WOLCOTT, Colo. — Daddy is sweating and it’s hot, but Andrew Whitworth’s boys don’t notice. It’s time for a ride, in what’s become an annual offseason tradition, and it’s time for dad to provide the push.
Whitworth removes a couple of bags of golf clubs from the back of the golf cart in an effort to lighten the load, as sweat continuously drops from his graying goatee. The Los Angeles Rams’ 37-year-old left tackle pauses, trying to gather his breath, then leans over and finds his grip.
His 7-year-old son, Michael, yells from the passenger’s seat, “We’re ready!” and the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Whitworth begins to push. The cart inches forward, and 8-year-old son Drew hollers from the driver’s side, “What a ride!”
It’s the final Monday in June, four days into the Whitworth family’s retreat to their offseason home high in the mountains of Colorado. Whitworth’s wife, Melissa, and two daughters remain in their hometown in Louisiana for a few extra days, as Whitworth takes on the challenge of starting his offseason workout regimen with Michael and Drew in tow. His boys are old enough to shadow dad as he plows through his grueling routine, but young enough to still get a kick out of the wild physical feats that he can pull off.
As Whitworth pushes the 900-pound golf cart, carrying his two 50-plus-pound kids across the driveway, his calf muscles flex and veins begin to bulge. After exhausting his strength, Whitworth retreats to the shade inside his three-car garage, which has been partially converted into a home gym.
“Want to go again?” Drew hollers before he puts the cart in reverse.
For Whitworth, who went through a 30-minute strength circuit prior to the push, trying to catch his breath in the thin mountain air, this portion of the day’s workout is over. Drew and Michael won’t get another free ride.
It’s Day 1 of Whitworth’s offseason program, one he must ease into at an altitude well more than a mile high — where your heart rate races even when you’re at a standstill, a satisfying breath is challenging to find, and the air is so dry that lip balm must remain a fixture in your pocket.
“I feel pretty good,” Whitworth says through a heavy breath, nearly 10 minutes after the great golf cart push. “Most of the time after these workouts, you feel pretty alive just because of the altitude.”
Training at altitude forces muscles to work harder due to the lack of oxygen in the air. It can also produce more red blood cells. It’s yet another way Whitworth is trying to extend his NFL career.
The start of Whitworth’s 14th NFL training camp remains five weeks away. The four-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro has gone to great lengths to find new ways to motivate his mind and move his body. Over the span of his career, his workouts have ranged from prototypical Olympic weightlifting to carrying stones up the mountainside. Some of his workouts seem outside the box, if not unprecedented for an NFL player. But for all the crazy, as he describes it, it continues to pay off.
“I almost, in some ways, feel better now than I ever did,” Whitworth says. “I think I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been in.”
But at age 37, Whitworth is the oldest lineman in the NFL, and how much longer he can hold the title remains the biggest question.
“I still feel really good,” he says, although he acknowledges there are some bumps and bruises from football — swollen ankles and knees, battered hip labra — that will never quite feel the same. “If I feel like I can’t go out and perform the way that I think I should be, then I just won’t be able to do it.”
So onward Whitworth goes into another Colorado summer, training to keep his mind sharp, his body energized and his career alive at 7,880 feet.
Inside the weight room at West Monroe High School in West Monroe, Louisiana, a wall features a distinguished list of the top weightlifters to pass through the Rebels’ powerhouse program.
The top spot in any category — bench, squat and power clean — is a proud accomplishment. But, according to Casey Sanders, West Monroe’s strength coach for the past 30 years, there’s one category that means the most.
“In the history of West Monroe,” Sanders says, “normally our best power cleaners are our best football players. [Players] kind of know that.”
Whitworth set the standard when he cleaned 390 pounds before his senior season. For good measure, he set the record in the bench press, too, when he pressed 350 pounds. But it was the power clean mark that stood for 13 years until future Alabama and Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Cam Robinson beat it by 10 pounds.
Whitworth, however, still left a lasting legacy. “His work ethic was great,” Sanders says. “He just loved football and he loved training. … That’s one of the biggest keys that he had going for him.”
Whitworth says Sanders became the biggest factor in his success. “He was the baseline and the foundation,” he says, and Whitworth took that knowledge with him to LSU, then on to Cincinnati, after the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2006 draft.
Through 11 seasons with Cincinnati, Whitworth developed an annual routine that former Bengals strength coach Chip Morton fondly looks back on. Whitworth would walk into Morton’s office, fold into a chair and rest his hands on his knees as a mischievous grin grew across his face.
