Gloucester regimen no day at the beach

GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- It's 6 a.m. on a Wednesday at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, and 80 or so groggy athletes come stumbling over the wooden bridge and over the dunes. Their half-open eyes look toward the harbor, which is covered in a pea soup fog. The horizon's a seamless coat of gray, merging sea and sky into one. It seems you can swim in the air it's so humid.

Some of the teenagers are wearing T-shirts with the words "Dedication Leads to Domination" spelled out in maroon letters on the back. They wear them like badges of honor. It's proof positive they endured last summer's challenge.

Now they're back for more.

Every summer since 1995, Gloucester assistant football coach Mike Lattof has led the Fishermen through an offseason workout program. Starting in July and ending a couple of weeks before the start of the fall athletic season, Lattof orchestrates a training regimen that aims to increase speed and agility.

Most of the participants in the program are Gloucester football players, and the impact of the workouts has been evident in on-field success. The Fishermen have made three consecutive Super Bowl appearances, winning titles in '07 and '09. But the early-morning beach gatherings have taken on an importance that extends beyond football.

"You're not only building a better team, you're helping each other get better," said Gloucester High graduate and Boston College student David Linquata, who returned to Good Harbor to help with the program. "You learn to work with each other and that every person has each other's back by working together, by sweating together. You're pushing yourself past that mental limit together."

A longtime fixture in Gloucester's youth football program, Lattof, 50, joined the high school team in 1995 under then-head coach Terry Silva. His 9-to-5 work is as a financial planner. He resides in Rockport, but was born and raised in Gloucester.

At Gloucester High, Lattof played football and ran track. He described himself as an "average athlete who always worked hard at trying to be an athlete." Lattof enlisted in the Air Force after high school and while he was stationed in Hawaii, he noticed a group of high schoolers who regularly trained, running through the water on the beach near the base.

"I thought, 'Isn't that cool.'"

In its beginning, the running program was just a handful of Gloucester athletes looking to stay in shape by running in their downtime. The numbers grew steadily, and Lattof looked to integrate what other teams were doing as the program evolved. He sought out clinicians. He watched as many training videos as he could get his hands on.

Initially, the program was weighted on distance running, but Lattof wanted to incorporate the tenets of Gloucester football.

"Our theory is all out, all the time," Lattof said. "We want them to leave and say, 'I accomplished something today.' It's hard to challenge the kids now because they're in such great shape. So you're constantly trying new and different things."

The group works out three times a week. The first day is a speed day, then plyometrics, then agility. This Wednesday, the workout consisted of stretching, sprint training, change-of-direction drills, plyometric exercises and tempo runs.

Then, it's splashdown.

After roughly three hours of pushing themselves to their physical limits, the athletes dipped their sand-caked toes into the Atlantic Ocean. They finished the session with a series of sprints through the surf, immersing themselves deeper and deeper into the waves with each pass until the waterline reached their chests. Lined shoulder to shoulder and holding hands, the entire group trudged back to shore one last time. In a strange way, it's simultaneously the reward for a hard day's work and perhaps the most grueling challenge.

"It's about brotherhood," senior football captain Chris Unis said. "It's more or less after you've been running for two, three hours, and you can barely move, and someone's holding your hand, saying 'Let's go.'

"It builds trust. When you're on the field in the fourth quarter, you need to have that trust."

On the days the group meets at Good Harbor -- usually two of the three days of practice are held at the beach -- the landscape dictates the workout.

Some of the stretches and stations have playful names like the Frankenstein skips and Tapiocas. But not all of the stations are so sweet-sounding. There's a contraption called the Prowler, which is a weighted sled modified to slide (ever so slightly) on the sand.

On this Wednesday, Linquata oversaw the Prowler station, setting up a 30-yard elliptical course of cones. One by one, the athletes willed the Prowler's triangular frame through the muddied sand, with Linquata's voice guiding and encouraging them each step of the way.

"Don't you quit on me now!"

"This is the fourth quarter!"

"This is when you win the game!"

Up the beach, Lattof looked after the ropes station. The 50-pound moorings came from the Gloucester fishing pier. Grabbing the ends of the rope, the lifter is challenged to create ripples, alternating each arm. It looks simple, but it's difficult to do and works a variety of upper body muscles.

"We didn't always have the toys that we have now," Lattof said, "but we've always wanted the workout to not just be physical. It's a mental workout too. We put the emphasis of doing things perfect every time out."

The success of the program has drawn interest from others. Lattof has received calls from coaches as far away as Idaho and Texas.

Interest in the program has expanded to athletes from surrounding towns and a number of Cape Ann schools.

On a good day, there can be upward of 100 participants, ranging from sixth-graders to college students. Among them are about a dozen young women from Gloucester's athletics program.

"It's not just about football," Latoff said. "It's kids from all kinds of athletic backgrounds out there. We're not really doing anything different, but what makes it special is they're all there at 6 o'clock working their hardest. There's definitely a sense of community."

Gloucester rising senior and football captain Mike Tomaino doesn't have trouble rising at the early hour for workouts.

"Just the thought about getting back to Gillette Stadium is all the motivation we need," he said. "We want to get back to the Super Bowl and win another one. That's all the drive that we need."

Like many high school athletes, Tomaino maintains a busy schedule through the summer. After the morning running program, he'll sometimes lift weights at the high school before heading to his job as a busboy at a local restaurant. He also plays in a summer basketball league and 7-on-7 football league.

Even though his time is tight, Tomaino believes there's a tangible advantage to spending his mornings at the beach.

"In the fourth quarter, when the other team has their hands on their hips," Tomaino said, "we know that we were busting our butts all offseason."

Scott Barboza covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com.