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School's In for NFL Stars During Offseason Workouts

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page A01

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Green Bay Packers tight end Bubba Franks arrived in a cherry red Hummer. Teammate Javon Walker pulled up in a snow white Escalade. Buffalo Bills running back Willis McGahee drove up in a black BMW with wide silver rims. Washington Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss parked a dark silver Mercedes-Benz with the Florida tag 8-TREY.

In the late morning of a recent weekday, the National Football League players emerged from their pricey cars and walked undisturbed and virtually unrecognized through a student-athlete parking lot at the University of Miami, disappearing into the school's athletic center through a side door. Inside, they attended what has become the most prestigious -- though unofficial, unaffiliated and certainly unadvertised -- offseason training camp in the NFL.

It "got us to the first round, so we're going to continue to work out here," says Buffalo's Willis McGahee, left, at a recent workout. (Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)

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In the conformist world of the NFL, where most players diligently work out with their teams in the offseason even though the practices are not mandatory, the training sessions here are unique. They primarily attract products of Miami's powerhouse football program, some of the league's biggest -- and brashest -- stars, young men who have the confidence to tell their pro clubs that they can train better and harder at their former school.

"I looked in the weight room one day and there were 11 first-round draft choices working out," University of Miami football coach Larry Coker said of a particularly well-attended workout last summer. "I was somewhat amazed at all of the people here. I was trying to put a dollar figure on what the guys were worth, and they were worth more than the weight room, believe me."

It's not surprising that Miami's football program, which has produced 20 first-round draft picks in the last five years and is known for a swagger that borders on arrogance, would produce players who would willingly snub their professional teams' offseason workout regimens. The cocksure mentality has even lured outsiders like Walker, a No. 1 draft pick out of Florida State, and New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, a first-rounder from Michigan State, both of whom have become regulars.

"Everybody who works here went in the first round," McGahee said matter-of-factly and with only a bit of exaggeration after a session attended by at least six first-round players. It "got us to the first round, so we're going to continue to work out here."

Moss, a former Miami Hurricane acquired by the Redskins in a trade with the New York Jets, trained here instead of reporting to voluntary workouts with Washington -- until winning a contract extension this week. Moss arrived at Redskins Park in Ashburn on Thursday to sign the deal.

Redskins running back Clinton Portis has shown up now and then, and defensive back Sean Taylor, who has skipped the team's recent workouts, made one appearance -- and only to play a game of half-court basketball, Miami strength coach Andreu Swasey said. Both are former Hurricanes.

Under NFL rules, teams are allowed to have offseason workouts, but they must be voluntary. Most teams, to put it politely, encourage their players to attend.

Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs has said he prefers that his players attend workouts sanctioned by the team, and he expressed his unhappiness repeatedly this spring that Moss and Taylor had chosen not to show their faces at Redskins Park. Yet, Gibbs raved about the program at Miami during a news conference announcing Moss's signing on Thursday.

"They have a real camaraderie at that school," Gibbs said. "There's not a single person I talked to down there that didn't talk about their conditioning program. I don't know if you saw that poster they had out, but they had a poster with about 23 guys. I'll tell you this, it's pretty impressive. They're all ripped."

Arriving in T-shirts, gold chains, do-rags, or, in the case of New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey -- a dull wool cap despite temperatures in the mid-80s -- the professionals are largely indistinguishable from the collegiate Hurricanes who share the facilities and come and go at similar times. On any given day, between five and more than a dozen will turn up, taking part in a program so regimented that they move virtually non-stop for between one and two hours. The pros do much of what Miami's collegians do, lifting weights, running sprints and trudging through a sand box on the university athletic fields. They play regular games of half-court basketball for fitness.

"You got guys from different teams from all over the NFL," said Walker, a Pro Bowler who missed a mandatory minicamp in Green Bay last week because of a contract dispute. "There's probably a little bit of macho going on, talking about who is going to play who, and what they're going to do. . . . But it's kind of like family now. We're pushing each other four days a week."

The late-morning workouts, which are held every weekday but Wednesday, are draped in seclusion. Some players depart furtively, ducking interview requests. A boy casing the grounds for autographs of Hurricanes football players this past week had no idea he could collect the signatures of NFL players, too. The NFL campers use three fields closed to the public and a 13,000-square-foot weight room stocked with $425,000 in customized equipment at the back of the Hecht Athletic Center. The weight room was part of a 22,000-square-foot addition to the center that was completed in 2001 and cost $4.5 million.

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