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Friday Feature–EARLY EDITION: “What it all means”–football (and life) according to John

September 11, 2009

When I finally came to after those deceivingly short minutes of utter bewilderment, I found myself standing on the rubber mats that blanket the floor in Notre Dame high school’s weight room. Sure I found some comfort in the instant-access to civilization that my GPS offered, all but a 30-second walk and push of a button away. But my disastrous misunderstanding of the instructions I’d been given minutes earlier left me struggling to remember what I was even looking for–let alone where I was.

See earlier, John sent me on a journey–a quest for meaning, if you would.

While we sat on the opened door of his GMC Sierra’s truck bed–bearing the scars inflicted by frequent transports of wheel-farrels, kettle bells, and tractor tires on his ultimate man-wagon–John McKenna told me the tale of his life’s

John's desk, tidy and undisturbed since he's so seldom there

John's desk, tidy and undisturbed since he's so seldom there

inevitable twists and turns. In spite of his reputation–one of unrivaled success that’s now landed him in charge of TCNJ football‘s year-round strength and conditioning duties–John told me that if I hoped to get it, to wholly understand what he believed was most profound of all his residual impact smeared on combine records and newspaper archives throughout the tri-state area, I need only do two things.

Go inside, and look at the wall.

But here I still stood after I’d scoured every inch of the painted white cement encasing the area’s most storied high school training facility, dumbfounded and without the damnedest idea he’d meant. Everything I’d already seen filled its space with a definitive purpose, mostly local newspaper clippings and old photographs–the lone exception a Word document to which I hadn’t paid much attention.

In an effort to deduce some context clues from our earlier conversation, I tried to remember everything he’d said to me. Unsure if the cliche usage was deliberate or casual, I could only hope that “reading between the lines” would help me find this alleged “writing on the wall.”

John started where every story starts–the notable exceptions being artsy indie movies and various works by novice independent bloggers–the beginning.


For Coach McKenna, it all began square in the heart of the Mountain State–and what better setting in lieu of the finished product yielded in its midst. Alongside his then-college roommate at West Virginia Tech, Allan Johnson, the aspiring strength guru often experimented with various enhancements to the popular, yet stagnant approach adopted by many of his colleagues. Driven by the same childlike reverberation of “what if” that berthed his partner’s career–one that now boasts an unofficial title as “baseball’s first strength coach” inclusive of job ops directing S&C for Ohio State and West Virginia’s Division I football programs–McKenna couldn’t help but imagine ways to improve upon his craft.

“I remember being back when we were in West Virginia,” he said, in reminiscent description of his grass roots methodology. “We started using chains and just trying to throw them over a school bus. We were always looking for alternative methods back then.”

Though he hadn’t yet seen the picture in its entirety–and to this day claims he still quite hasn’t–McKenna’s first elaboration on the field’s so-called conventional wisdom featured what he calls “West-Side barbells”–a scheduled

one of the facility's two state-of-the-art training rooms

one of the facility's two state-of-the-art training rooms

bi-weekly rotation between seven day periods of max-power exertion and light weight repetition to failure. McKenna couldn’t argue that heavy bench presses and squats worked, nor would he–every day he was surrounded by the approach’s avid believers and the definitive bulges protruding from the arms of his athletes.

But, through kettle bell training, he also saw an opportunity to build better football players, as opposed to sculpting better beach bodies.

“When I first got started as a strength coach, it was amazing. I used to have all these big guys and they put up big numbers,” he said, foreshadowing a troubling disparity between aesthetics and performance. “But all too often, I turned around and saw those guys standing on the sidelines. Sure, they thought they looked nice and pretty with their sleeves rolled up, but they just couldn’t move.”

It wasn’t long before his distinctive nack for innovating strength training set his career’s wheels in motion (or tires flipped down a high school parking lot). Making full use of equipment that looked like it better fit a tool shed than a weight room, years of the abstract images flashing vividly in the former Harry Truman high graduate’s imagination started to materialize–catching the attention of those in dire need of this kind of service.


