On a stretch of grass in front of the Fort Scott Community College campus in Fort Scott, Kans., stands a large, leafy oak known as Man Maker Force. All those who have played football for the Greyhounds—as fourth-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David did from 2008 to ’09—know how the unassuming tree got its commanding nickname.
“The first day of camp we had a conditioning test—it was brutal,” says David of the repeated sets of 40-, 110- and 220-yard sprints around the tree. David didn’t finish in the allotted time, finally falling to the ground and saying to a coach, “Please don't cut me.”
They didn’t, but, says David, “I knew I couldn’t have that same outcome ever again, so I’m always making sure I’m in shape and ready to dominate whatever the coaches have planned.”
Born and raised in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, David was pulled into football at age six by his father and cousins and he grew up watching the University of Miami play in his backyard. On his way to a state championship as a linebacker for Miami Northwestern High, David says, he fell in love with the structure of the game. But there was one missing piece.
“I didn’t understand the importance of school work—I was focused, but not on being a great student athlete,” says David, who only received a few scholarship offers. “Fort Scott was the hardest thing I ever went through, but it was the best thing for me.”
Following two years at Fort Scott, David went on to Nebraska, where he started all 27 games he played in, recorded 285 career tackles (fourth all-time for Nebraska) and received first-team All-America honors during his junior year. His senior year, he was honored with the Big Ten’s Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award.
David was selected by the Bucs in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft. In the three seasons since, he’s the only player in the league to have 10 or more sacks and at least six interceptions. He was an All-Pro in 2013, and after finishing third in the league with 146 total tackles and tied for third with four forced fumbles last season, the 25-year-old David signed a five-year contract extension in early August worth $50.25 million.
Tony Villani, David’s trainer for four years and the owner of XPE Sports in Boca Raton, Fla., credits David’s success to his pupil’s humble attitude and commitment to Villani’s unorthodox training strategy.
“We agreed that to be one of the best linebackers in the league, you need to tackle with power and hit like a lineman, but you also need to cover and move around in space like a D-back,” says Villani.
So Villani came up with a two-pronged approach: intersperse days of working with linemen (including the Pouncey brothers—the Dolphins’ Mike and the Steelers’ Maurkice) to boost strength and power, with days working alongside defensive backs and receivers (including the Chiefs’ Eric Berry and the 49ers’ Anquan Boldin) to improve speed and agility. Some sessions include explosive leg exercises, upper-body lifting and footwork drills over five to 10 yards, while others require David to focus on hip flexibility, longer sprints and changing directions.
Villani’s patented SHREDmill—an adjustable, self-powered treadmill—allows him to tailor David’s workout for either strength and power or speed and agility.
When running on the machine, the 233-lb. David’s target is 16 mph, which is roughly what he would need to chase tight ends and running backs in the open field. To work on his speed and stride length, David sprints at a 15% to 20% incline, doing roughly six sets of up to a dozen sprints of 25 to 40 yards. To enhance his power and quickness, he sprints at a 10% incline against 200 to 400 pounds of resistance in three- to five-second bursts.
“It’s about understanding what I’m going up against, who I am and what I can do to put myself in a greater position to make a play or be a better player,” says David.
Now he’s the one proving to be a force.