PLYMOUTH, Mich. — In a nondescript building located 20 minutes outside Ann Arbor, Mike Barwis found a new home for his sons. He’s training them now — for the NFL Combine, for the violent game they love and for life.
“They’re my kids,” Barwis said, as a matter of fact. “I’ll take care of them.”
Barwis — who redefined strength and conditioning at Michigan for three seasons under then-coach Rich Rodriguez — decorated the dojo’s entrance with memories. Among the signed jerseys, three small pictures stand out. They show his three Michigan teams, gathered at midfield after a practice, most without their shirts — showing off his work — and all smiling.
Front and center stood a lean, short-haired defensive end, flexing his bicep. Inside the dojo on this Friday morning, two years older, Ryan Van Bergen laid down on a bench with Barwis standing over him.
Four of Barwis’ sons — Van Bergen, Kevin Koger, Dave Molk and Steve Watson — were in the middle of a “hell day.” Their fifth training partner, Mike Martin, who was busy at the Senior Bowl. The five of them know that training with Barwis at his BarwisMethods center in Plymouth gives them the best chance to realize their NFL dreams.
Only one framed jersey hangs on the wall inside the dojo. It belongs to former Michigan soccer player Justin Meram, and it’s signed, “To Mike, Thanks for kicking my ass.” Flags hang from the rafters above it — one West Virginia and one Michigan — reminders of how many kids he’s helped. He hasn’t changed much. On the wall by Van Bergen, Barwis put up a quote from General George Patton in big red type: “May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won’t.”
Rap music pulsed through speakers, and Barwis screamed at Van Bergen over DMX’s “Gon’ Give it to Ya.” He slapped Van Bergen, as hard as he could, in the ribs on each side. That was the cue to start.
Van Bergen was at the Eccentric bench, which Barwis himself helped design. It looks like a normal bench press, but with wires and other weights attached to the structure, it acts as a “reverse bench press” and forces Van Bergen to pull the weight towards his chest instead of letting gravity pull the bar down. Then, he pushes the weight up, using the same muscles as a normal bench press.
Watson took a break to watch. He’s the one who needs Barwis most. Without an invite to the combine, unlike Molk and Martin, and without extensive game film to take pride in, unlike Koger and Van Bergen, Watson is a long shot to make it to the NFL. The tight end has one career catch and one career touchdown to his name. It wasn’t necessarily his fault — as he bounced between tight end and defensive end thanks to the coaching change, finally landing at tight end under Brady Hoke.
Now, Watson tells Barwis that he’s not afraid to take his shirt off in public, that he has abs for the first time in his life.
He admired the 12-foot-tall American flag on the wall behind Van Bergen.
“He’s going to knock this wall down, push it out, then have a real big dojo,” Watson said, motioning towards it.
Barwis will need the space if his reputation continues to bulge as efficiently as the guys he trains. Not too far from Watson, Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge worked out, doing lunges with bands strapped to his ankles.
“He’s the best motivator I’ve ever been around in my life,” Inge said of Barwis, who also has a mixed martial arts background. “You can’t really argue with anything he says, because he’ll probably choke you out if you do.”
Van Bergen finished his set, jumped up and barked at Molk, imitating DMX’s woofs as the song blared.
Like the others, Van Bergen relishes having time to devote to sculpting his body. During the season, extra time to lift was rare. Plus, he suffered a pinched nerve in his neck against Michigan State when he tried to uproot a ball carrier on a goal-line play — something he and Martin did routinely all season. From that game on, he couldn’t fire his pectoral muscle or tricep.
“Most people don’t know I played the last half of the season without a right arm,” he said.
His pinched nerve is fine now, but he estimated he’s about 70-percent recovered from a partially torn ligament in his foot, which he played through in the Sugar Bowl. That injury won’t be fully healed for another month.
Every weekday, he meets at the dojo at 9 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 6 p.m. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the five have “hell days,” working out nearly every muscle in their bodies. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they do combine-specific drills and Barwis teaches them how to run — the most efficient ways to cut and to accelerate.
They take planned periodic breaks to stretch or eat one of the six nutritional meals Barwis maps out for the nine-hour period.
