Chris Hovan wants to be the best defensive tackle in the NFL. Period. He enters this season safe in the knowledge that he is already one of the best after his breakout performance last year earned him league-wide acclaim and a spot on two All Pro teams.
At 6 2" and 294 lbs. he is in the best shape of his life, which sounds like an overused cliché, until you see him walk past you in a skintight sleeveless workout shirt that showcases his sledgehammer biceps, forearms that would make Popeye blush, and thick, contoured delts worthy of Michelangelos craftsmanship. Its the physique of a man who works at it. "Your body is your biggest investment," Hovan says in a voice that makes you sit up and take notice. "If you really think about it, thats how a pro athlete makes his money."
Its 8:15 on a Tuesday morning and with the May sun rising above the side of Winter Park, the Vikings headquarters is bathed in a morning light that illuminates the complex and plunges the teams logo on the front of its indoor practice facility in deep purple shade. Outside Winter Park, the City of Lakes is well into its morning routine. Incoming commuters roll along 494 tapping their car radio buttons for last nights Twins score, and the talk about the Wilds surprising playoff run, without giving a single thought to the Vikings or their defensive leader, who eighteen weeks before the season opener, has just plopped his gym bag in front of his locker ready to go to work.
No longer is the 40-something athlete someone like George Blanda tottering out to kick a 40 yard field goal. Hes Michael Jordan hitting a fadeway jumper at the buzzer, or Roger Clemens firing a 95 mph fastball under somebodys chin, or Jerry Rice hauling in another touchdown pass. These veteran superstars are showing whats possible if an athlete dedicates himself to off-season conditioning before the aging process starts to take over.
The lesson has not been lost on Hovan, who at the tender age of 25, spouts like an evangelist at a revival meeting about the importance of staying in shape. "My philosophy is I give myself two weeks off and Im back at it. Ive always gone by a quote I heard in high school, When youre not working out your opponent is and somewhere down the road youll have to face him. Thats always in the back of my mind. If Im not working out, the guy Im facing is. Hes getting an edge on me, and I wont let that happen."
Its hard to imagine anyone, anywhere working out harder than Hovan. First on tap today, a trip to the indoor practice field where he joins about 25 of his teammates for a series of stretching and agility drills. During a water break 40 minutes later, Hovan wonders aloud in a voice thats half serious, and half joking, "Is this the warm-up or the workout?" noting that the team has yet to start running. Nearby, all pro center Matt Birk listens and laughs awkwardly in the way people do when something is really funny but also sort of painful like the running, which by the way, is up next.
Vikings strength and conditioning coach Steve Wetzel steers Hovan and the rest of the linemen into position for the first of 10 150-yard sprints. "Okay," says Wetzel with stopwatch in hand. "Go!"
The pace for the first sprint is surprisingly quick, like a peel out of a parking lot that slams you back in your car seat. Straight back, knees pumping high, breathing only slightly labored, Hovan eats up the yardage like hes chasing down Brett Favre. He finishes the first sprint in front then spends the 1-minute in between walking it off. Fifteen minutes later he turns his last 150-yard jaunt into his own personal run for glory, finishing well ahead of the pack. He turns to Wetzel and says, "Thats 10."
Last season Hovan enjoyed his best pro season after leading the Vikings with 36 QB hurries, posting a career high 73 tackles, and anchoring a defense that ranked 10th against the run, the teams best since 1995. Readying the Vikings tower of strength for his weekly Sunday battles is his own personal pit crew.
In addition to Wetzel, who maps out the various components of Hovans regimen, theres Mike Morris, the former Vikings longsnapper, whos taught Hovan the fundamentals of strength training, his deep tissue massage therapist, his rolfer, the Vikings own staff of trainers, and his chef, who spends most of his kitchen time preparing beef, chicken, and vegetables. "Im big on nutrition," says the man who has never missed a game. "I load up on protein and cut out the junk food."
Strength training and football go hand in hand, especially if youre a lineman. Hovan lifts weights four days a week intensely hitting a different body part each day. He trains for power and strength, which is a good thing when you get double teamed as much as he does.
The players gym at Winter Park is a weight lifters paradise. Its filled with scores of white enameled machines adorned with purple padding, and tons of free weights. Still, on this mid-May morning, Hovan has the place nearly to himself. Not that hes noticing. Hes concentrating on the task at hand. Its leg day, and at this moment Hovan is on his third set of 10 reps at the lying hamstring curl. "Lets go," says Wetzel as he loads the machine with 230 pounds. Hovan lies tensing for a moment staring intently into the mirror. Then with textbook form he delivers 10 solid reps with an extra squeeze at the top of each rep for good measure. "I never have to be a cheerleader with Chris," says Wetzel. "My biggest job is to make sure he doesnt do too much because he works extremely hard."
Finished with his sets, Hovan uses his shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow, looks into the mirror and flashes the contented smile that comes only from a job well done. Why does he put himself through all the sweat, the pain, the agony of it all?
"Everything I do in here translates to what I do in a game," he explains. "If Im the ultimate best in here, then Ill be the ultimate best on the field. Thats what drives me. I want my opponent to look into my eyes and know that he is beaten, to know that I have that edge on him, that he fears me, that he tells everyone in the league that man you gotta go against Hovan this week, that man is one tough S.O.B."
Sermon delivered, he pauses to let the message sink in for a moment. Then the man who aspires to be the best defensive tackle in the NFL, his work day finished, turns to head back to the locker room ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
When you hang around Chris Hovan, you talk about more than just working out. Here are Hovans thoughts on...
Sacking the Quarterback:
"Its an adrenaline rush thats better than sex."
Packer QB Brett Favre:
"He is one of the best in the game, and I will savor every minute I get to play against him because hes as competitive as I am."
Former teammate/mentor John Randle:
"A guy I thought I looked up to, but was wrong in many ways."
Playing at the Metrodome:
"Best fans in the league. They are our 12th man out there, and without them I dont know where I would get my energy from."
Vikings defensive line:
"I think our front four will be the best in the league. Ill put my name to it."
Being the best:
"I want to be the marquee guy, and I wont accept anything less. I work too hard to accept anything less. Anyone who says they want to be 2nd or 3rd doesnt deserve to be in this league."
"You see too many rookies come into this league telling everyone what theyre going to do and blah, blah, blah. But they havent proven anything yet. So until they earn the respect of their coaches and teammates, they need to shut their mouth and know their role."