, the season and playoffs.

Reiff's facility welcomes team workouts and has worked diligently to accommodate interested players. St. Vincent has secured indoor and outdoor surfaces for such practice sessions and even will pay the rent for them. It has arranged for security at the sites and will manage credentialing for media that want to attend.

"It's great for us from a business standpoint," said Reiff, who adds the $1,000 deposit and $70 per day per player St. Vincent will charge is tax deductible for the players. "But we're trying to respond, as every good business will, to what you need.

"We view this as an extension of our relationships throughout the league. We have invested a lot of time and money and human resources and equipment to make this as comfortable an environment for an NFL player as we can."

Miller already is planning football drills at EPF in the spring, noting it's just as effective for opponents to work together as it is for teammates.

"This year we are going to implement an OTA-like (schedule), very small 7-on-7 drills, not on the magnitude of the real OTAs, but basically running routes to get guys mentally sharp and ready," Miller said. "One thing NFL players love to do is compete -- in the weight room or on the field. Once you get into the routine of knowing teammates, that's great, but now you get to see how hard these other guys work to get to another level."

There is another approach, as expressed by Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams.

"Yeah, this is around the time we'd be getting ready to start the offseason program," Williams said, "but I think I'm going to take a couple more weeks off."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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