LOS ANGELES — Just as interest in and analysis of the NFL draft has exploded exponentially in recent years, so has the need for draft prospects to be at their very best for their combines and pro days. The stakes are higher than ever, and no longer can a Mike Mamula slip in and game the system with advanced training methods others haven't yet learned. Everyone has the same basic vocabulary when it comes to athletic training as it pertains to the NFL, so the difference between trainers must come through relationships and specialization.
There are performance coaches who work with the mechanics of specific positions, and there are also gyms and trainers whose job it is to make football players better pure athletes. One trainer, L.A.'s Travelle Gaines, combines these approaches in ways that have made him a destination point for literally hundreds of players over the last decade. Gaines has worked with everyone from high school scrubs to NFL Pro Bowlers, and you may recognize some of the more famous names -- everyone from Andrew Luck to Marshawn Lynch to Reggie Bush, and on and on. When I recently spent a week at his gym, Gaines was working with a prominent rookie (Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby), a second-year player looking for more reps (Panthers running back Kenjon Barner), a veteran looking to capitalize on a career year (Chargers running back Ryan Mathews), an NFL rushing champ hoping to see even more success (Eagles running back LeSean McCoy) and a veteran lineman hoping to stave off the end of the road for a few more years (Raiders offensive tackle Donald Penn). Gaines was also working with Bears defensive lineman Lamarr Houston, who just signed a huge free-agent contract and had dropped down to 269 pounds from the 315 of his rookie season in 2010. Houston used to be a stud defensive tackle, but now, he's the pass-rushing end who will replace Julius Peppers -- and he dropped all that weight the right way under Gaines' supervision.
"What happened is ... I had zero desire to be involved in athletics, and zero desire to be involved in training," he told me. "I really wanted to be a high school principal in the inner city. Being an inner-city kid, I always felt that those schools didn't get the proper resources, and teachers with great knowledge wouldn't want to deal with the shenanigans. I wanted to get educated and go back to where I came from, as someone who had been there and done that. So, what happened was ... I was a real-live dork in college. I drove my roommate crazy -- I would come home from study hall at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., and he'd be there on a date ... I'd turn off the lights and say, 'Date's over -- I gotta get up at 5:00 to go work out.'
"But my college strength coach ended up taking a job at the University of Louisiana-Monroe from San Jose State, where I played college ball. We were talking one day, and he asked if I wanted to be a strength coach. And I said, 'No.' But he said, 'Travelle, you're really into weights, and people just like you and listen to you.' So, for a whopping $500 per month, a shared two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment and free meals, I went down and became a strength coach."
Gaines was immediately hooked on his new profession, and it went from there. His motivation then was no different than his motivation now.
"The thing I like about being a performance coach is that you're the singular coach who can affect how the players get better in the offseason. Your position coach can't really help you, and the schemes can't really help you. But as an individual ... whether your lateral quickness wasn't good last year, or you need to change your weight, or get better conditioned, or stronger -- whatever you need to work on to be a better athlete, that's what you do with your strength coach. Having that impact on athletes is awesome, and it built up from there and kind of got going."
Eventually, Gaines worked his way up to Washington state, where he started a small training session with a few NFL players in the offseason.
"My first three clients were Hamza Abdullah, Erik Coleman, and Marcus Trufant. Working with those guys was something I'll never forget -- not only were they the first guys I trained, but I just had a bond with them. They were some of the greatest people, outside of training. I think that if I had started off with people who were jerks, or out for themselves, I don't think I would have lasted in this business. And then training [NBA player] Brandon Roy, who was cut from the same cloth ... at that time, Marcus Trufant was a Pro Bowler the year I trained him. Brandon Roy won Rookie of the Year and went to back-to-back All-Star games. So, having players who were elite who were also humble and great really helped me out. I was motivated by relationships like that."
Seattle didn't work out for Gaines, though he loved the environment, because most of the players he wanted to train preferred Los Angeles. And in the interest of going where the business is, he made that move in 2008.
"I was terrified. When I first moved to L.A., I was broke. I remember paying to stay at an Extended Stay hotel and hitching rides to the gym, or walking. Having protein shakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and just grinding it out and believing in myself."
Gaines got a job with Athletes Performance in L.A., and went about building the company's NFL roster.
"The first big guy I had in Los Angeles was Reggie Bush, and from Reggie came other players -- Marshawn Lynch and Chris Johnson and Ryan Mathews and so on and so on. It was a ride. But when you're at this level, I think ... you should want to be the best at whatever you do. So I wrote down goals for myself -- train a No. 1 overall pick, and train the top players at their positions for the combine. You never know how things are going to work, especially when you're doing it by word of mouth. I wasn't a big marketing guy; to this day, I still don't have a website. But what I do have is relationships with people like Dashon Goldson, who's trained with me since Day 1. LeSean McCoy, who's trained with me from Day 1. Lamarr Houston, who's trained with me since Day 1. I've watched these guys go from draft picks to Pro Bowlers."
Though Bush gave Gaines his start as a major player in the offseason training business, it was Mathews who established Gaines as one of the most prominent figures in the more specialized aspect of pre-combine training. Before the 2010 draft, Mathews came to Gaines out of Fresno State, and after going through Gaines' training, he placed fourth in the 40-yard dash, third in the broad jump, eighth in the bench press, and 10th in the vertical jump and 20-yard shuttle. At 6-feet and 220 pounds, Mathews bested backs 20-40 pounds lighter in speed drills and ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the combine. The Chargers traded up to take him 12th overall, and though Mathews' NFL career to date has been somewhat disappointing in relation to that high pick, he still trains with Gaines every offseason -- like clockwork, he's in the gym at 5:30 a.m. most mornings. From there, Gaines' pre-combine methods took off -- with Gaines, depending on the draft class, training as many as half the players in the first round.
