HOUSTON — WEARING BLACK Crocs accented with two Quick U buttons, Pittsburgh Steelers operating again Najee Harris shuffles by way of the doorways of O Athletik simply after 9 a.m. Muhammad Ali’s likeness stretches throughout the again of his black T-shirt. A black Nike boxing backpack is slung over a shoulder.
Contained in the cavernous downtown Houston fitness center — co-owned by NFL gamers Adrian Peterson and Trent Williams with coach James Cooper — Harris fist-bumps his technique to the again, the place a small group of NFL gamers, boxers and native athletes have gathered to stretch earlier than the morning exercise.
As soon as within the again nook, Harris takes a seat on the black rubberized flooring and trades his Crocs for a pair of sunset-colored Nike Air Max 270s.
In a day with three distinct forms of exercises, Harris’ footwear modifications are checkpoints. Over the following 12 hours, the 24-year-old runs by way of a gauntlet of exercises in mid-July as he prepares for his second NFL season.
“Najee’s like, if we’ve got to elevate a truck up over our head, then that is what we’re doing,” mentioned Cooper, who has labored with greater than 700 skilled athletes. “He isn’t wanting to do it like he’ll harm himself. He is wanting to do it to study it, to grasp the motion and get higher at it.”
After main all rookies in touches a yr in the past, Harris is primed for an additional massive season, although his coaching camp has been truncated after an offensive lineman stepped on his left foot. Head coach Mike Tomlin mentioned the Steelers want Harris to stay a dominant, lead operating again, and whereas offensive coordinator Matt Canada mentioned Harris’ quantity of carries in all probability will not enhance, his effectiveness can be a bellwether for the offense.
To organize, Harris spent the offseason doing an intense routine of exercises to fine-tune his physique. It additionally served to strengthen him mentally, bolstering his confidence to deal with the challenges forward, together with filling the management void created by Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement.
“I feel he’d be ready to take a big step when it comes to embracing management and duty, no matter who else is within the huddle with him,” Tomlin informed ESPN. “That is simply the place he’s, and what he is performed and the place he needs to go.”
On this present day, Harris outlined that management by ending his exercise schedule because the solar set on an empty highschool soccer stadium close to Houston.
“If I am the final one on the sector,” Harris defined, “I do know one thing deep down, perhaps it is subliminal, I am working tougher than all people.”
Air Max 270
AS TEMPERATURES CLIMB in tandem with the unforgiving Texas solar, Harris stands in his pink, orange and yellow ombre Air Max sneakers on the backside of a steep, turf-covered hill behind the fitness center.
Sharply rising at a 42-degree angle above the car parking zone, the 25-yard incline is the primary hurdle of the day. In waves, Harris and the group hop, dash, backpedal and bear crawl up and down the city mountain, sweat pouring after a number of repetitions.
That is simply the warm-up.
Harris has been a fixture at these classes since connecting with Peterson in 2021 as Harris ready for the draft. After Harris completed his profession at Alabama, Peterson invited him to Cooper’s referral-only coaching classes at O Athletik.
Cooper remembers standing beside Peterson and watching Harris calm down after one in every of his first exercises final yr. With a chaw of tobacco in his mouth, Peterson spit into his cup and shook his head.
“He’ll be good,” Peterson mentioned to Cooper. “He goes onerous. He’ll be a type of guys who appears to be like like you have to defend him from himself just a little bit.”
Throughout the 2021 season, Harris performed extra snaps than every other operating again — averaging 54.6 per recreation, per Subsequent Gen Stats. The closest was Colts second-year again — and NFL speeding chief — Jonathan Taylor at 42.9 snaps per recreation. Harris additionally led all operating backs in taking part in 84% of offensive snaps. Taylor, second once more, checked in at 69%.
Whilst one of many league’s greatest three-down backs, Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings’ all-time main rusher, by no means performed greater than 76% of offensive snaps in a season.
“He is a big-bodied child,” Peterson mentioned. “I caught myself a pair instances taking a look at him. I am like, golly, this boy’s thick. He isn’t fats in any respect. He is simply big-boned. He is thick and robust, and people massive quads. These massive legs and higher physique. He is well-put collectively. He is like the right dimension for a operating again.”
The 6-foot-1 Harris is coaching like he is by no means going to return off the sector. A part of that preparation is additional sculpting his physique right into a hybrid power of energy and sturdiness. And, sure, meaning placing on just a little additional weight.
Listed at 232 kilos a yr in the past, Harris is adamant he performed nearer to 242. At obligatory minicamp, Harris introduced he weighed 244.
“You want a certain quantity of fats and a certain quantity of weight relying in your operating type,” Cooper mentioned. “Najee is having to search out that. He is in nice form, as a result of in case you solely go up a number of kilos and also you appear to be He-Man, however you are still shifting like a Ferrari, that is nice. That is a part of the maths.”
WHEN HARRIS RETURNS to O Athletik after a fast lunch of turkey lettuce wraps and a grilled rooster kale salad, he slips off the black Crocs once more.
