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Trainer is a specialist in speed business

Johnny Walters teaches athletes to be faster, jump higher and be stronger.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003

TRINITY -- Eric Powell's 6-foot-3, 268-pound frame explodes from a sprinter's stance, his eyes fixed on the little blue ball headed for the pavement 10 yards before him. His legs churning on the Mitchell High School track, Powell lunges for the ball, trying to catch it after one bounce.

He misses and stumbles to a stop.

Laughing hysterically is Tony Benford, his 6-3, 283-pound teammate and buddy of four years on Florida State University's defensive line.

"I touched it," Powell claimed.

"What do you mean you touched it?" Benford said. "You've got to catch it."

And so it goes, over and over again, as each takes turns chasing after the ball, and laughing at the other, until Johnny Walters tells them they're done.

"Good," Powell said. "My legs are shot."

"Shot?" Walters said. "We're just getting started."

Powell and Benford, bent over, arms clutching their shorts, sweating and gasping for air, exchange pained glances.

There's no business like the speed business.

It's just the start for Walters, too, a Pasco County native, former teacher and coach, who recently returned to his hometown to start his own business. Walters trains athletes -- high school, college and pro -- to run faster, jump higher, move quicker and perform better. His former clients include quarterbacks Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb and Peyton Manning, now star quarterbacks in the NFL.

Speed training is a growing field, one pioneered by another Pasco County native, Tom Shaw, a former Gulf High football player and Hudson High track coach who has gone on to build his own private training practice in New Orleans and now works with the NFL's New England Patriots.

Walters, 36, who played quarterback and coached at Hudson, is Shaw's protege. Shaw coached him in high school, and after four years playing college football for Missouri, Walters followed Shaw to work at Florida State and Tulane University. He later worked with Shaw for the NFL's New Orleans Saints.

Now back home to spend time with his parents, Bill and Betty Walters of Port Richey, Johnny Walters is trying to kick-start his own speed-training practice.

"I'm not here to make a million," Walters said. "But I enjoy what I'm doing, and I enjoy working with athletes who want to be out there.

"And I don't have to deal with parents who are always saying "My kid should be playing, why don't you play my kid?' "

Walters is training Powell and Benford, both 23, for the March 20 pro day at Florida State. That's when NFL scouts arrive on campus to watch workouts of Seminoles who have declared for the upcoming NFL draft. The scouts won't watch them play football per se but rather will watch them perform drills testing their speed, strength and agility.

Preparing college players for NFL scouts is one of the biggest components of Walters' and Shaw's work. A fraction of improvement in a player's 40-yard dash time, a higher vertical leap, a few more 225-pound bench presses, can skyrocket a prospect's draft value -- and earning power.

The system that Shaw and Walters have developed isn't a science but has been built and refined through more than 15 years of experience.

What they want is for athletes to explode. That is, when they move with their legs, to do so with a rapid burst combining speed, power and quickness.

"If you're explosive, that's how you get faster," Walters said. "A lot of tests we've taken show that the guys who can jump the highest and the farthest are usually the fastest."

Walters builds that explosiveness with a variety of exercises. Weight training is a critical component. Plyometrics uses jumping, bounding and hopping. Then there's resistance training, in which devices are used to slow down an athlete in full-sprint. Conversely there's assistance training, in which athletes are pulled along faster than they're capable of running.

Using sprint mechanics, Walters teaches athletes how to run faster by correcting the flaws in their form that slow them down. The dropped ball exercise, for example, forces athletes to stay low while sprinting, and thus keep them running faster.

It's not simple. It's not easy. But it works.

"What we're trying to do is build stride length and stride frequency," Walters said. "We define which you need most and work on it without losing the other.

"Say I want to add two inches to your stride and keep your frequency, so if I add two inches to (Powell's) stride, and he goes 40 yards, and it takes him 20 strides to get those 40 yards, he's going to add 40 inches to his 40-yard time. That's a difference of 2/10ths of a second, getting there 40 inches sooner."

In the 40-yard dash, the NFL's barometer of speed, 2/10ths of a second could be the difference between being a high draft pick, or a low one. In some ways, working with Walters is like taking a prep class for the standardized tests necessary to that gain admission to law school or medical schools; Walters traines his students for specific drills NFL scouts will test them on.

Powell already has been tested. The Orlando native was shot in an attempted robbery two years ago. But he regained his health, his strength and career at FSU. He is a projected mid-round pick; Benford could go later.

Both are working with Walters to change that. Walters spends six days a week with his charges at the Mitchell High track and the nearby Trinity YMCA. Benford is staying with his mother in Tampa, while Powell is living in a Ramada Inn on U.S. 19. Both are spending seven grueling weeks with Walters to prepare for that one day when pro scouts will decide their futures.

Both already have earned their college degrees, but neither wants to give up football.

"It's your life," Powell said. "Either you want to work 9 to 5 or you can do something special."

To them, they are strangers in a strange land, ones now used to quizzical looks and puzzling questions. One woman who appeared to be about one-third of their size and three times their age asked them if they are trying to walk-on the football team at the University of South Florida. A Tampa Bay Storm cheerleader asked if they play for that arena football team. Once, while warming up by swinging their arms back and forth, someone asked if they were swimmers.

"They see the shirt, it says Florida State on it," Benford said, tugging at his FSU practice shirt. "It says football on it, and they still ask you "Hey, do you guys play for Florida State?' "

In between it all, they pose for pictures, laugh and joke with each other and everyone at the Y, and do Walters' bidding.

Or try to, anyway. The two friends trained together each off-season. But never like this.

"I thought I was somewhat in shape, but the first day I was out there on my back," Powell said. "It's bad because it's like "Damn, you're Florida State, you're not supposed to be on your back.' Well, at Florida State I never did anything like this."

Their sense of humor needs no work. They have a word for Trinity: "Pleasantville," after the movie about a picture-perfect town.

"There's nothing around here," Benford said, "but everybody's still happy."

Happy, and friendly.

"When you're at Florida State, everyone is polite to a Florida State football player," Powell said. "But here they don't know who we are, but they're still nice to us."

The players' agents pay $400 weekly for each of the pair to train with Walters. Both players think it has been money well spent.

"I have no doubt," Powell said. "I feel faster. I feel quicker."

Walters also has a high school group he trains; each pays $300 for a six-week course ($250 if they belong to the Trinity YMCA, which allowes Walters to train athletes there if he pays membership fees).

Walters said he can make a comfortable living doing this. "More than I made teaching, at least," he said. He does little advertising, save for word of mouth. It is a business he is just starting to build, so Walters accommodates those who need help paying.

Some of his pro customers may follow him to work out in Trinity. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter will soon arrive to scout out the area. Land O'Lakes High quarterback Drew Weatherford, who will be one of the state's top recruits in the fall, is set to come out this spring.

"My goal is, when you leave the facility here, you will be the better athlete," Walters said. "You will run faster, jump higher and be stronger, and you'll know it."

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