2/23/06 Pumping up draft $tatu$

By Marla Ridenour Beacon Journal sportswriter

EUCLID - Barry Cofield calls it ``the gas chamber.'' The defensive lineman from Northwestern University and Cleveland Heights High School was referring to the cubicle at the Euclid Sports Plant that simulates altitudes up to 11,500 feet. An NFL Draft prospect, the 315-pound Cofield tested himself on the treadmill and bicycle in the same type of enclosure used by Lance Armstrong and lived to tell about it.

Five times.

``It's terrible when you're in there, but you feel great when you come out,'' Cofield said. ``You feel like you accomplished something.''

The ``gas chamber'' is one of the few high-tech gadgets at the Sports Plant, the hard-core training facility in the back of an old warehouse and distribution center on Euclid Avenue. There are no signs on the street indicating it is the workout home of current and future pro athletes.

More than one visitor has stopped at the Euclid Police Department next door for directions. For six weeks, founders Eric Lichter and Tim Robertson of Speed Strength Systems Inc. have put 25 draft hopefuls through rigorous workouts in preparation for the 2006 NFL Combine, a player evaluation camp that opened Wednesday and runs through Feb. 28 in Indianapolis.

``If you want to make your dreams come true, they've got to come true in Indianapolis as well as on the field,'' Cofield said. Among the regulars are three OSU players - safeties Donte Whitner and Nate Salley and guard Rob Sims. Linebackers Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter also made occasional visits. Sims observed that the setting is straight out of Rocky. The only heat is provided by a few space heaters. Players pile their gear in the corner of the weight room. At least one drinks water out of a gallon milk jug.

None will have the luxury of skipping the workouts at the RCA Dome like the sure first-rounders. These are men who know that a tenth of a second improvement in the 40-yard dash can mean millions of dollars for a first-rounder and might vault another into the first day of the draft.

So they watch their diets and work tirelessly, drilling in the 40, the three-cone and short shuttle, the bench press and vertical leap, not to mention the weights and the ``gas chamber.'' Lichter and Robertson emphasize the smallest nuances. In the three-cone, they teach which hand to touch down, when to shift weight and not to cut sharply at the cone so as not to break momentum.

Lichter and Robertson opened the plant in 2000. They specialize in preparing players for the NFL and NBA drafts, but also work with high school athletes in the afternoon. They recently opened a facility for that part of the business in Avon. Clients past and present include the Denver Nuggets' Nene (before the 2002 NBA Draft), LeBron James, Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett (after his freshman season) and OSU-bound Chris Wells of Garfield High. Among their success stories are Chester Taylor, the Baltimore Ravens running back who was a sixth-round pick out of Toledo in 2002, and Adrien Clarke, an Ohio State offensive lineman picked in the seventh round in 2004 by the Philadelphia Eagles.

``Chester ran a good 40 at the combine and showed good agility and strength,'' Lichter said.

``That convinced some teams he could play in the NFL.

``We helped Adrien shed 30 to 40 pounds prior to the combine and that showed teams he was serious about his training.''

Whitner and Michigan outside linebacker Pierre Woods, both of Cleveland Glenville High, Nordonia's Sims and Cofield have been coming to Euclid since they were in high school. They were among the initial clients along with Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith and receiver Ted Ginn Jr., both also of Glenville. Lichter remembers when Ginn ran the 40 in 5.0 seconds in the ninth grade and said he now clocks Ginn in the low 4.4s.

``Back then I wasn't thinking about running 40s, I was thinking about getting in shape,'' Cofield said. ``I remember many a day coming out of the sand pit near tears wondering if I really wanted to play football again. It was so difficult. We always talked, `If we can get through this, anything we face over the next four years will seem easy.' '' Cofield, Sims, Whitner, Salley, Penn State defensive end Matthew Rice and Wyoming cornerback Derrick Martin are among those living on the same floor of an apartment building about 15 minutes away so they can concentrate on training. Their day starts around 9:30 a.m. and runs until about 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with a shorter schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Sometimes on weekends, the Buckeyes participate in autograph signings. That helps pay their rent, along with the $100 to $175 per day draft training fees charged by Lichter and Robertson, who also receive a bonus if a player jumps from a second- to first-day selection. Early entry juniors like Whitner usually have the most at stake at the combine, because scouts don't have times on them. Lichter predicts Whitner will be ``an absolute beast'' in Indianapolis.

Whitner's goal is clear.

``Me being a safety, if I can run a 4.3 or a 4.2, that's great. There might be two or three in the NFL right now,'' Whitner said. ``If you can get a safety running that speed, you basically have three corners on the field.

``There's a difference from running a 4.6 or a 4.3. If I go in there and run 4.6, (I'll be drafted) second day. If I run 4.3, I've heard middle of the first (round) to early second. I think about that every day.''

Salley isn't sure why stopwatches should make such a big difference in his future, but he still put school on hold until the spring quarter so he could share an apartment with Whitner and train in Euclid.

``I always ask guys, `When did all this start? I wonder if Jack Tatum had to run the 40 to make it to the league,' '' Salley said. ``You talk to a lot of guys in the (NFL) and they say you do this one time and you don't do it any more. I don't get the point of it, but you have to do it.''

Sims said he felt training in Euclid helped him get his foot in the door at OSU, where he started as a freshman, and hopes for the same results this time. Sims doesn't complain about the process and what has been required for the past two months.

``A lot of things go into how you get drafted,'' Sims said. ``It's character, how you do in here, how you play on the field. I think this is a real important part. It's the most physical game in the world and if you can't do it physically, forget about it.'' Lichter believes that 80 to 90 percent of a player's draft status is determined by what he shows on film during games. But the athletes he trains are literally making strides, and his facility is drawing players such as Penn State's Rice, who would have gone to a warm-weather site in the past.

``In my opinion, this gives teams more reason not to draft a player than to draft a player,'' Lichter said. ``If they've got to make a decision between three guys, they start to factor in these tests. This gives them more reasons to say, `We can't spend millions of dollars on this guy.' ''