Mike Barwis stepped out of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel just off Columbus Circle earlier this week and he couldn’t even make it to the street before being recognized.
The former Michigan strength and conditioning coach had been used to this in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Morgantown, West Virginia, and occasionally in airports before. It was a small part of celebrity for someone involved with college athletics, for a man who has helped paralyzed individuals walk again and who has a distinct personality even in the world of strength training.
Usually, the recognition would come as thanks for training college athletes or for doing a good job with a specific player. The past few weeks, that has changed.
Over the past three years, Barwis has opened his own training center, BarwisMethods in Plymouth, Michigan. He has trained over 30 NFL athletes. He began consulting with the New York Mets. And earlier this month, he had a television show, “American Muscle,” debut on the Discovery Channel.
Strength coach – welcome to the new reality of reality television star.
“Literally came out of the Mandarin, hit the street, walked on the sidewalk and the bellhop, he said, ‘Hey man, your show is absolutely sick,’" Barwis told ESPN earlier this week. “I had to stop for a minute because I’m used to, ‘I really respect you and your coaching and I love your energy.’ I’m not used to ‘your show is really sick.’"
The attention might grow after Wednesday night. After a debut episode featuring Richard Sherman, the second episode features polarizing Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who worked out with Barwis and his crew for a few days during the offseason.
After the show was greenlit, producers Chris and Mike Farah – "Funny or Die" producers who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, – hoped Suh could participate because of his national name along with his local ties to Detroit.
Suh’s sister and manager, Ngum, had come down to the facility and helped work everything out for her brother, who is becoming a reality television show veteran. This is his third foray into reality TV after “Splash” and a dating show called “The Choice.”
The difference with this show is there is actual benefit in terms of training and strength for Suh.
During Wednesday night’s episode, Suh was challenged heavily by Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Mike Martin, who trained with Barwis both at Michigan and then during every offseason since leaving school prior to the 2012 NFL draft.
Martin particularly went after Suh during lifts and then during sprints. Part of what Barwis and his crew of people were trying to do was push Suh to his mental limit to see if they could get him to react. By the end, almost everyone involved had a positive impression of Suh.
“His physiological capabilities are extremely impressive,” Barwis said. “He is a different guy. He’s not your average dude. What he can do physically, it’s impressive. To me, the way he does it, as strong as he is, as good of body control [as he has] and making adjustments on the fly.
“To biomechanical assessments and things that we were saying, like move this foot here, place that there, this guy can just do it. He’s a world class athlete. There’s a reason he’s an All-Pro status football player. He is the real deal when it comes to his physical capabilities.”
One of the things Barwis tried to fix was foot placement when Suh was coming off the line. This is detailed in the episode, but he fixed Suh’s mechanics with his toes to help with his speed coming off the line.
And Suh was clearly challenged throughout the episode – but he expected that.
“People like to definitely challenge me,” Suh said during the episode. “They see the way I play and they want to see how they measure up to me.”
Some other highlights from Wednesday night’s episode:
One of the other trainers at the facility, known as “Tank Dog,” is a die-hard Packers fan. When Suh showed up, the trainer was wearing a Packers jersey, to which Suh said “Take that weak jersey off.” He also covered Suh's car with a Packers banner and Packers signs.
Tank Dog also questioned Suh on his 2011 stomp of Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, but Suh wouldn’t go there. He continually just said “Man, that’s in the woods, man. That’s in the woods, man.”
Suh on people judging him: “People are always going to judge you. It’s a matter of do they take the time to make that correct judgment of who you are. There’s things that I’ve done in the season in the past that I can learn from and do better, so I don’t make the same mistakes.”
To me, one of the notable things in the episode was toward the end, when Suh was determined to finish a workout even though his sister was telling him he had to go. Suh ignored it and kept going. That also seemed to strike Barwis.
“That’s the kind of guy you want,” Barwis said. “It’s like picking a team and you’re telling me the guy has ridiculous athletic ability, is incredibly bright and likes to train? Sign him up.”