2014 was a challenge for A. J. Green.
He battled an array of injuries that forced him to miss four games, including the Bengals' first-round playoff matchup against the Colts. Though he eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark, the missed games and slight drop in production—along with the rise of exciting rookies like Odell Beckham Jr.—dimmed his luster. He finished the season ranked 20th in the NFL in receiving yards, his lowest mark ever. "I felt like the football world forgot about me," Green told The Cincinnati Enquirer in August.
Paranoia? Hardly. Green's peers had ranked him the ninth best player in the league prior to the 2014 season. Before this season, he tumbled all the way to 37th. Like any true competitor, Green used the disrespect as motivation. "Last year was one of the most frustrating years. Because I never got hurt, I never missed time [before that]," Green said at a recent event at the Boys & Girls Club of Cincinnati. "A lot of other receivers had great years, and no knock to them, but that just drove me."
Green entered the off-season determined to prove he was still among the NFL elite. That mindset led him to back to his roots, and he chose longtime friends and fellow NFL players Justin Houston and Akeem Dent as his training partners. Their goals were simple: work hard and get better.
Instead of heading to a fancy high-tech gym in an exotic locale, the trio decided to workout at Rock Hard Fitness in Tucker, Georgia. Yelp reviewers describe Rock Hard as "old-school" and "hardcore"—the type of gym that focuses on performance and power over sleek aesthetics.
It didn't take long for Green to realize he'd come to the right place.
"We worked out in a gym about this size," Green said, indicating the small classroom where he spoke at the Boys & Girls Club. "Dirty weights, and our strength coach is this guy we call Mr. Curtis. And he pushes us like no other." Mr. Curtis is Curtis Winters, owner of Rock Hard Fitness and a former bodybuilder-turned-trainer. Despite being in his late 50s, Winters looks like he's carved from granite. He's also never afraid to humble his clients, even if they are Pro Bowl receivers.
Green said, "[Winters] will be like, "A. J., get your little scrawny butt up here and do the same weight that Houston's doing!" The players focused on big lifts like Squats, Bench Presses and Deadlifts in addition to old-school training moves like pushing pick-up trucks and running hills.
"I'm almost 60 years old. I'm a little old-school. We've gotten away from foundational training and basic training. I believe in training heavy. I believe in running hills," Winters said. "I believe you want to use progression to strengthen the joints, the tendons and the muscles so that once you go into the season, you'll be able to hold up."
These videos from Houston's Instagram page will give you an idea of what the workouts were like.
Besides dishing out a steady diet of big lifts and hill runs, Winters often threw in unexpected challenges to see how Green and his friends would respond.
"I'd walk into the gym and sit down and tell Mr. Curtis I'm gonna take a five-minute break before I get started. He yells at me to get my butt up, and we do 500 reps of ab exercises—Toes Touches, Upside Down Crunches. We did 500 reps of abs before we even started our regular workout," Green said.
Nearly every workout required Green to get out of his comfort zone, but having Houston and Dent by his side helped him stay strong. "We pushed each other. It's great to have friends that share your vision and understand the grind and understand what we have to go through to be successful," Green said.
It's safe to say that Green's intense off-season training paid off. He is currently on pace for 93 receptions, 1,438 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, and he hasn't missed a single game to injury.
To think the football world ever doubted him.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock