On a rainy Tuesday morning, the weight room at Eastern Washington University smells of iron and sweat.
Rock music pours through the speakers to a chorus of heavy weights crashing to the mats. Linemen push heavy sleds across the floor, and sweat darkens the shirts of more than three dozen football players.
“Hey, we’re just having fun,” said Nicholas Edwards, the Eagles’ All-America wide receiver, after gulping down some water and going back for more … fun.
At that point, Edwards was barely halfway through his workout, which began at 8 with agility drills in the fieldhouse and ended with 7-on-7 drills in a downpour at Roos Field.
“I wish the public could see what these guys do. It’s really incredible,” said Nate Brookreson, the Eagles’ strength and conditioning coach, whose day began with the early-Eagle session at 6.
“There a mystique behind what happens behind closed doors,” Brookreson said. “When you see them only at the practices and the games, you don’t get to see the preparation and the time that goes into getting them ready every Saturday.”
Across the country this week, college football teams opened their doors for voluntary five-week conditioning sessions that will take the players to fall camp in peak physical shape – so that the coaches can tear them down in time for the opening kickoff – in the Eagles’ case, at Idaho on Aug. 30.
“I don’t want to overdo it,” Brookreson said, “but if I only get them to 50 to 70 percent, then the coaches tear them down and get ready for the season, that’s not ideal. I’m trying to get them at 90 to 100 percent before fall camp.”
NCAA rules keep the other coaches away from summer conditioning; on this morning, painters were prepping the football offices while the assistants were cleaning their offices and getting ready for vacation.
That gives Brookreson more than a month as the man in charge, and he’s not wasting a moment. “We’re trying to get the most out of every single day,” he said. “It’s fun for us.
“I kind of revel in that role,” he said. “A lot of the things we’re working on it’s hard to enhance to the highest level during spring ball, fall camp and during the season, but for this time, it’s cut and dried. This is where their focus is, and the guys buy into it. I like to have my stamp on this.”
So do the players, who only like to stand around while they catch their breath.
“I love him he really gets after it,” senior safety Allen Brown said. “He’s really organized, and does his research. I love a guy who knows what he’s talking about.”
Eastern’s conditioning program runs two hours a day, four days a week, Monday through Thursday. The entire session is voluntary, though almost all Eagles participate. Out-of-town players and incoming freshmen are given a “stripped-down workout, understanding how to work the specifics of the lifts,” Brookreson said.
Several incoming freshmen are already here, including wide receiver Cooper Kupp out of Yakima, and quarterback Bowe Merin and running back Jabari Wilson, both from California.
“The difference between them being on their own and here, is night and day,” Brookreson said. “It’s working together and holding guys accountable, because ultimately, you gauge your work on how your teammates are pushing themselves.”
Which is pretty hard. In the fieldhouse, linemen throw medicine balls while skill-position players perform agility drills; both groups pull sleds down the track for an hour, then leave a trail of sweat to the weight room.
“I just like how the guys work,” said Kyle Padron, a quarterback who transferred this year from Southern Methodist. “It’s more my style, coming to work every single day. The other players love to be here, and that makes it easy to get up in the morning.”
With that, Padron joined Edwards on the field for optional 7-on-7s. He said that his ankle – injured last fall at SMU – “is 100 percent.”
Another player coming off an injury, senior linebacker Zach Johnson, said he’s already feeling better than last year, when a knee injury cost him most of the season. “It feels really good,” said Johnson. “Basically I’m able to do everything I haven’t been able to the last couple of summers.”
Brookreson takes a measured approach to injuries, training around some of the problems, and not aggravating existing conditions. “The biggest thing is making sure that they are able to do the exercises that are going to develop their ability to develop their capability to go out on the field and perform at a high level, develop capacities from within, so their heart and lungs can handle it.
“If you tell me that this (exercise) is bothering you, then we’re not going to push it.
“If we just assume that a particular exercise is not going to aggravate a condition, then we’re not doing our job.”
In the weight room, while assistants measure agility performances, Brookreson observes and sometimes corrects a player’s weightlifting technique.
“It’s awesome,” Johnson said. “He’s just improved everyone’s athletic ability, and he knows what to do every day.”
Including when to crank up the tempo. Late in Tuesday’s session, Brookreson closed the door, turned up the music and let football nature take its course.
Tired as they were, the linemen were soon pushing the sleds even harder, some even lifting them off the floor as teammates turned up the volume in their throats. Quickly, teammates turned the sled around and the next player tried to beat the previous effort.
That’s the whole idea – to beat the last effort, in this case last year’s 6-5 season.
“I’m going to go as hard as I can,” Brown said. “Then we’re going to beat Idaho and go from there.”