"Ryan was this kid where ... we have this bond and this connection. Like I have a connection with LeSean. We just get each other. And Ryan was a kid who had a second-to third-round grade when he came into the draft, and he was OK with that -- he just wanted to be a top-100 pick. But he came to me at 205 pounds, running a 4.5, and he said, 'Listen -- I want to run a 4.3, and get up to about 215-220 pounds. So, we put this plan together, and honed in."
Eventually, Gaines felt and believed that he had to break off and go it alone. So, with the money he had saved and some investors on board, he opened the Athletic Gaines gym in West Hollywood in June 2012. If he needed any validation that this was the right move, he got it when a large percentage of the players who worked with him in Carson followed him to the new location. Other drastic success stories like Dion Jordan and Kyle Long followed, and Gaines was firmly on the map.
"That was a blessing and an honor, because athletes change trainers -- because of circumstances, because they want to try something different ... it's very, very rare that an athlete will stick with a trainer through his entire career. It's more likely than not that guys will bounce around, and to have guys who have stuck with me their whole careers has been a testament."
As time went on and the Hollywood lifestyle started to enter the gym a little bit, Gaines realized after talks with some of his most prominent and successful clients that this wasn't a geographic fit. This year, he's moved to a bigger space in an industrial, unglamorous part of the San Fernando Valley, where just as many athletes come to train -- and the message is back on point.
"It's tough, because I think that things started to get a bit too out of control for me, and I think the quality of work started to get a little bit away from me. And the personal relationships -- thing that drove me in the beginning -- started to get away from me. To refocus and hone in on what I've been doing -- that's the challenge now."
Barner, who's been training with Gaines since he was at Oregon in 2009, recently told me after a grueling workout that he has a "love/hate" relationship with Gaines, and that's just the way it should be.
"If you're always happy with your trainer, something's not right," Barner said. "It's extremely beneficial -- I have a feel for him, and he has a feel for me. He knows how to push me, he knows my limitations, and he knows which buttons to push. I say that it's a love-hate relationship because when he's training me, I hate him. But he's getting the best out of me and doing what's best for me. Afterward, I love him -- he's a good guy."
McCoy had similar praise, especially when it comes to the specific training he gets here.
"One thing I've noticed about the training in Philly is that there are short break times. Everything's quick-twitch. But here, what I do is fast-paced, but it's all about explosion. Because our offense is a big-play offense. Here, I feel that I get the most out of myself as far as quickness ... explosion ... discipline with my body. And that's key, especially for a running back."
One thing I saw Gaines do with McCoy, and with other players, was to tailor workouts to injury prevention -- specifically, putting players in physical situations that might have a higher likelihood of injury on the field, but in a controlled environment. It could mean working on shoulders that need to take a pounding, or hip flexors that need to stay ... well, flexible, but this is another part of the customized training for every player. The results can be predictable if the effort is put in, though Gaines is very careful to avoid making overtly hype-filled declarations about what any athlete will do in his gym.
"This is what I tell every kid. This is the brutal, honest truth. I never make any promises. I never tell any kid that he's going to run a 4.3, or put on 20 pounds of muscle. I never tell any kid all the stuff that's going to happen. What I tell them is that I can put them in the right structure, and the right environment. If you follow everything I tell you to do, you're going to get the best results you possibly can. Whether that's running a 4.3, or putting on 20 pounds, that's what you're going to get. What I'm into is making the athlete better as it translates to the sport."
Still, there are times when Gaines has to deal with the unrealistic expectations of athletes, teams and agents. He's had to sever relationships at times because of the insistence on someone's part that this 270-pound linebacker should be able to run a 4.3 40 with the addition of a few protein drinks, or that a guy who spent the entire offseason clubbing in Hollywood should totally be able to keep his speed and strength with a couple of lifting sessions. Where the players have to meet Gaines halfway with those customized training programs is simple -- they have to show up every day, and they have to respect the process.
The athletes who have trained with Gaines since the beginning certainly respect it -- I've seen Goldson give a couple of rookies the stink eye when they're too brash, and it occurred to me that a great deal of the appeal in Gaines' approach is the organic environment of his gym -- it feels like a locker room. In a way, Gaines has become the principal he wanted to be; from his rough beginnings, he extracts a language of understanding and commitment that everyone who walks through his doors can relate to.
Well ... almost everyone. There was the receiver who showed up one day for a summer of pre-draft training, didn't run the initial test 40-yard dash he wanted, started swearing a blue streak at everyone within earshot and got booted from the program. That player, selected in the second round of the 2011 draft by an NFC team, is currently out of the league and has faced a host of criminal charges.
As Gaines has told me before, sometimes you just know when a bum's a bum. And given his own past, it's not something he puts up with.
"I was put in a situation where I had to become a man very early. I was forced to make decisions that 8-, 9-, 10-year-old kids shouldn't have to make. But if you need to decide whether you're going to steal to eat, or how you're going to live ... when you're facing certain circumstances, you can go two ways. You can continue to go down that path, because it's your environment, or you can realize that this isn't right and be accountable for your own actions. The story of my life has been, whatever situation I'm in, I know I'm going to figure it out. And that's what I put on all the guys who come here. You notice a trend in here? From Bradley Roby, to Lamarr Houston to Donald Penn, what's the trend? They're all accountable for what they've done. I don't baby them, and I don't kiss their butts, They've got enough people doing that."
Gaines would like to see the gym grow in a few ways -- specifically, he has a real interest in basketball and boxing training -- but for now, it's just good to be in the right place, and put the right people through their paces.