|Before training camps open, players with D.C. ties like Darnell Dockett flock to the Crofton gym. (Getty Images)|
CROFTON, Md. -- Tucked in a nondescript industrial park, surrounded by woods and refineries, in the middle-of-nowhere between Baltimore and Washington, NFL players gather to train. Former, current and perhaps future stars all find their way to this outpost. Some while looking for a new team, some while waiting out negotiations off the franchise tag, others preparing for the onset of OTAs.
The location is beyond discreet, with almost no signage out front, and in the back, an open loading dock, with two massive tires resting against the wall -- one of them, close to 6 feet in circumference -- used for unorthodox exercises. Inside, Lil Wayne is blaring through the speakers. Large, chiseled men are bellowing out as massive weights hit the floor and, over in the corner, an elderly man in his 80s lifts five-pound dumbbells under the watchful eye of a trainer on this sweltering spring day, seemingly oblivious to the array of football notables coming through.
Ray Rice is in New York during this particular week to spend some time with his young family, but he is a regular. Darnell Dockett, after lighting up the spartan but well-maintained gym with his vocal fireworks and lifting exploits all spring, was back in Arizona for OTAs, but he will be back soon enough. Retired Eagles star Brian Westbrook and his brother Byron, a free-agent corner who has spent his career with Washington, and Le'Ron McClain of the Chargers, a former Pro Bowl fullback, have spent much of the offseason in the Crofton stable, and all will be back in early July, when things ramp up to prepare for training camp.
So on this day, for two hours, former Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is working out beside two youngsters from Bowie State University, and the occasional housewife or retiree with an appointment at the opposite end of the narrow gym from the heavy weights. Shiancoe is thrusting 315-pound bench presses, 12 times a set, near the front, and stopping between cycles to extol the virtues of trainer Mac James and contemplate his ongoing free-agent options. Normally, he would be surrounded by more peers who have reached heights in the NFL, but he's here every day, regardless, James said, whether being trashed-talked by Dockett or grinding away unaccompanied.
"We have a really close-knit group of guys here," Shiancoe said, still gripping 40-pound dumbbells in his hands after a set of curls. "We hold each other to a high standard and push each other so hard. We talk so much [BS], and it's a great way to get your work in.
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"Guys leave here and go to training camp, and it's easy compared to this. We're here lifting for two hours, then you might go run hills, do a series of 40s pushing a sled [that weighs roughly 140 pounds], flip tires. This is where you come to get your endurance, strength and explosion."
It's also where Shiancoe comes to focus on something other than the free-agent market. The nine-year pro became a vital cog in Minnesota's offense when Brett Favre arrived, finally getting a chance to work in an offense with quality and consistent quarterback play. Shiancoe, a third-round pick of the Giants in 2003, has never missed a game and in 2009 set career highs with 56 catches and 11 touchdowns, before Minnesota's offense collapsed the past two seasons.
He began working out with James in 2008, when his career began to spike -- no coincidence, Shiancoe says -- and it's where he toils while his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, works the phones trying to line up the best location.
Seattle made an offer and maintained interest before trading for Kellen Winslow, and other teams are calling regularly. Rosenhaus says he's perfectly content to wait on the right offer from the right team, given Shiancoe's established body of work, his health and his level of strength and fitness.
"There's been a disconnect in the market on value to this point," Rosenhaus said, "and we regret we're missing offseason work [at an NFL facility], but we're more than willing to hang in there until the right team steps up."
There is also a dearth of quality tight ends on the street right now, which makes a pass catcher with Shiancoe's strength a commodity.
Rosenhaus says three teams remain interested and he has received offers but not yet in the $2.5 million range he is seeking.
"We're willing to take it right up to the start of camp," Rosenhaus said.
Shiancoe knows he will be playing NFL football in 2012, just not exactly where at this point. It's a predicament hardly unique to him, with other notables like Albert Haynesworth, Plaxico Burress and Jason Brown mulling options as well and waiting for the right confluence of contract and opportunity to materialize.
In the meantime, James' gym provides a familiar environment, full of alpha males and hyper-competitors, yet without distraction and with a demanding trainer guiding each session. Rice, for one, had to quit going to the gym he used to work out at near his home, and now gladly drives over 30 minutes to Crofton on weekdays.
