Christian White’s training sessions do not normally lack physical contact. After all, what’s the point of practicing bump-and-run without the bump? But these days, amid virus-related social distancing regulations, White’s cornerbacks and receivers are contactless. There are no one-on-one battles, no press-and-release work and no man-to-man drills. “We’re more focused on the technique side than anything,” says the Dallas-based defensive back trainer. “It’s a crazy time.”
In Atlanta, Ron Veal, the private quarterback coach for college stars Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, lathers footballs in disinfectant between training sessions, and in Los Angeles, Danny Hernandez finds himself coaching more through FaceTime calls than face-to-face meetings.
But there are no complaints among these guys. While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed much of the sports world, the private coaching industry is, for many involved, booming. Their team activities suspended and campus facilities closed, football players from all levels—NFL, college, high school and middle school—are spending their free time with private coaches, often back near their hometowns, filling the athletic void in their lives while creating, as one trainer put it, more demand than supply. There aren’t enough coaches for athletes. “It’s to the point where I’ve actually had to turn away some business,” says Hernandez. “There’s only so many hours in the day.”
Separated from their position coaches and coordinators, players are using this extended offseason as a way to improve their form ahead of what they hope is a 2020 fall football season. The benefactors are hundreds of private trainers sprinkled across America, an unregulated industry whose clients pay anywhere from $50 to $250 per hour. They are, of course, taking precautions. Coaches are learning to teach without touching, coating equipment in disinfectant and reducing the participants in a session. Some like Veal are now working almost exclusively with a single player at a time.
Veal has turned down work to keep his rotation of players smaller than normal. The list includes Lawrence, the Clemson QB, and Ohio State’s Fields, who’s seen Veal at least 10 times over the last month. Veal is rotating about 12 QBs in one-on-one sessions instead of about 30 split into groups. Tutoring one player at a time, each for 70 minutes, makes for long days. Last Saturday, he led seven different sessions, six on Sunday and five on Monday. Veal is training all his quarterbacks at one particular field two minutes from his home in suburban Atlanta, a way to minimize health risks as much as possible. He has to be more careful than most private coaches—Veal’s day job is as a firefighter. “I can’t be around a lot of people,” he says. “I have to be cautious of where I’m going.”
Not all private coaches are dipping their toe in the water. David Morris, a former Ole Miss quarterback and founder of the Mobile-based QB Country, has completely shut down his 11 locations spread across eight states. He won’t reopen until individual state gathering orders are lifted. His training has almost strictly turned to FaceTime. Mom holds the phone while dad or brother serves as his trainee’s throwing partner. Morris diagnoses their arm angle, footwork and release from afar. “It’s worked. It’s been neat,” Morris says. “Everybody is rethinking the way training is heading, at least for the time being.”
In fact, many private coaches who spoke to Sports Illustrated predict that training through FaceTime and Zoom is here to stay. They expect such tools to be used in the future, even when social distancing restrictions are gone. Still, there’s nothing quite like working in person with a player. Private coaching, especially for quarterbacks, is a big business. Last year, QB Country trained nearly 1,000 different quarterbacks, ranging from middle school to NFL. April through July is usually their busiest time of the year. Morris shrugs off the loss of business. “Under special circumstances we still train one-on-one with a quarterback using a family member,” he says, “but we took it seriously and thought it responsible to not train.”
Back in Dallas, White, specializing in defensive backs, has seen a significant increase in clientele. He’s gained as many as 25 new trainees in each of his Dallas-area regions, traveling for sessions 30 miles north to Frisco and south to DeSoto. Because of the virus, he’s scaled back groups of 20 players to more like eight. Finding a training space isn’t always easy. Many parks and sports complexes are closed. “You can work out on grass fields off to the side of the sports complexes,” he says. “We’re the only ones out there, so we space out. They do have a lot of guys driving around to see if we’re following those guidelines.”
Tony Ballard barely has time for his side gig as a quarterback trainer because he’s so busy with his day job as a UPS manager. The shutdown has skyrocketed shipping volumes. Still, he finds time to occasionally work with college quarterbacks who have returned home to Atlanta, like Stanford’s Davis Mills. He trains a group of them once a week for about two hours, making sure they are spread out across a field. Ballard isn’t taking any chances. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with here. It’s kind of scary,” he says of the virus, “but they’ve got to work because they’ve got to be ready when they are called back to school. I’ve been secretly working with them.”
Meanwhile, his 7-on-7 travel teams played a combined one tournament before the virus froze the sports world. For Ballard, that’s the biggest issue. During 7-on-7 road trips, he’d swing through college campuses, sometimes a player’s only shot to visit a university and meet with college recruiters. But quarterback trainers are finding ways to enhance their high school players’ profiles while recruiting is shuttered. White, for instance, is creating workout videos of his players meant for college coaches, showing off skills they’d normally illustrate during summer camps, spring ball and 7-on-7 tournaments. Morris is connecting his quarterbacks with college coaches through electronic communication, and Hernandez finds himself gushing about his guys while on Zoom calls with college coaches who are normally too busy for such but now suddenly have free time.
Back in Atlanta, Veal is speaking to a reporter after a long day. It’s 7 at night, and he’s huffing on the other end of the phone. “I just got off the field,” he says. He’s in the firehouse at the crack of dawn and on the field until the sun sets. In between, Veal is saving lives as a first responder while training some of the country’s best college quarterbacks with disinfected footballs. He knows what awaits him tomorrow: probably a slew of emails and voice messages from moms and dads with kids bouncing off the walls. “Parents are calling me saying ‘When can we start back? When can we train?’” he says. “If you really wanted to work, you could work from 6 in the morning to 9 at night.”