Written by John Willkom
I showed up to the locker room an hour early. The entry door was accessible by a four-digit code, and upon entry, there was a player’s lounge, with a large TV, couches, and Gatorade machine. Moving through the lounge, the actual locker room was the next room to the left. My locker was wedged in the corner, next to Dameon Mason’s and Steve Novak’s. Already hanging there was a name plate, a Nike practice jersey with the number #10 on it, Nike practice shorts, Wigwam socks, Nike shoes, and even a pair of Marquette basketball spandex that had the logo on the waistband. I have been around a few college programs in my life, and I must admit that Marquette really went the extra mile with the custom underwear. Anything to gain an edge.
To start every practice, strength coach Scott Holsopple would take the team through a dynamic stretching routine using bands. We’d do various leg swings, and I looked over at some of the scholarship guys to make sure I was doing the right stretches.
My first couple practices went really well and were far less grueling than what I had been through in the individual workouts. It was fun having a whole team there to support you, and I’ll never forget Coach Crean during the first week of practice. There was a renewed enthusiasm that comes from starting with a blank slate. Every season is a journey: bonds are formed and tears are shed, as every member of the team, from the coaching staff to the student managers, works to maximize the collective potential of the group. The passion and excitement in his voice was unparalleled to anything I had ever seen before. 5 on 5 sets or new defensive packages that were slow to materialize were going to work, and any doubt by the players was immediately replaced by a reassuring Crean, who was as much a psychologist as he was a coach. Post practice speeches at most programs sound something like this: “Good job today. We need to work on this, this, and this. We’ll see you tomorrow.” At Marquette, Crean wanted us to see the big picture. “We are going to win,” he said. “You guys need to be competitors in everything you do. Whether it’s in basketball or business, you need to want to kick people’s ass.”
On Monday, Chris Teff, Rob Hanley, and I would have our first strength and conditioning session with strength coach, Scott Holsopple. Rob was our third walk-on and was a freshman from Waukesha Catholic Memorial (WI). Going back to Scott, the man stood about 5’8”, was built square to the ground, and always wore sweatpants. He had been an All-American boxer at Penn State University and worked there as a strength coach before arriving at Marquette. The session was scheduled for 6:00 a.m., and none of us knew what to expect. We figured he would put us through a variety of exercises to see how strong we were and set up a program thereafter based on those numbers. Chris and I were in bed by ten o’clock that night, as first impressions were important, and I wanted to be ready to perform at a high level.
I awoke the next morning to my radio alarm, put on my sweats, and had a good breakfast in my dorm room. It’s hard to explain how excited I was to go work with Scott. You’d hear stories about how tough he was, how hard he pushed guys, that “Marquette Toughness” had come from Scott Holsopple. Holsopple’s work couldn’t have been more visible than with Dwyane Wade, who arrived as skinny, 185 lb. kid and left as a 210 lb. sculpted machine.
As I made my way to the weight room, I was about 95% excited and 5% fearful about what might go on for the next hour or so. From the very second I walked through the door, Scott didn’t like me or anyone else for that matter. In fact, he didn’t say a nice thing to me for the next five months. We started with chin-ups, followed by dips and the legendary leg press. There were pictures in the weight room of guys on the leg press, and they weren’t pretty. In fact, some of the pictures just showed guys sprawled out on the floor, which I would come to learn was a common result of the exercise. For every photo that adorns a team media guide, these were the photos that made it all come to life. There would be days the rest of the year when I would be walking by the weight room, and I could always tell if someone was on the leg press because I could hear the screams from outside. Each exercise that we did didn’t have a predetermined amount of repetitions. You were expected to do as many reps as you could and then squeeze out a few more with the help of a partner. Sounds easy enough, right?
After a few sets of chins and dips, I was locked in to the leg press ready to go. After about five reps, I had nothing left because he had loaded the thing with an insane amount of weight. I figured I could maybe get one more with my partner’s help. Scott, perched over the leg press like a lion viewing his prey, said, “You need to get twenty to get out.” He didn’t say to try to get one more, or even try for ten, but twenty. At that point, I physically didn’t think I could do it; I simply wasn’t strong enough. I honestly felt like crying because each rep was more painful than anything I had ever done before, and there was a realistic chance that all this weight was going to come crashing down on me because my legs were going to snap. After loud screams and giving everything, I had made it to ten. It was a blessing just to get to double digits, but the reality was that I had ten remaining, and Scott wasn’t budging. One by one, I was yelling and pushing with every ounce of energy in my body. “Twelve,” he yelled, followed by, “Willkom’s going to waste the rest of my day, damnit!” After number 13, I honestly wanted to quit. My legs were shaking, my face was white, and I thought about how good my life had been before I walked in to meet Scott. Looking around, there was no one to bail me out or make me feel better. There was no predetermined time on a clock that would release me from Scott’s watch. This was between me and the machine. 14. I can’t do it. 15. My legs are going to freaking explode. 16. Just get me the hell out of here. 17. I can’t do it. 18. Just give up. 19. Get tough. 20.After my 20th rep, I thought, This was the hardest thing I had ever done. I couldn’t believe it was over, that I had actually finished! AsI waggled out of the machine, I tried to take a step, but I crumbled back to the floor like a rag doll. I literally collapsed. My legs were numb, and my head pounded from pushing so hard. I felt like I was going to throw up, which was shocking to me because I had never thrown up from working out, ever.
When the other two guys finished the leg press and had similar experiences, I couldn’t wait to walk out that door and relax my mind and body. I was mentally taxed and physically numb, but it was over. Scott, on the other hand, looked at the three of us with a smile on his face and excitedly proclaimed, “You guys are going to puke today!” He didn’t say “good job” or make even an ounce of effort to affirm what had just been done. A message was clearly being sent in the fewest words possible.
Following his statement, he led us over to the VersaClimber machine, and now it was obvious that the workout wasn’t over. The VersaClimber is a climbing machine that has two straps for your feet and a handle for each hand. In a standing position, as one arm goes up, the opposite foot goes down. Scott told us that we had to climb 3,000 feet in twenty minutes to be done. I had never been on a VersaClimber machine before, but I knew this was going to be hard. After about ten minutes, it was starting to look like I wasn’t going to make it unless I really picked up my speed. My shoulders ached, and my calves were numb. I kept thinking about my family, my Grandpa Willkom that had passed, and how hard I had worked to get to this point. It wasn’t about physical strength at that point because I didn’t have any. I had to forget all of that, and closing my eyes so I couldn’t see the timer, I gave it everything I had, one step at a time. I looked up to the sound of a beeping timer, indicating that my twenty minutes was up. My score? 3,002 feet, which was literally two steps above the target. Two steps! Just like that, it was over. We were free to leave, and yet none of us could even move. Scott had done his job.