In what now deteriorated into a perpetual back and forth patrol of the gym’s interior perimeter, I stopped in a narrow corridor connecting the building’s two compartmentalized facilities and the field’s schools of thought. One, featuring a 40-yard indoor track, lined with loads of handle-laden iron in five-pound increments. The other, a labyrinth of benches, dumbbells and dust.

I decided to take another look at the countless newspaper clippings of the team’s triumphs and a few notable shortcomings–both overtly displayed as side-by-side relics of “Irish pride.”


Entering his 44th year of a prestigious career that’s featured stints at a number of settings, most notably Villanova University, Notre Dame head coach Chappy Moore remembers what drew him to the savior of the school’s entire athletic program.

“A friend of ours recommended John, so I went over and saw him in Saint Mary’s hospital,” where McKenna himself was in the midst of a battle, fighting to recover from a crippling joint infection in his knee. “We talked for a while and we knew right away this was what we wanted.”

The harder he looked, Coach Moore saw a team, and a program standing, at a crossroads. Though he couldn’t decipher which was the right path to choose, in his mind he was in the presence of the embodiment of an otherwise faceless silhouette–just the guy he needed. But in a world dominated by the “big machine” in even the most humble of political realms, Moore knew he’d need to sway some important figures of influence–with feet firmly planted in opposition to this kind of change.

dumbbells and heavy-duty ropes implemented in McKenna's regiments

dumbbells and heavy-duty ropes implemented in McKenna's regiments

“See, we had to go through the phys-ed department to get this done,” he said explicitly, recollecting a simplified version of the board’s decision to his initial proposal. “They shot it down 8-1.”

He persisted, wedging the hopeful heir to the throne of his weight room/dungeon’s in the door–one with whom so much of his faith was already invested. Though it wasn’t initially the role he’d hoped for, it wasn’t long before everyone around him began to see what he had already so clearly perceived.

“We got him in here as a part-time director,” he said, detailing the initial move. “By January everybody started to realize that he was out of their league.”

Only a slight divergence from this much-appreciated trend of instant-gratification, it wasn’t long before McKenna’s genius–or madness, or both–started to translate into what matters most in football. Wins.

“It didn’t happen right away,” Moore said of the program’s steady metamorphosis. “But especially in the past five years we’ve started becoming increasingly competitive and we’re really starting to enjoy the foundation that he’s built for us.”

In an effort to quantify the team’s success, the men tossed the conversation back and forth, hoping to definitively cite the team’s winning percentage following McKenna’s arrival. After minutes of offering their closest speculations and clearest memories, neither could produce a precise record.

Though it couldn’t rival the valor of the effort itself, their best approximation (still reputable in its own right) was a 89-11 guesstimate of wins and losses over 11 seasons.

The exact number may have escaped him, but Moore wasn’t short for words to qualify McKenna’s impact–on the program and the community.

“He’s done a tremendous job building it here–building what [the program] is today. The kids are healthier, quicker, stronger–it’s everything I’d hoped it would be.”


I peered into the doorless walkway, giving a quick peek into the room housing the more traditional of the two styles of training. I found humor in the montage of pictures hanging on the wall nearest to me, unable to hold back an audible chuckle at the sight of so many signed portraits of  athletes on every level of competitive football. Some notable pros

photos of the players referenced in the graph

photos of the players referenced in the graph

included linebackers Gary Brackett (Indianapolis Colts) and Lawrence Timmons (Pittsburgh Steelers)–a combined five timeless relics of Super Bowl hardware between them.

The school’s web site made no mention of any of these supposed famous alumni, with the lone exception of Rugers’ grad Tiquan Underwood. Phony photos–just like at Hooters, I thought. And why not, after all, there’s nothing wrong with a little puffery on one’s private resume.

