NORTHPORT, Ala. — The road to Houston took us to this town on the edge of Tuscaloosa, to the offseason training home of New England safety Malcolm Butler. He trains at JDPI Sports Performance, an old school, no-frills gym located in the middle of a strip mall. Johnny Jackson, co-owner of JDPI, rivals J.J. Watt with his penchant for motivational sayings. Posters with inspirational thoughts plaster the walls and the white board that listed the day’s warmup.
No one ever drowned from sweat.
It’s a simple task to make things complex, but a complex task to make them simple.
Pain never killed anyone.
Your outer world is a reflection of your inner world.
You do not believe what you see, but rather, you see what you already believe.
At this time of year, Jackson is busy training a group of college players for their pro days. Jackson played football at West Alabama, a Division II school where Butler also played. That humble background has led him to focus on college players from similarly small programs, the guys that have to fight harder to get noticed. “There is some really good talent in Division II,” he said. “Smaller program guys get looked over… We’ve got to train like there ain’t nobody in the world is giving us a chance.” The 10 or so college players at Jackson’s gym hail from DI-AA and D-II programs like Southern Illinois, Grambling State, Southeastern Louisiana and all sorts of combinations of directional colleges. Jackson is older than Butler, so they never played together. He first noticed Butler at a West Alabama game where he was impressed by Butler’s effort. Jackson knew he needed to train him for his pro day. Since then, Butler has come back to Jackson’s gym every offseason.
Johnson is a loud, in-your-face coach. He rides his guys hard. When one player was really struggling with his 40-yard dash start, Johnson refused to let up on him. “What did I do wrong?” the player asked. “Everything!” Johnson yelled, before breaking down the proper start form, step-by-step. Here at JDPI, each yawn costs 10 dollars, and there’s absolutely no sitting down. The players spent a good chunk of their workout perfecting exploding out of their 40 starting position, because as one poster on the wall reads, A Fast 40 = $$$$$.
Part of the reason we came to meet Jackson is to see some of the unconventional drills that Butler does when he comes to train here. Jackson’s gym has all the basic equipment, but no fancy gadgets, so the coach has to get creative. “I’m the Steve Jobs of the gym,” he said as he whipped playing cards at a player who balanced on one foot on top of a stack of foam squares, a drill to help with hand and balance. The college players struggled to catch an ace of clubs while keeping their balance steady on one foot.
Jackson does another drill with the deck of cards, standing behind the player and tossing a card forward so that the player is forced to adjust immediately to follow the unpredictable flight pattern of the card. The gym is decorated with Butler’s jersey and a few framed and autographed photos of Jackson, Butler and Tyler Duffy, Jackson’s partner in the business. A framed photograph of Butler’s famous interception in Super Bowl XLIX takes up prime real estate on the wall above Jackson’s desk.
Most of the small school guys we met at Jackson’s gym probably won’t ever make it to the NFL, let alone become a Super Bowl hero like Butler. But if anyone can help them get there, it’s Jackson.
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Afterwards, we drove through Alabama’s campus. We had wanted to meet with Nick Saban to talk about his relationship with Bill Belichick, but the timing wasn’t in our favor. National Signing day is Wednesday so Saban was swamped with recruiting visits over the weekend and meetings with current players on campus.
Next stop is the Gulf Coast, to explore the roots of the man Butler may be tasked with stopping in Houston on Sunday.
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