Sean Folliard has always had to work harder than other high school football players and has always known if he wanted to play in college that he would need help to get there.
So two years ago, the Prairie Ridge all-state safety joined a movement of young players nationwide who seek out specialized skill coaches, spending countless hours honing their speed, agility, range of motion and other skills designed to separate them from their competition.
Folliard travels on nearly a daily basis to Elite 7, a training center in Lake Barrington co-owned by former Cary-Grove and Northern Illinois linebacker Alex Kube. There, Folliard puts his body through a battery of physical drills that test his meddle and his mental toughness.
Some days, it’s more than Folliard believes he can handle. But for the kid who always had to push himself beyond what others were doing, making football a year-round proposition became a necessity.
It’s a trend that has become more prominent over the past 10 years, when the need to be bigger and stronger has given way to sleeker, more complete athletes. As the competition has stiffened, the need to keep up in the offseason has become increasingly critical.
“It’s vital to anyone’s success – especially if it’s anyone who’s serious about the sport you’re playing,” said Green Bay Packers’ right tackle and former Marian Central standout Bryan Bulaga, who began working at Davis Speed Center in Crystal Lake during his college career at Iowa.
“It’s a year-round thing. You can’t take off two months. It’s something you have to work out for the whole year.”
The 365-day football cycle has meant a boom in business for conditioning coaches such as Dave Davis of Davis Speed Center or Chris Leathers, who
operates Your World Fitness in Spring Grove. But the increase in clients at area private training facilities also means more families of players who train privately are willing to sacrifice financially.
From centers such as Kube’s that charge as little as $10 a session and $400 a month to high-end gyms where pros such as Matt Forte and Devin Hester train and where athletes are charged $100 every time they walk in the door, specialized skills training comes at a significant cost.
But there’s also reward.
“You feel better, you feel faster,” said Folliard, who is verbally committed to play next season at NIU. “You feel more confident in yourself in what you can do.”
Leathers works with area prep players, introducing them to training techniques they haven’t used before – all designed to improve their flexibility and range of motion.
He asks his athletes and their parents to trust him. But Leathers makes no promises.
Although some of his clients – including Marian Central quarterback Chris Streveler – saw distinct improvements, it wasn’t based on anything Leathers did. Instead, the results are a reward of the kind of work ethic that Leathers constantly preaches. He tells athletes that if they want to have something they’ve never had before, they have to be willing to do something they’ve never done.
“If I’m going to make your kid stronger or faster, that’s on the kid,” said Leathers, a former all-state wide receiver at Johnsburg. “It’s not magic.”
Kube began pushing Folliard like he does now with C-G fullback Kyle Norberg and Crystal Lake South running back Zevin Clark, who also train at Elite 7. Kube pushes his athletes to limits they didn’t believe they could reach in the past, often forcing them to make trips to the ever-present “puke bucket” before finishing workouts on machines like The Prowler, which improves speed by working several muscle groups at once.
The workouts are intense and at times can seem unrelenting. But Kube makes certain that pain will undoubtedly be part of the process.
“I’d be lying to parents if they came in and I told them it was going to be easy,” Kube said. “If you want to be bigger, faster, and all the stuff, it’s not going to feel that good – or else everyone would be doing it.”
For Clark, who became a 1,000-yard rusher for South this year after playing the first four games at cornerback, the extra effort has been worth it. He’s gained recruiting attention from The Citadel, a Football Championship Subdivision school in South Carolina, after working with Kube for the past season.
But it has required sacrifice – forcing him to manage his time between school, homework, a social life and his private workouts. But after a year when he felt faster and ran with more explosiveness, Clark said the extra effort has been well worth it.
“It’s become very important to me,” Clark said. “I feel like it’s made me the football player I’ve become.”
Streveler signed with Minnesota after being recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, a position that requires precision strength in their legs and their arm.
Streveler tackled his speed first, seeking out Leathers to specifically address his time in the 40-yard dash. In their first meeting, Streveler clocked in at 4.57 seconds – a time that was perfectly acceptable for most high school quarterbacks, but not for Streveler.
Streveler, a two-time Northwest Herald Football Player of the Year and a Class 5A all-state recipient this year – worked out on his own, often in early-morning weight room sessions at Marian Central.
But as many weights as he lifted or how many 40-yard dashes he ran, he saw the need widen his workout base. So he started yoga to improve his flexibility, suffering early in classes otherwise dominated to soccer moms and fitness fanatics.
The experience wasn’t exactly what Streveler expected.
Since then, Streveler has stuck with yoga, adding it into his regular routine of workouts and using the exercise to clear his mind. But it also paid dividends on the field in the form of a 4.47 40 he ran at a one-day combine before signing at Minnesota.
But Streveler’s individualized training has also included working with quarterback coach Jeff Christensen. Christensen, a former college and NFL quarterback, runs area camps, working weekly with more than 100 quarterbacks, teaching them proper technique and fundamentals.
Over the past 15 years, Christensen’s “Throw It Deep” camps have become popular throughout the Chicago area, helping quarterbacks such as Streveler work out kinks in their throwing motion and footwork. Like with other programs, instruction comes at a price – one Christensen declined to specify, saying they are set on a case-by-case basis.
But like with the physical work, athletes such as Steveler have grown as players, preparing them for what awaits them in college. It hasn’t always been easy.
“I like that they push you and they’re not going to stand there and say, ‘You’re the greatest thing ever,’” Streveler said. “They’re there to tell you that you need to work on things – that you need to do things better or have better footwork and I feel like that really helps.”
But as much as Christensen believes in putting in the effort to improve off the field, he doesn’t buy into the idea that one sport should consume anyone to the degree they don’t enjoy other pursuits. As dedicated as he is in developing quarterbacks for the college level and beyond, expectations of getting there can’t be unrealistic.
Especially when it comes to how much time they devote to a single athletic endeavor.
“This is the biggest crock people believe,” Christensen said. “You’re going to be 16 or 17 (years old) one time in your life. If you’re getting the best information in the offseason twice a week, that’s all you need. You don’t need seven days a week.”
But that hasn’t stopped athletes from pushing themselves on a full-time basis. Because they often train with players they’ll face on the field the next fall, they are constantly aware of who is doing what, using it as motivation to push themselves even harder.
Folliard and Streveler have seen the work pay off and will head to their respective college programs better prepared to face the jump in competition they’ll find at the Division I level. But as much progress as they’ve made since they started training privately, they keep working, knowing someone is working just as hard.
And for trainers such as Leathers, that is good news, knowing the business of helping football players push themselves to be better won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
“You and your competition want the same thing, and what determines wins and losses is who works more in the offseason,” Leathers said. “You can’t start the season and say, ‘OK – I’m a football player now. It’s a lifestyle.”