The levity of my first-glance observation quickly transposed into a deluge of awe, once I noticed that for every gameday action shot of one of these highly-recognizable figures in NFL and DI college uniforms, two others featured images of the same personality wearing a cut-off tee shirt, John standing alongside.


Ask Lions’ defensive end Craig Meyer about McKenna’s workouts themselves and he’ll tell you–he’s a satisfied customer with the way his body’s responded.

“They’re definitely 10 times better than anything I’ve ever done before,” said the 6’1, 250-pound brute from Far Hills, NJ. “It’s given me speed, stamina–you name it. Its made the game slow down because you’re used to such a fast-paced atmosphere. Nothing has phased me thus far.”

Meyer cites his fitness level, one he calls “the best of his life,” as a direct product of grueling 7:00 am workouts–so early that beads of water glistening on the grass adjacent to the school served as a

indoor turf, located opposite of the facility's weight room

indoor turf, located opposite of the facility's weight room

tantalizing reminder that while they toiled, the rest of the area’s 18-22-year old population slept off hangovers and wild college nights.

“He pushes you to the fullest,” one of the team’s co-captains said of the training sessions. “He doesn’t overdo it, but you walk in there and there’s no thinking. You do what he tells you to do and you get in great shape.”

Mark Gardner, a wide receiver and teammate of Meyer’s at TCNJ, remembers his first experience in the basement of Lawrenceville’s lone parochial school.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, I can’t believe there’s all this equipment at a high school,” the four-year letterman for the Lions’ out of Texas said via phone interview. “That was before I walked into the back and saw all the tires. Then my second thought was, ‘Damn, this is gonna be hard work. There’s no way I’m coming here all summer.'”

But come all summer he did, and he’s grateful for the opportunity that was provided for him and so many of the athletes that train alongside him in Notre Dame’s facilities.

“I didn’t have to pay for anything,” he said in appreciation of the off-season program’s financial implication–or lack thereof. “I could use the gym every day and just get in the best shape of my life.”

The season is still young, but for participants in the team’s first full year under McKenna’s instruction–so far, so good.

Against Buffalo State University in the team’s season opener, the offense managed to gash the Bengals for 421 yards of total offense, while the defense’s second-team unit surrendered the only points of the second half–a meaningless touchdown with the game already out of reach.


I trudged back across the strip of indoor turf, accepting in anguish my necessity to recede to square one. I snapped myself into a state of unbiased observation, absorbing every possible detail that might help me figure out whatever in the hell I was hoping to find.

I almost made it to the steel double-doors that led to the parking lot–ground-zero of the rebuilding of now two football programs and each’s athletes. To my right I saw a few pieces of construction paper taped to the wall. Stained with ink, rather than engraved with a chisel, the posters featured handwritten motivational quotables written by quite a collection of authors, ranging from Edward Everett Hale to Michael Jordan.


Though the players couldn’t be any more dissimilar in the demands implicit by their respective positions, both Meyer and Gardner paid ample attention to noting the ensuing mental toughness that began to harden the oft-flaky intra-training resiliency that’s so hard to shake for a majority of players.

“You think you’re working out hard, you think you train hard. And then you go there and he kicks the shit out of you,” Meyer said, waiving his right to disguise his summer as anything other than what it was–what McKenna had painstakingly intended it to be. “You learn what a hard workout is and you respect it. You have to. He’ll never push you too hard and he knows everyone’s limits, but he teaches you what ‘hard work’ really means.”

one of the five cardboard cut outs, referenced

one of the five cardboard cut outs, referenced above

Gardner concurred his teammate’s observation–echoing that he too had become well-familiar with McKenna’s blunt redefinition of effort.

“It makes you so mentally strong,” Gardner said, reservedly expressing how fresh (and superstitious) he feels now two weeks removed from training camp. “Nothing I’m going through with football–all the line drills, all the sprints–none of that is as hard as that hour and ten minutes with John McKenna.”

