Fitness trainer Steve Saunders getting Eagles into shape

Photos: MARK PSORAS/For the Daily News
Photos: MARK PSORAS/For the Daily News
Posted: January 08, 2010

IN MARCH, Jamaal Jackson couldn't even hang from a pull-up bar.

In March, Todd Herremans weighed 275 pounds.

In March, Juqua Parker had people wondering why the Eagles signed him to a 5-year deal - to average five sacks a season.

In March, Brent Celek was a two-game wonder.

Then, they visited Steve Saunders at the Power Train Sports Institute site in Cherry Hill.

There, they enjoyed - or, endured - not only exotic workouts but also strict, tailored diets that even monitor vitamin and mineral intake. Those diets come complete with specially prepared foods - meats from an organic butcher who would personally spice chicken-breast sausages or marinate flank steaks in a low-sodium, low-sugar concoction.

Now, Herremans weighs 320. Jackson can do a dozen pull-ups. Parker has eight sacks, a career-high. And Celek is a Pro Bowl alternate, the only offensive weapon the Cowboys haven't stopped as the Birds head back to Dallas for a wild-card game tomorrow.

"Those guys worked extremely hard," Saunders said.

They had little choice; Saunders is a hellish taskmaster.

"It's hard. But I like it," said Celek, whose shoulder issues Saunders targeted. "He works us out real hard, to the point, sometimes, it's like, 'Do I want to go to this?' "

If others are going four times a week, at least misery has company. And, besides, some of the players love to break their bodies down.

"I wanted to try him out. I like the way he works. This offseason I wanted to really work out hard with him and get in a good 6 months," said Parker, a first-timer with Saunders, whose bench-press not only increased, it also became a breeze. "It's something different, something you've never done in college or the pros."

"I think he has a huge impact on me. He has a picture in his mind of what he wants to do with you," said Herremans, the Pied Piper for the Eagles who use Saunders.

Stewart Bradley, Trent Cole, Kevin Curtis, Sheldon Brown and Winston Justice all have used Saunders' services at some point.

Of course, the Eagles have their own strength coach and athletic trainers, all of whom are at the players' disposal year-round - although Birds commandant Andy Reid embraces players leaving the area to take a break from the nest.

Still, Saunders finds himself balancing the teams' offseason wishes for the players with what he thinks is best. Similarly, the players are leery of straying from the team's prescribed offseason suggestions, and remain cautious about how much credit they give Saunders, lest they slight the franchise.

But they go, and they like it.

His routines differ for each player, depending on that player's weaknesses - physically and performancewise.

For Jackson, it meant upper back and shoulder work - and dropping from 346 pounds to 320, shedding 40 pounds of fat and replacing it with 14 pounds of muscle. It also meant consuming no carbohydrates for the first 3 weeks.

March was madness for Jackson.

"The guys dragged Jamaal in to see me. We needed to get pretty drastic with Jamaal. We didn't have a lot of time to screw around," said Saunders. "And Jamaal - he hates everything."

Jackson proceeded to play his best this season, with coaches and teammates stumping for him to receive Pro Bowl consideration (Jackson, of course, was lost for the season 2 weeks ago with a knee injury).

It's not as if Saunders' regimens are a magic bullet of some sort. It's just . . . something different.

That means not just lifting weights in inventive and unusual ways - on balance balls, in long or short sets, or explosively - it means other unconventional methods.

It means speed work - short bursts, 10 yards or so, not the more common 60-yard sprint. It means running against the resistance of elastic bands. It means plyometric work, hopping over and around and onto things on one foot, or two, sometimes side-to-side.

And it means mixing it up. Saunders seldom keeps an athlete on the same program for more than a few weeks.

That has attracted the likes of Steelers stars Jerome Bettis, Heath Miller, James Harrison and Hines Ward, who take advantage of Saunders' Pittsburgh-area site. There's another facility in Manheim, Pa., and the main site is in Lancaster, Pa., where, yesterday, Saunders worked with Penn State linebacker Sean Lee and Virginia offensive tackle Will Barker as they prepared for the NFL Scouting Combine.

Saunders, 39, opened his first gym more than 15 years ago and first trained NFL talent a decade ago, when he worked with receiver Qadry Ismail.

Unlike Ismail, a speedster who graduated from Syracuse, a big-time football school, Saunders was a defensive tackle at Millersville. He never had a shot at the NFL, in part, he said, because there was nothing like what he offers when he finished playing college ball. So, today, he lives through the likes of Shippensburg product John Kuhn, a fullback with the Packers, and Villanova product Ray Ventrone, a safety with the Browns, whom he helped prepare for the NFL combine, where they were seen, then, later, signed.

"Nobody helped steer me toward the pros," Saunders said. He does that, now - and more.

For many Eagles, seeing Saunders has meant measurable results and a sense of camaraderie and accountability.

After all, if flabby Jamaal Jackson is showing up and struggling through pull-ups like a husky grade-schooler, how can Celek, a self-made physical specimen, excuse himself? He even shared Jackson's weakness.

"Pull-ups - they're the worst for me," said Celek. "Since I was terrible at them, I'd always avoid them. He was, like, 'Listen. You're going to do these.' "

Celek managed two pull-ups that first day.

Now, he can rip off 10 . . . with a 25-pound weight suspended from his safety belt.

Not every player is like Celek, who showed up for every workout every week. Curtis, for instance, travels in the offseason, so his attendance is sporadic.

Herremans, meanwhile, is a disciple.

He'll use Saunders for the fourth time this offseason. He keeps a freezer full of ready-to-cook meats from Saunders' butcher. He eats brown rice, and consumes pasta only early in the day.

As for Celek, he stays away from sweets . . . and, like Herremans, he's playing as well now as at any point in his breakout season.

So is Celek. His seven catches for 96 yards represented the extent of offensive success for the Eagles in Dallas last week.

"When you build up to what we did this offseason, you last longer," said Celek, whose 76 catches, 971 yards and eight TDs all are second in the team's single-season list. "I don't know, if I didn't do that stuff, I'd have been able to last, starting for the first time."

Granted, Saunders and his handiwork might not be enough to get the Eagles a win tomorrow. But, considering where many of them were in March, where would the Birds be today without him?

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