Inside his gym, which is tucked into a small shopping strip not far from the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, Todd Durkin has quietly gone about building the season's two best NFL players. This has not been an easy process for Durkin because despite training several professional athletes over the years and even dabbling with Hollywood stars, he had never met anyone as driven as LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees.
Whatever exercises he designed for them, they asked for more. When he set hours for their offseason training programs, they arrived on time and stayed late. And when they brought friends or other athletes along — people who said they wanted to try the routine too — Durkin laughed.
"Nobody could keep up with Drew and LaDainian; these guys are gritty," Durkin said. "Other guys puke when they work out with these two. They try to hang with them for maybe half an hour and then they're throwing up."
Almost every discussion about the NFL's MVP award this year revolves around two 27-year-olds in the heart of their careers, Tomlinson and Brees. Tomlinson, the key to San Diego's rise to the top of the AFC, last Sunday broke the NFL record for touchdowns in a season with 29. Brees, with 4,033 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, could be the most important reason the Saints are on the verge of winning the NFC South.
Without Tomlinson it's hard to imagine San Diego leading the NFL with 425 points this season, let alone winning 11 games. And had the Saints, with a shaky defense and a fleet of unknown receivers, not taken a chance on Brees this winter would they even have a winning record?
To think that three years ago Tomlinson stood on one foot in Durkin's gym and tried to touch the floor only to discover he was grossly imbalanced on one side of his body or that Brees stood in the same gym 11 months ago, his surgically-repaired passing shoulder in a sling, and wondered if any team would dare risk signing him to a contract.
"Let's put it this way, there are two guys that I'm working with who work to an extreme amount, more than anybody else — LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees," Durkin said.
Tomlinson has been obsessed with weight rooms and workouts ever since he was in high school in Waco, Texas, and the coach posted the starting lineup. Tomlinson was at fullback.
He didn't want to play fullback, he wanted to be a running back. And he began to get this burning feeling: Someone didn't believe in him. Why? It didn't matter that the coach was the kind of man who liked to reward his seniors and had picked his starters with that seniority in mind. Tomlinson was not yet a senior.
Tomlinson knew this, understood it and yet he found it impossible to accept. He knew he belonged at running back, but rather than complain he went for the weights.
"I got that taste of the thought, 'They don't think I'm good enough to play the position,' " he said. "And once they gave me a chance to play the position, I didn't want to let anyone down. I didn't want to give them any reason to think they were right in not playing me there in the first place."
After that he couldn't stop building his body. The obsession lasted through college at Texas Christian, where he ran for 5,263 yards, the sixth most in Division I-A history. And it continued right into the NFL with the Chargers.
It was here in San Diego, where he began searching for the right personal trainer. He tried several before settling on Durkin, who came into the complex on the day after games to do massage therapy for Chargers players. He told Tomlinson of his gym, and at the end of the 2003 season, Tomlinson said he would like to begin working with Durkin.
Durkin figured this meant they would start sometime around February, because all the players he ever knew always took breaks at the end of the season. Instead Tomlinson showed up the day after the season ended, ready to go.
As Durkin went through an assessment of Tomlinson's conditioning, he had the player stand barefoot in the gym and try to balance on one foot while picking objects off the floor. Tomlinson was fine doing this on one side of his body, but terrible on the other.
This relatively benign discovery, that he was imbalanced on one side of his body, seemed to destroy Tomlinson. At the time, he had already rushed for more than 1,600 yards in each of his previous two seasons. But suddenly that didn't matter anymore.
"He was very humbled," Durkin said. "He kind of walked around the room. I had found something he didn't do well and he didn't like it. So he went home and did the drills I gave him every day."
It's hard to know what else Tomlinson really does other than his drills. His workouts have become so intense he doesn't appear to have much time for anything else. In the beginning, Durkin would go to Tomlinson's house and discover the running back thundering up and down his stairs simply to be doing something to keep building himself up.
"I'd have to turn him down a little bit," Durkin said. "He'd take anything I told him and doubled it."
Their sessions go for hours, whether in the gym called Fitness Quest 10 or on practice fields or tracks. Durkin researches new training techniques, exercises that might challenge Tomlinson more and then tries them out on the running back. The 5-foot-10, 221-pound Tomlinson absorbs them instantly and wants more.
Asked the other day what hurts more, taking hits in a football game or his workouts, Tomlinson didn't even pause.
"Honestly, the workouts," he said.
Then he smiled slightly, as if it was hard for anyone to imagine.
"The workouts hurt so much more," he continued, "but during the season it's the reason I haven't been injured, it's because of my work. It pays off."
In his six NFL seasons, the player who has carried the ball 1,987 times and caught 394 passes has missed only one game in his career — the final one of the 2004 season when the Chargers had clinched a division title and rested their starters.
Until this year, Brees was Tomlinson's teammate in San Diego. But the Chargers had already been looking to replace him as far back as 2004, when they came out of the draft with highly touted Philip Rivers of North Carolina State.
Brees, aware that his job was in jeopardy, knew he needed to get himself in better shape. He went to Tomlinson, who brought him to Durkin. Within days, the quarterback and the running back were working out together.
They pushed each other. That is, until Brees dived on a loose football in the last game of last season and Denver's Gerard Warren fell on top of him. The collision tore Brees' labrum, requiring surgery and making the Chargers' decision to allow the 6-foot, 210-pound passer to leave as a free agent much easier.
So there Brees was, this past winter, standing in Durkin's gym, looking for the workouts that were going to make him ready by training camp.
"There was never any doubt Drew was coming back" this season, said Durkin, 35, who was himself once a quarterback at William & Mary. "He prides himself on situations where there is pressure. He loves adversity. He was saying, 'Are you kidding me? They don't think I can play again? Let's go to a whole different level. This is a whole different ballgame now.' "
Durkin had to pull Brees from the same workouts as Tomlinson. There was no way after the surgery that the quarterback could do the same upper-body exercises anymore. His shoulder couldn't handle it. But they continued to work on his legs and endurance and slowly began building strength back in the arm.
When free agency began in mid-March, the Saints and Dolphins both showed interest in Brees, but it was the Saints who ultimately gambled on his shoulder and the workouts Brees said he was doing across the country.
"I think you just have to know the kind of person I am and believe in me," Brees told the New Orleans Times-Picayune when he signed.
"It's pretty interesting when we talk about looking back at his shoulder," he said. "It's been really special to watch him."
Durkin acknowledges it has been no less rewarding watching Tomlinson, which is what he was doing last Sunday with Tomlinson's family as the running back scored his record-breaking 29th touchdown and the crowd roared and the Chargers players put him on their shoulders.
So many times Tomlinson told Durkin he wanted to be the greatest running back ever. One piece of that goal had been reached.
A few hours later, Brees, with his now-healthy shoulder, would throw for 384 yards and five touchdowns in an improbable vanquishing of the Cowboys.
"I know the blood, sweat and tears they put in to get where they're at," Durkin said.