Twice a day most every day for 15 weeks, Drew Tate would come to the Combat Sports Club in Addison, Tex., and bend over backward for his instructor, former mixed martial arts fighter Guy (The Sandman) Mezger. Literally, Tate would stand about 45 centimetres away from a wall – his back to it – then bend backward with his arms over his head until the palms of his hands were flat against the surface.
Then he would "walk the wall" down and up, over and over, stretching his back in an unnatural fashion in an effort to do one thing. "To get better," Tate said. "To become a superior athlete," Mezger said. And that's how the Calgary Stampeders' most pivotal player spent his off-season readying for the most intriguing chapter of his CFL career – by trying to become better, stronger, superior. The new Drew.
It is a cool, late afternoon in Calgary as Tate finishes the last of his two-a-day practices and the 28-year-old Texan is all wide-eyed and looking fresh. Having put in the work, he is eager for the team's preseason games and the opportunity to play again, to be back in command, shouting signals, feeling the pressure. He's certainly waited long enough for it.
Last season for Tate was about fits and misses. He was hurt on the first play of Calgary's second game, suffering a separated left shoulder. The decision was his: undergo surgery and hope to be back later in the year, or put it off until season's end? He chose the right-now approach and, as he had anticipated, Tate returned to the starter's role for the regular-season finale.
That put him in command, shouting signals in the West Division semi-final against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In the last seconds of the game, Tate completed a 60-yard pass for the winning touchdown. It was an emotional tribute, he explained afterward, to his grandmother, who had died and been buried the day before. A day after the semi-final, X-rays revealed Tate had suffered a fractured bone in his right wrist. His season was over, and the questioning began: Was Tate too brittle for his own good? Was he the quarterback to make Calgary fans forget about Henry Burris, or was he a star in the breaking?
Tate asked himself those questions, too. Then he did something about it, something his agent, Scott Casterline, had suggested. He decided to forgo another off-season in Cleveland at the SPIRE Institute, a performance-training facility inspired by former U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson. Instead, Tate signed on with the Combat Sports Club and a man who had won world titles in MMA, the tough-as-cinder-blocks Mezger.
They got along instantly.
"If you really want to talk about a warrior, that is exactly what that guy is," Tate said of Mezger. "He had to be on top of everything he did in order to keep on fighting as long as he did. He strives for excellence. Other football guys would come in there and kind of BS and go through the workout but that's not the kind of person I am. That's not how I approach my work. I'm very similar to Guy."
Mezger had a plan for his football student. The goal wasn't to turn him into an MMA fighter à la the Toronto Argonauts' Chad Owens, who competed without informing his CFL bosses. It was to strengthen Tate while making him more flexible so he could take hits from opposing players.
"I see the traditional training method [for football players] and I believe it's wrong," said Mezger, a 45-year-old former high school linebacker who fought for nine years in MMA and also competed in kick boxing and full-contact karate. "The idea was to strengthen his body if he gets hit in a weird angle or gets a hip bent or something. It was to make him bulletproof. That's how it works in football. You need muscles to absorb shock and to propel. You have to build a connection neurologically with your muscles.
"Nothing in your body functions without your brain doing it."
To hone that connection and to increase his range of flexibility, Tate did a lot of wall walking and box jumping. He worked with kettle bells, the kettle-shaped weights used hundreds of years ago by the Russians. The results came quickly.
"We got him 60 per cent stronger in eight weeks," Mezger said. "He could dead lift 280 pounds. Now he does 360 for reps. When he first did a squat, he could barely get into a sitting position. Now he holds 32-kilo kettle bells in each hand and can squat so his butt hits his heels."
Nothing is guaranteed when a 265-pound defensive lineman rushes in unblocked. But knowing the improvements he's made has hardened Tate's resolve to succeed. He sounded much like Mezger when talking about the combination of mind and body and the willingness to try new things such as meditation, which Tate is exploring.
"It makes you very dangerous if you have both [physical and mental dexterity]," Tate said. "Anybody can have one. You have two, you have something special."
The Stampeders remain convinced Tate can be someone special, the way he was in the few games he played last season and completed 73 per cent of his passes. Dave Dickenson, Calgary's offensive co-ordinator and quarterback whisperer, has watched Tate through training camp and noticed some changes, not so much in his game but in his persona. "He's more boisterous," Dickenson said. "I think he has taken more of a leadership role. He's focused, he's excited." He wants another shot to see if he can come in, be that starter, be that leader, have that great year. Honestly, when he's playing well and starting, I think he gives us a great chance to win."
The new Drew understands that the only way he can answer the questions about his health is to play and play well. Undoubtedly, this is his team. Backup Kevin Glenn had a nice run in relief, but came undone in the 2012 Grey Cup. To win it all, Calgary needs more from the position, more potential and deliverance.
On this cool, late afternoon at McMahon Stadium, Tate is charged with confidence knowing full well what it means for him to be healthy and make good as the Stampeders' No. 1 quarterback.
"What did you learn from last year?" he is asked. "That if I put my mind to it, I can do anything," Tate said. "I know that's a cliché but I believe it."