Van Wert football coach Keith Recker did not hesitate when asked how weight training has affected high school football. He knew exactly the word he was looking for.
“It has had a profound effect,” he said.
A look at football rosters from every level of football — pros, college and high school — illustrates what weight training has done for athletes.
They are on average bigger, stronger and faster at every position at every level. And the game itself is different, too.
When the Cleveland Browns won the most recent championship by a Cleveland team in 1964, they had one starting offensive lineman who weighed more than 255 pounds. The biggest starter on either side of the ball was 270-pound defensive lineman Jim Kanicki.
At the high school level, in Lima Senior coach Mike Fell’s first year as a starter at quarterback there in 1977, the Spartans had only two players on their roster who weighed more than 200 pounds — linemen Jim Endicott (211 pounds) and Brent Fackler (210 pounds).
Last season’s 8-3 Lima Senior team had 18 players on its roster who weighed more than 200 pounds, and two of them checked in at more than 300 pounds.
“Back when we were in high school, if you benched (bench pressed) 200 pounds, you were considered strong. The 200-pound guys were considered the strong guys on the team,” Fell said. “Now if your wide receivers don’t bench 200 pounds, people are like, ‘Those guys aren’t very strong at all.’ Everybody benches 200 pounds pretty much.
“I’ve got one guy who benches more than 400, and another who does 315. Everybody is basically between 200 and 300. If you’re starting for us, you’re probably benching more than 200 pounds and squatting more than 300 pounds.”
Fell calls getting players into the weight room the most important thing in building a football program. He emphasized it everywhere he has been a head coach, starting in 1990 at Columbus Grove.
“That’s the No. 1 thing. My very first head coaching job, that was the No. 1 thing,” Fell said.
Spencerville coach John Zerbe rates the weight room as just as significant as practices and game planning in producing a winning football team.
“We can’t function without strength. I would say it is equally important as your practices, your game plans or the systems you run. In fact, we spend more time on that during a year than we do on the football side of it,” he said.
“I talk to people who played years ago who say they would start getting in shape and lifting for football in July. In my time, 20 years ago, maybe you started in June. Now people ask when does lifting start, and I say January. That’s just the way it is,” Zerbe said.
Speed, agility, mobility and flexibility all can be increased, though not multiplied, in the weight room. But there are limits.
“We try to get them to their highest potential,” Recker said. “But if you’re not made to run a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, we’re not going to get you to a 4.6 in the 40. Genetics and nutrition are the two things we unfortunately can’t control.”
Almost universally, coaches say the psychological benefits of a good weight program with a high participation level can be as important, maybe more important, as the physical growth.
It is a team-building experience to work, stuggle and sweat together. It’s a prod to keep going when things get tough in the fall.
“The most important thing in the weight room is the camaraderie of the guys in there lifting. You build your team in the winter and the summer with the guys in there sweating and working hard and helping each other. When you get down to it, that’s more important than what you’re doing or how much you’re lifting,” Fell said.
Zerbe said, “I think you develop a work ethic. You kind of learn to fight adversity.”
Lessons about fighting back when things don’t go well on the field can be learned in the weight room, Recker said.
“Things are going to be tough. You might screw up in a game, and then how are you going to respond? You’re going to respond the same way as when we were in the weight room and you responded to help out your teammates,” he said.
Weight training caught on in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the college level and worked its way to the high school level.
“It was sometime in the ’80s, I would guess,” Recker said about when high schools began to emphasize the weight room.
The two-time All-Ohio linebacker at Delphos St. John’s in 2000 and 2001, said, “When I was growing up, my dad helped Vic Whiting at St. John’s, and he still says to this day that it was the biggest reason St. John’s got to where it is — because Vic installed that idea of weight lifting.
“Maybe some teams didn’t buy into it, but I think it was around that time it got huge.”
Boyd Epley, a University of Nebraska pole vaulter, is credited by many people with making weight lifting part of the training program for college football programs.
Old-school Nebraska coach Bob Devaney thought his teams were getting pushed around on the field in the late 1960s and noticed players who had lifted weights on their own with Epley came back better than they were before, according to a recent ESPN.com story.
At the time, weightlifting was thought to be something for body builders, not athletes, by many coaches. Some thought it would bulk players up too much.
When Devaney agreed to let Epley work with his players, he reportedly said, “If anyone gets slower, you’re fired.”
Nebraska won nine games or more every year from 1969-2001 and became a dynasty. Other teams copied what they did.
Building new weight rooms or upgrading existing high school facilities has become common in recent years with football’s greater emphasis on weight training and other sports using it, too. Athletes also have used private workout facilities and personal trainers more.
“No matter what kind of weight room you have, it’s what you put into it in terms of effort. But it helps when you have nice facilities,” Leipsic coach Andy Mangas said. “You have room to put everybody in there and the kids get excited if you have nice facilities.”
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.