Boyd Epley was destined for a record-setting career in pole vaulting. In 1968, a scholarship landed Epley at the University of Nebraska, where he cemented his name in the school’s record books for highest pole vault, before sustaining a back injury.
The setback ended up becoming a blessing in disguise.
While rehabilitating in Nebraska’s rinky-dink, 900-square-foot weight room that included one weight set, Epley noticed injured Cornhuskers football players mirroring his lesser-known weightlifting workout.
The beefed-up players returned to the field faster and stronger, refuting the then widely held belief that weight training would make athletes muscle-bound and slower. Nebraska assistant Tom Osborne took notice and recommended Epley for a full-time strength and conditioning coach position to Huskers football coach Bob Devaney.
Epley remembers two things from the first meeting: his pulsing nerves and Devaney’s response.
Pointing his finger at Epley, Devaney said: “If anybody gets slower, you’re fired.”
With that, Epley became the first paid strength and conditioning coach in college football in 1969. And no player got slower, either. Rather, Nebraska went on to win five national championships and produce three Heisman Trophy winners, all before Epley retired in 2006.
“It’s amazing how lifting weights has impacted billions of people,” Epley said. “It’s incredible. There’s not a sport that you can name that doesn’t have lifting weights as part of its preparation. It didn’t used to be that way. … We’ve completely changed the way an athlete prepares. That’s a very rewarding feeling for me to have been a part of that.”
Epley’s pioneering efforts didn’t end there. Years later, Epley sent more than 1,000 letters to high schools and colleges to identify other trainers. Roughly 350 replies later, a directory of strength coaches was formed.
True to form, that wasn’t enough for Epley. An organization and conference was the next step. Seventy-six trainers gathered at Epley’s Lincoln, Neb., home on July 28, 1978, to birth the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Nearly four decades later, the organization has swelled to more than 32,000 members across 72 countries.
“It’s exciting to see the growth,” said Epley, now senior director of the NSCA. “Looking at our board of directors and the new executive director, the NSCA is in tremendous hands. It’s probably as good as it’s ever been right now with a potential for more growth.”
The 36th annual NSCA National Conference was under the bright lights of Las Vegas earlier this month — a far cry from the first convention on the Nebraska campus the day after the organization was founded. More than 1,500 fitness professionals from across the country swarmed Paris Las Vegas, networking and exchanging knowledge.
“We’re all pulling from each other,” said Loren Landow, director of sports performance at Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Denver. “Some of us interpret it a little bit differently, but at the end of the day, that’s why you have these conferences: to share knowledge and ideas. That’s what makes this a very successful industry.”
Landow’s clients include Olympic athletes, NFL players and Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters.
The work Landow and other trainers put in with athletes while the camera is off makes a big difference.
“They have one of the largest impacts of anyone working with an athlete,” said Seattle Seahawks quarterback Brady Quinn, one of Landow’s clients and keynote speaker for the convention. “They put in a ton of work that’s more behind the scenes.
“… They have the ability to push your endurance levels past what you think you’re able to accomplish. They find weaknesses that you have, improve those areas and make you more well-rounded. They help give you confidence. You feel better prepared for anything in life.”
After a foot injury shortened Quinn’s 2009 season, Landow added barefoot exercises for the 6-foot-3-inch, 235-pound quarterback to prevent future setbacks. The ground provided stability for Quinn’s foot, allowing him to absorb more force.
“They’re able to stand back and see things from a different viewpoint,” Quinn said. “They’re able to push you or give you a different perspective that helps you get past those hurdles or walls you’re facing. That’s what good trainers do, provide perspective and guide the ship.”
In a way, trainers are unsung heroes, reaping little to no glory from hours upon hours of work with athletes. However, training isn’t about the celebrity status.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about the athlete,” said Landow, who has been a trainer for 18 years. “If you make it about you as the coach, then you’re not giving the athlete what they need because you’re more worried about what you’re getting in return.”
Instead of prestige, Landow relishes his clients’ accomplishments. Epley savors his five championship rings and trailblazing efforts, too.