“Every day — same meal,” said Van Bergen, who attributed half of the credit for his toned look to Barwis’ nutrition plan. “I can tell you exactly what I’m going to have later: I have seven eggs, four pieces of whole-wheat toast and one eight-ounce cup of yogurt waiting for me.”
Van Bergen and Watson move onto other drills, while Koger does lunges with ankle resistance and catches a ball thrown by one of Barwis’ assistants. Meanwhile, across the room, one of Barwis’ star pupils puts on a show.
Laying on a bench, Molk strengthens his neck by resisting pressure an assistant applied by pressing a towel to his forehead. If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought Molk was being tortured.
After more than 10 minutes of struggling, Molk’s neck was no longer distinguishable, swollen and puffy.
“You look like a cartoon character,” Van Bergen shouted, laughing.
The rest of the morning, Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, strengthened his strong left leg and tested out his healing right leg. He had surgery two weeks ago to repair a torn tendon in his right foot suffered minutes before the Sugar Bowl. But it doesn’t stop Barwis, who tests Molk, making the center push back as he applies pressure to the leg.
“I can squat 700 pounds,” Molk gasped in between reps. “But I (can’t handle) a 190-pound man.”
Barwis smiled. He’d do anything for Molk. On Wednesday, when Molk realized he had a doctor’s appointment for the injury (which has a 4-month recovery period) it was Barwis who came in at 6 a.m. to work Molk out. And when Molk needed a ride to the airport, it was Barwis who dropped everything to take him.
“I love all my guys,” Barwis would say later. “Molk’s like my son. Van Bergen’s like my son. Koger’s like my son. That’s how we are.”
Every day for three years, Barwis worked out Martin and Molk at the same time, mostly because they were the only two who could keep up with each other. They were competitive in everything. If Martin lifted 500, Molk put on 510. It’s the kind of atmosphere Molk envisioned when he committed to Michigan and to Barwis.
When the morning workouts are done, Molk explains how important strength training was in his college choice, how the right program could prepare someone for the NFL and how Barwis blew everyone away.
“Mike was the best — the best,” Molk said. “Hands down. Top of the line. The best guy. The best system. The best sell. The best knowledge base of the people that I talked to, and I talked to a lot of strength coaches. … There was no one who even compared to Mike.”
Barwis’ system, designed to build lean but strong-as-a-bull lineman, developed Molk and Martin into “two of the strongest players in the United States,” according to Barwis. But when Brady Hoke was hired in January 2010, Barwis was replaced by Aaron Wellman, whom Hoke was more comfortable with.
“The whole season was awkward without (Barwis),” Molk said. “I was so used to having him around, so used to the voice, the pre-game speeches, the workouts — that was night-and-day difference. And it was weird not having him there, because all of the athletic ability everyone had going into (the Sugar Bowl) and going into the season was attributed to Mike.”
The difference between Wellman and Barwis was black and white, Molk explains.
“Mike knew it because he was the guy who led the research,” Molk said, noting the strength and conditioning journals that have published Barwis’ work.
“Wellman read the research. It is what it is.”
Molk hopes he can work out for teams before April’s NFL Draft. He said he plans on lifting at the Combine, and that the highest he’s ever repped in the 225-pound bench press was 38 times — and that was after a brutal workout. The record is 49 reps.
“Who knows what I can do fresh,” Molk said. “Mike (Martin’s) the only one who’s going to be near me.”
I asked Molk if he was worried he wouldn’t be able to work out for NFL teams and prove he’s not too short (he’s listed at 6-foot-2) to play center.
“He’s got plenty of film,” Barwis interjected, on his way out the door to lunch, as Van Bergen opened up his eggs in another room.
Watching from afar, Barwis said he still was Molk’s and Martin’s and Van Bergen’s and Watson’s and Koger’s biggest fan. Those who come in contact with him tend to stay close. Guys he sculpted 15 years ago still come around. And Friday morning, before four of his sons showed up to workout, one he trained 19 years ago called looking for family advice.
“I’m always going to be that guy — I’m kind of like the dad,” Barwis said.
“I never forget about my kids.”
—Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TimRohan.