Otherwise characterized as one of few words, Gardner couldn’t help but rave about the competitive edge he’d earned.

“My mental aspect is on a whole ‘nother level now. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever went through.”

The more and more he elaborated on their perceived impact on morale and 4th-quarter moxy, Gardner’s description of his relationship with his strength coach (of all characters in his life story’s current chapter) illustrated an immeasurable impact–especially outside the thick white lines that so often showcase hell on earth.

“He helped me out–not just with working out–but I sometimes talked to him about some stuff that was going on at home,” Gardner said, about to struggle to duly accredit the man for everything he’d been given. “He just, like–I’d recommend him to anyone. He’s just a great guy.”

In fact, Meyer had much of the same to say as he concluded his recollection of his short time under John’s proverbial wing.

“What I learned, that’s going to carry out into everything I do,” Meyer said in anxious anticipation of pursuing a career in law enforcement. “When I go on to my academy training, nothing will shake me because of what I learned. If you want to ask me about life lessons and what he’s done for me–there you go. I can’t thank him enough.”


All of a sudden, it hit me like the droning screech of McKenna’s whistle that slapped his players’ eardrums in their summers’ most dire moments of angst–the Word document in the frame. That was it. It had to be.

I raced through the three rooms, likely bearing resemblance to the pre-edit footage of Adrian Peterson’s latest NFL Network ad–minus the speed, plus the shirt. I leaped over benches, dipped under squat racks and contorted my body in every which way I had to–hoping only to shave fractions of seconds off the time it took me to get to that seemingly

Larkin's letter--written in 2003, still hanging in the facility this day

Larkin's letter--written in 2003, still hanging in the facility this day

frivolous piece of paper.

There it stood, a letter addressed to John, written the better part of a decade ago.

Encased in protective glass and cemented to the concrete, looking like it belonged more in a museum than in a musty and filthy gymnasium, Andy Larkin’s name tied attribution to the author of the formal thank you note. Now a former alumnus of Notre Dame and TCNJ, now The College’s defensive backs’ coach, Larkin’s letter thanked John for, among other deeds “seeing past the 5-foot-7 frame and seeing the heart I have.”

Signed “Mighty Mouse” Larkin articulated the words to John that Meyer couldn’t, verbalizing his unconditional gratitude for tying together two otherwise succinctly different games: life and football.

“That was a long time ago, but I mean every word I said of it,” Larkin said, letting slide a grin of mild embarrassment that permeated his definitive stone-cold expression of stoicism. “He’s a man of character and integrity, and he’s humble by definition–everything you’d look for in a friend and in a mentor.”

Once I caught up with John, he conveyed what he called the wonders that everything–all his years with all his players–had done, in fact, for him.

“One of the things I’ve been most proud of here at The College, of the closeness I’ve developed with [head] Coach Ham[ilton] and Larkin and everyone, is the friendships I’ve developed with the players,” he said, cracking a smile in revelation for what I’d spent the past hour rummaging the premises. “If we don’t have anything in our lives, there’s more value in the friendships that we make in our lives. This year I think I was able to make a few of those.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2009 12:05 pm

    Anyone who comes in contact with Coach McKenna automatically knows he’s special. He’s one of the few people in this world I still call him coach,even though we’re similar in age. He examplifies and lives
    the true meaning of Coach. He’s a giant and I am proud to call him friend.

    Henri Skiba
    Skiba’s Gym

  2. September 16, 2009 6:29 pm

    You tell a good story, Matty. I don’t pay much attention to sports but you kept me entertained the entier way through, which is probably the hardest thing anyone could ever do haha good job!

  3. Nick Maruca permalink
    January 6, 2011 12:23 am

    he is one of the greatest people I have ever met. He has given so much to me in ways I cannot even describe. He is truly a unique and heaven sent individual with a heart of gold. I am honored to have 2 articles on the wall of our weight room, and to have Coach as one of my dear lifelong friends.

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