By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Some of the most accomplished football players in UVa history were about to wrap up a grueling workout when Scott Wachenheim walked into the McCue Center weight room Tuesday afternoon.
Not wanting the Cavaliers’ offensive line coach to miss out on the fun, they invited Wachenheim, 48, to join them for several sets of abdominal exercises.
“I don’t want to embarrass you pro athletes,” Wachenheim said, tongue firmly in cheek.
A moment later, though, the former Air Force Academy standout was on his back, ready for crunches, situps and whatever else would be thrown his way. Graduate assistant Marques Hagans was persuaded to take part, too.
“Group abs!” St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long called out, a broad smile on his face.
With the NFL lockout in its fifth week, the league’s players need a place to train. For Long, Cedric Peerman, John Phillips, Clint Sintim and Tom Santi, that place is UVa, where each starred for Al Groh.
“It’s been great,” Long said. “It’s like we’re in school again, without classes.
“I think we have everything we need here to get better and to rehab successfully. We have the time to do it right now. All we got is each other here, and we work out as hard as we can.”
Evan Marcus, better known to his charges as Coach E, supervises the group.
For four of Groh’s nine seasons at Virginia — 2003, ’04, ’05 and ’06 — Marcus was the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach. After four seasons in the NFL, the past three with the Miami Dolphins, Marcus is back at UVa, this time under Groh’s successor, Mike London.
In winter conversations with Long and other former Cavaliers, Marcus made it clear that they were welcome to train at UVa if the NFL, as expected, instituted a lockout in early March. London, who was a UVa assistant when the players were in school, spread the word, too.
“I remember when the lockout was nearing, I got an e-mail from Coach London saying, ‘Hey, if you need to work out, do rehab, what have you, please feel free to come back here. The doors are open,’ ” said Sintim, a linebacker with the New York Giants.
“So that just shows you how much they want us to be here, and how much we want to be here. There’s a familiarity, because Coach E is back, and he knows me, he knows Chris, he knows all these guys. It makes it more comfortable for us to come back and just work out as if we still go to school here.”
Long said: “With Coach E coming back and how welcoming they’ve been to guys coming back and working out here, it was kind of a no-brainer for us.”
In his final year with the Dolphins, Marcus had designed a 12-week offseason program, and that’s what the UVa alumni have been following this spring.
It means more work for Marcus, who oversees the group four times a week, for about 90 minutes a day. But he’s not complaining.
“You always kind of think they’re still your guys, and I’m not going to turn my kids out,” Marcus said. “They’re guys that have put their blood and sweat and tears into the program. You’re not going to turn your back on those kids. You’re going to embrace ’em. You want to help those guys. You want to help the program. It’s great to have those guys around so [the current players] can see them, see how hard they work, see what their work ethic is like, see how they attack the weights.”
None of the players on UVa’s 2011 roster was here during Marcus’ first stint in Charlottesville, so the alumni’s presence in the weight room helps “reinforce what you stand for,” he said. “They believe in the program, or otherwise they wouldn’t be back here. So all of the sudden these young kids are looking around and saying, ‘Wow, if these guys are doing it, there must be something to it.’ “
Also back in Charlottesville is Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Nate Collins, who was an all-ACC performer for the Wahoos. But Collins is taking classes at UVa this semester and has been training on his own.
Long, Peerman, Santi and Sintim were part of the recruiting class that arrived at UVa in 2004. Phillips enrolled a year later.
Each of the five is now recovering from an injury, so they can’t all do the same lifts and exercises.
“We are dealing with different things, but there’s always a solution to the problem, so whatever the exercise is, we can find an alternative,” Marcus said.
On Tuesday, when Marcus took Long and Phillips outside to do agility drills on the practice field and then run in the sand pit, Santi and Sintim remained in the weight room. (Peerman, a tailback with the Cincinnati Bengals, had car trouble that day and missed the session.)
Phillips, a tight end with the Dallas Cowboys, tore his ACL last August. He’s well into his rehab, but neither Sintim nor Santi is as far as along.
Sintim tore his ACL in December. Santi, a tight end with the Indianapolis Colts, had microfracture knee surgery about seven months ago.
“I think we all of kind of mix and match,” said Long, who had surgery on his right hand after the 2010 regular season. “We get creative and try not to miss anything. Just substitute something, as far as the workout goes. But I can do all, obviously, all the stuff outside, whereas Clint might not be able to run as much.”
Marcus said his program encompasses lifting, speed development, conditioning and agility drills, “so whenever the lockout ends and they go back to their team, they have been put in a position to do everything.
“If the lockout ended tomorrow, I think they could go back to their facility and be fine. And that’s the whole point. Whenever the lockout ends, I want these guys to go back and feel great, that they’ve been training hard, they’re in good condition, their strength is great, their explosiveness is great, and that they can step right in and not get hurt.”
On a personal level, Marcus said, he’s enjoyed working again with players who were in their teens when they first walked into the McCue Center.
“They’re good guys,” he said. “They’re all friends, and I can be a little different with them now, because they’re grown men. I don’t have to be the disciplinarian. They’re here on their own. They’re here because they want to be.”
The alumni interact regularly with London’s players, and that’s helping to “rebuild the culture of Virginia football,” Sintim said.
Long said: “It’s like a big family here, and I think that’s an important thing. You see some other programs where guys come back to train in the off-season. The timing was funny. The lockout happens and Coach E comes back at the same time for us, so it really worked out well, and hopefully this is a trend where guys will want to come back and train in the offseason.
“It’s good for us to be able to come back, and it’s good for the players to see that we have a strong alumni base. And that’s good for the program.”