“I knew what was coming,” Morton says through laughter, as he launches into a detailed explanation of Whitworth’s postseason routine.
“He would come in and sit down and say, ‘OK, it’s that time of the year, what are we going to do?’” Morton says. “We would just discuss things and I would give him leads and ideas and he would just dive in and pursue it.”
After his five-year career at LSU, Whitworth arrived in Cincinnati well-versed in weightlifting, and really anything that required brute strength.
“I think he’d tell ya,” Morton says, “when he came to us, he was a certified meathead.”
But together with Morton, Whitworth diversified his strength.
One offseason, he was interested in becoming more fluid in his movements, so he took up yoga. At another point, he wanted to find a low-impact cardio solution, so Morton suggested Whitworth purchase a 95-pound chain to haul across the field. Days later, Whitworth showed up with his new purchase on display.
“It’s one thing to say it, or to understand the concept of taking care of your body or getting into training,” Morton says. “It’s another thing to commit to it, and invest your own personal capital into it and your own personal time and all that. That’s what set Andrew apart.”
Whitworth trained in Muay Thai fighting, mixed martial arts and CrossFit. He also took private training in jujitsu. “I had to call in someone big enough to fight him,” says Jon Stutzman, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who trains at a gym in Ohio but stood no match for the amateur Whitworth. “He was gargantuan.”
As Whitworth grew older, and inspired by Morton, he became a big fan of weighted carries — simply walking with heavy weights. The exercises increased his stamina and became an alternative to cardiovascular fitness that wouldn’t require as much running and pounding on his body.
“I think it was as much to save his body and find different ways to train his body to prolong things and not just be a slave to barbell training only,” Morton says.
“Drew, keep your arms straight — your left arm, keep it straight the whole time,” Whitworth says, as he lines up next to his boys at the driving range. Drew takes his dad’s advice, then hits a clean shot, straight ahead. “Yessir, real clean ball, dude.”
Whitworth pulls his own customized clubs — everything two inches longer — out of the bag. After he places a few chip shots on the green, he pulls out his driver.
“I can hit it a long way,” he says, as his stoic face hints at a grin. “But it’s not controlled.”
A loud whoosh sends a drive 315 yards from the tee.
“Wow!” Michael says. “It’s going to be really hard to beat that.”
For Whitworth, even while downing sliders with his kids at the snack shack, golf counts as workout. On any given day in Colorado, he will play 18 to 36 holes after his morning workout.
“It gives me an opportunity to reset mentally and physically to get out and sweat and just move the body and keep things working the way they should,” Whitworth says. “It just a great balance to being an athlete to play golf and to have an opportunity to have something else to work at that’s totally just not anything like football.”
It also provides time to spend with his family. Michael and Drew have taken to it, and they’re days away from competing in a father-son tournament. Melissa, their daughters and their longtime family nanny, Krista Howard, will play in a family scramble.
But on this day, it’s just the boys. And Whitworth, appearing slightly fatigued, plays coach, chauffeur and referee as things get chippy from hole to hole.
“Great job, Mike, keeping that arm out in front of you,” Whitworth hollers from the cart path to the random spot where he told the boys to tee off. “There you go! Good job, buddy!”
After playing nine holes, more or less, in no particular order but rather to avoid any other patrons, Whitworth navigates a return to the house, parks the cart and makes his way to sit on the outdoor couch on the back deck.
He stares out at an expansive view of the Rocky Mountains. Steamboat Springs is far in the distance. He has something of a thousand-mile stare as he ponders his football mortality. He’s put his mind and body through pain, whether it be in an offseason workout or playing last season through two sprained ankles. He admits he’s a glutton for punishment when it comes to training, so he can enjoy other life moments without feeling an ounce of guilt.
Whitworth, who is in the final season of a three-year, $36 million contract, talks through all the reasons why he’ll continue to play — and why he never actually considered retiring last season despite the overwhelming assumption, both inside and outside of his circle, that he would.
There’s the pursuit of a return trip to the Super Bowl and the chance to build a Rams organization that not long ago was mired in mediocrity into a three-time division winner. There’s also the years of hard work that have kept his body moving, an investment he’s not ready to forfeit.
“It’s going to come down to being able to still play at a level that … if I feel like I can’t go out and perform the way that I think I should be, then I just won’t be able to do it,” Whitworth says. “I’m not going to go out there and struggle and be OK with it.
“So if I don’t feel like I can go out there and play, then that’s when it’s going to be done for me.”