A few times a week over the summer, Virginia football players gathered inside one of their team rooms and turned their attention to the DVD playing on the big screen.
Diamond Dallas Page came into view. Forget his long flowing locks and trademark taunts. A slimmer, trimmer DDP started doing stretches and threw in a diamond cutter or two. The players followed along eagerly, taking their cues from a former professional wrestler turned new-age yogi.
As more football programs have turned to yoga as a way to improve flexibility and balance, Virginia might be the only one learning from a man who once challenged The Undertaker and appeared at WrestleMania 32 with Shaq. Director of football performance Frank Wintrich learned about DDP Yoga six years ago and became an avid follower, but he never had much success convincing players to do it at previous stops. When he told Virginia players last June he wanted them to try it, he got an immediate response.
"I'm always looking for ways to get better," center Jackson Matteo said in a recent phone interview. "When he told us we were going to do it as a team, I was all-in. It builds camaraderie, and it gets us better, and it just so happened that it was Diamond Dallas Page. It was never monotonous. We fell in love with it. We literally embraced it, and it became a huge part of what we did this offseason."
DDP used yoga to help rehab injuries he suffered during his wrestling career. He has tailored his program in a way that avoids the stereotypes that often accompany doing yoga. "I didn't develop this for yogis. I developed this for people who wouldn't be caught dead doing yoga," DDP said in a phone interview. "It's got some of the positions, but it's got rehabilitation techniques, it's got old-school calisthenics done with a slow-burn movement. When we're stretching, we're not just stretching. We're stretching and strengthening muscles, ligaments and tendons. When you can stretch and strengthen the ligaments and the tendons, this is what helps when it comes to injuries."
Wintrich estimates he had anywhere between 30-50 players show up to each session. Matteo attended every one and was so hooked, he did his own DDP impersonation at ACC Kickoff. Quarterback Connor Brewer was another regular, so taken with the workouts he decided to reach out to Page to see whether he would be willing to send a quick shout out to the Virginia team. Brewer had no connections with Page, so he looked up contact information on the internet. "I never thought anything would come of it," Brewer said.
Shortly after, Brewer got a reply from DDP himself. DDP was so happy a college football team started doing his program, he decided to produce a video for the team.
"I got goose bumps from watching it," Brewer said. "When they put the video up for the team, everyone was really fired up. You couldn't hear what he was saying, because everyone was yelling and doing the diamond cutter."
But that was not all. Wintrich decided to take it a step further and asked DDP whether he'd be willing to do a live training session with the team. Page said yes. This past weekend, coach Bronco Mendenhall had the team gather in the team meeting room. The lights went off, and a brief hype video featuring DDP played on the screen. When it ended, DDP walked into the room.
"When he walked in, the roof blew off," Matteo said. "It was unbelievable."
DDP gave the players words of advice and encouragement, finding an instant bond with Mendenhall and the way the new coach has preached work ethic and making sure everything is done the right way. Then they all went to the indoor practice facility to do a workout.
"When he was doing them live, we were all like, 'This isn't real.'" Matteo said. "I couldn't believe he was in front of us doing the exercises we had been doing all summer right in front of us."
Wintrich credits the yoga program with decreasing the nagging injuries teams usually see during fall practice. Hamstring pulls and ankle strains are down. "The eye test is the most important test. When you watch them move, their kinesthetic awareness of space has shown dramatic improvement," Wintrich said.
DDP is now working on a specific plan for the team to use to aid in-season recovery, along with an offseason program for them to follow to gain strength and flexibility.
"It is just really cool to be a part of the whole team, and I had a lot of amazing response from everybody," he said. "Everything they do is what I'm all about, so I'm excited to be there. I'm in it for the long run."