Pushing the Limits

Jerry Rice’s father was a brick mason. In the summers, Jerry and his brothers would go to work with their father. Sometimes young Jerry would throw bricks up to his brothers on the scaffolding above. Other times, he’d be on the receiving end. One of his brothers would throw the bricks up two at a time, and Jerry would snatch them out of the air, one with each hand.

Those are the origins of the greatest hands in football history. Hall of Fame hands.

When Redline Films came to me in the summer of 2007 and pitched me the idea for Dhani Tackles the Globe — a TV show for which the premise was that I would travel to a different place each week, learn a local sport (as well as the area’s culture and customs) and then compete against the locals in that sport — I thought it was a cool concept. I thought it would be a great experience, mentally and spiritually. It would also expand my growing portfolio of off-the-field endeavors.

But I also thought about Jerry Rice. How throwing and catching bricks improved the strength of his grip. It was basically cross-training, before people cross-trained.

Heading into my eighth year in the NFL, I had recently been released by the Eagles. I was looking for a new team and I thought the physical challenges of this proposed TV show could help me become a more well-rounded athlete — and a better football player.

So I agreed to shoot a sizzle, which is basically a demo reel for production companies to use when they pitch a show to networks.

After shooting the sizzle, I got a call from the Saints inviting me to training camp. I thought I had a pretty good chance to compete for a starting job. I made it through the first couple rounds of roster cuts, and I was feeling pretty good about my chances.

Then came the final cuts.

And I got released.

When the game of football is done with you, it will let you know. Very few players — even great ones — get to leave the game on their own terms. Football is a business, and business can be cruel.

I had been cut by two different teams in the same summer. The season was days away, and I didn’t have a team. I wondered, Is this the game telling me that it’s over?

If so, I had options. I had my other business interests I could focus on. I could transition into TV, either by trying my hand at acting or working as an analyst for one of the networks.

Then about three weeks into the season I got a call from the Bengals. They had been hit with some early injuries, which opened up some roster spots. So I went from not having a job and wondering what my future had in store for me, to starting at outside linebacker for an NFL team.

During my first season with the Bengals, Redline Films had some success with the Dhani Tackles the Globe sizzle, and it got picked up by the Travel Channel. That following winter, we shot the pilot.

Dhani Tackles the Globe was off and running.

It’s no coincidence that the best years of my career coincided with me doing the TV show. I led the Bengals in tackles three years in a row and was voted a defensive captain for the 2007-10 seasons.

It’s the Jerry-Rice-brick-catching effect. I was testing myself physically in ways I had never been tested, and it was kind of fortuitous in terms of how the different sports were scheduled, because I would go from one sport to the next, and each sport would teach me something different, or test me physically in a different capacity.

When I was in Switzerland, I took on the Swiss sport of schwingen, which is basically a form of wrestling — a total-body exercise. In Italy, I was cycling 60–70 miles a day up the steep Italian Alps, which improved my overall endurance. In Thailand, I was kickboxing, which is just brute strength. In Croatia, I competed in water polo, which also tests endurance, but it’s nonimpact, so it’s a different workout altogether.

And the whole time, I had my own trainer with me from the States to make sure I was still staying football-focused with my workouts.

I was on the road for 100 days between the 2008 and ’09 seasons. I came home one day before training camp and went back to work with the Bengals. I did the same thing the following year for Season 2 of the show.

Like I said, it’s no coincidence that from 2008 to ’10, I was the leading tackler on a Bengals defense that ranked as high as No. 4 in total defense.

It was due in large part to what I was doing with the TV show.

Yeah, it was hard work traveling to places I’d never been and doing workouts and learning sports I’d never played before. But it was also fun. After years of doing the same mundane football workouts ad nauseam, this was something new. This was fresh, and it didn’t feel like work. I was enjoying it.

But I think the most important benefit was that these new challenges allowed me to push myself harder than any traditional football workout could have at that point. I reached levels I never knew I could reach.

Let me explain: If you’re playing football, you know when you reach that point of exhaustion or burnout that you’ve got to push through — that endurance limit that you’re always trying to extend. That’s the mental aspect. Pushing through when you feel like you’ve reached your physical limit.

But if you’ve never played a sport before, you don’t even know what your limits are, so you just keep going. You keep pushing.

By the time you reach your eighth NFL season — as I had when I started Dhani Tackles the Globe — you’ve been doing the same kinds of workouts for so long that the gains you make are only incremental. You can continue to make progress, but the gains come slowly and you don’t notice them from day to day.

Look at Usain Bolt. He has the world record in the 100-meter dash at 9.58 seconds. Even if he beats that record in Rio this summer, how much will it be by? He won’t all of a sudden beat it by a full tenth of a second, which is the kind of gain he may have seen when he was younger and just starting to run competitively. You go from running 10.5 seconds to 10 seconds faster than you go from 10 to 9.5. It’s because you’re approaching a threshold — that max that your body can achieve.

Most players who get to the point where I was when I joined the Bengals — 29 years old and in their eighth season in the league — start to decline. But because of my offseason spent working new muscles and challenging myself in different ways for the show, I was actually on the rise. I was starting games stronger and staying fresh longer.

I definitely owe those last last few years of my career, and my resurgence, to my willingness to step outside the box and put myself to the test physically, mentally and spiritually on Dhani Tackles the Globe.

At the end of the day, it says something about how people train no matter what sport they play. There is no one way to train. Whether it’s catching bricks bare-handed or carrying 300-pound stones in Iceland for a strongman competition, you just have to do what works for you.