This time, he replaces them with a pair of pink and white HyperKO boxing sneakers.
Harris first approached Cooper and Marshall Kauffman, a coach at O Athletik and a boxing promoter, about boxing a yr in the past. He confirmed up at O Athletik on his first time off from group coaching to ask for extra. Whereas most in Cooper’s exercise group have been resting and recovering, Harris wished to maintain going.
“I mentioned, ‘OK, you have not had sufficient,'” Cooper mentioned. “All proper, that is good, that is attention-grabbing. I mentioned, ‘OK, let’s field.'”
This afternoon, Harris is the lone member of the morning exercise group nonetheless at O Athletik, however that is not out of the abnormal. He ties his sneakers and rests on a bench in entrance of the ring whereas Kauffman tapes Harris’ wrists and tugs a pair of blue and pink boxing gloves over his arms.
First, they undergo a maze of heavy luggage and work on endurance, Harris operating by way of totally different durations of nonstop boxing. Then it is over to the velocity bag, and at last into the ring the place he hits the mitts.
Marlen Esparza, a world champion flyweight boxer, can be coaching with Cooper in preparation for her upcoming battle.
In Esparza, Harris discovered a buddy and boxing mentor. Early on in his Houston coaching, he began warming up with Esparza on the treadmill, operating longer distances to match her output.
“He is sturdy,” Esparza mentioned, analyzing Harris’ boxing approach. “He has good stability. He is aware of distance. He is fast, however he can relax. He has his coronary heart price right. … He jogs my memory of nice folks the place in case you say you wanna do one thing, you will do it.”
NAJEE HARRIS WITH THE GROWN MAN STIFF-ARM 🤯
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 19, 2021
The crossover between soccer and boxing is not new. Different gamers, akin to Peterson and Williams, have integrated it into their offseason coaching for years, discovering worth in boxing’s hand-eye coordination and strategies that may translate onto the sector, like a stiff-arm.
For Harris, boxing satiates his aggressive nature within the offseason and is one other device to arrange him for a big workload.
“In boxing, they prepare to go the gap, to go 15 rounds,” Harris mentioned. “In soccer, I all the time need to prepare myself to go all 4 quarters, as a result of we performed a whole lot of tight video games final yr. To go 15 rounds, that is one thing that we all the time say in soccer. Simply beating the person in entrance of you, discover methods. I fell in love with boxing.”
Zoom Rival XC 5
BEFORE DRIVING 45 minutes for his remaining exercise of the day, Harris stops at JuiceLand for a smoothie and watermelon juice — a latest favourite of his for its hydration and status for rushing up restoration.
By no means nonetheless for lengthy, Harris jumps up after ending his juice and heads dwelling to seize his remaining pair of sneakers for the day. He arrives at Fulshear Excessive College simply after 5 p.m. and begins out carrying his Air Max 270s for warm-ups directed by Will Collins, a monitor guru who runs Quick College, a operating program that caters to elite athletes. Collins analyzes each facet of operating, from velocity to type to foot strike to get-off strategies. Harris discovered him when he began asking round for the most effective monitor coach in Houston.
Figuring out with a bunch that features an Olympic skeleton racing athlete, collegiate monitor stars, an NFL extensive receiver and highschool monitor prodigies, Harris slips on a vest and a pair of white Zoom Rival XC 5s. Spikes emerge from the new pink soles, gripping the monitor as he runs a collection of 100-meter sprints whereas Collins and his assistant monitor an array of stats which might be transmitted onto a laptop computer from the vest.
In between sprints, Harris sits on the turf because the day catches as much as him, ultimately mendacity susceptible, his head resting on his arms. He talks about the necessity to work out, but it surely’s not simply to get bodily stronger.
“I must really feel assured in myself,” Harris mentioned. “I must really feel like I am able to endure a load if it is positioned upon me for the Steelers, like I did final yr.
“I all the time need to do higher, I need to do extra,” he continued. “I do not need to take something frivolously or with no consideration.”
“I must really feel assured in myself. I must really feel like I am able to endure a load if it is positioned upon me for the Steelers, like I did final yr.”
Because the solar slips behind the highschool, Harris walks to his automotive to move again to his condo in Houston. He’ll get dwelling between 10 and 10:30, generally later if he stays to research his operating knowledge with Collins or stops for a steam room session.
“Individuals would possibly say I would do an excessive amount of,” Harris mentioned. “However I need to really feel snug after I step on the sector.
“And if I really feel like I did not do as a lot or if I really feel like I cheated the sport or one thing, then I will get mentally defeated in a approach.”
Harris’ coaches aren’t fearful concerning the operating again’s workload as a result of they belief him to know his limits.
“That is who he’s, and that is what acquired him right here,” operating backs coach Eddie Faulkner mentioned. “Throughout the season, it is by no means been a difficulty the place he is doing an excessive amount of and it is conserving him from being who he must be for us.”
The subsequent day is Wednesday, sometimes an off day, however not this week.
In lower than 12 hours, Harris will shuffle by way of the door of O Athletik, Crocs on his toes and the following change of sneakers in his bag.