"It was impossible to workout anywhere else," Rice told friends, with people constantly asking for autographs and photos and Rice struggling to say no to his fans.
"This feels like home to these guys," said James, a 5-foot-5 ball of muscle with bulging arms and a welcoming smile who began training football players in 1998. "They can play their music. No one bothers them. It's out of the way. They can talk about whatever they want and not have to worry about offending anyone and they know it won't leave the gym. There are very few females working out here. It's the closest thing to an NFL locker room."
James' pedigree, the desire for relative anonymity and, to some extent, geography bring these men together. Shiancoe went to high school nearby and played college ball at Morgan State in Baltimore. The Westbrooks are products of DeMatha High School in D.C. and make this area home. Former Maryland safety Madieu Williams and corner Leigh Bodden and a D.C. native like Dockett are usually around, while McClain spent the bulk of his career with the Ravens.
Word spreads quickly in the DMV District (District of Columbia/Maryland/Virginia, as it's lovingly called around here) and every year more players are spending a larger part of their offseason with James. He tailors the regimen to the time of year, starting gradually with an offseason program, ramping it up now to mimic what would be happening in OTAs and culminating in late June with prep work for training camp.
Today's script is daunting, and written on a whiteboard, with the upper-body work including heavy reps of bench press, pullups, incline bench press, various curls, pull downs (a few feet down the wall is a script for "Heather, Steph, and Nic" on a separate whiteboard, with instructions for "15 pushups" and the like). At the end of this session comes serious work on the neck, with James using his strength to push in one direction and Shiancoe on his back, providing resistance. (James pays special attention to the neck in this era of concussion awareness, wanting his players as strong as possible there to prevent the neck snapping back and head rattling around as much when potential concussion-inducing impact occurs on the field).
"These guys go hard," said James, who works with Ravens Pro Bowl players like Ray Lewis and Vonta Leach in-season. "They never let each other slack. That fraternity keeps them together. They talk a lot of smack, but it's all good lighthearted fun."
Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are the heaviest lifting days, with cardio work often after lunch. Wednesdays are the pure cardio days, with players doing "suicide" sprints, for instance, sprinting 10, 20, 30 and then 40 yards at a time pushing the sled. The results are obvious.
"Shank [Shiancoe] is shredded," James said. "He's dedicated. He never misses a day. He's very careful about his nutrition and what he puts in his body -- not a lot of impurities, butter, stuff like that. He's 31, but he looks like he's 26."
Shiancoe said: "After all the hard work you put in here, you really focus on nutrition, everything. You don't really want to go out, or drink, or put anything toxic in you after how hard we work here."
James is also a mental coach, of sorts.
The players here are at various stages of their career, some ramping up, some stars, some winding down. The business side of football can take a toll. Shiancoe, in a perfect world, would prefer to be under an NFL contract right now, but he also believes his worth is more than a one-year, veteran minimum contract at this point. James isn't afraid to tell a client if they are being "greedy," or passing up an opportunity they should take.
"He'd love to be somewhere, but he keeps it all in perspective and he has the right outlook," James said. "And the good thing is there are other guys he can talk to here. He's not the only free agent we have here right now, and Shank understands the business side of things and it will work out for him."
Until the right offer comes along, the gym will suffice. And even if Shiancoe is soon back working at an NFL facility, his mind won't be far from Crofton, where in just a few weeks the entire group will be reassembled here, gearing up for the rigors of training camp, with the surrounding area seemingly oblivious to their presence (though the sight of an occasional tricked out car in the otherwise pedestrian parking lot could raise an eyebrow or two).
"I can't wait until June, when everybody comes back," Shiancoe said, the atmosphere a little more restrained and quiet on this day (blaring hip-hop aside) than he would prefer. "The way we push each other, and talk so much [stuff], it's crazy. You can't say anything around Dockett with the way he talks. You'll see, man. Come back at the end of June, then you'll see what we really do."
If I can find my way back here through the maze of service roads, and with some help from a GPS, I just might take him up on the offer.