SANTA CLARA – The 49ers players had a day off Tuesday, but Ray Wright didn’t want them sitting around in their hotel rooms playing video games and otherwise doing nothing.
So Wright, the team’s new strength and conditioning coach, crafted an enticing menu.
If they came into work they could have a session with one of the 20 massage therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors he’d have available. There would be a yoga session at 11 a.m. And perhaps most alluring of all: There would be a free breakfast.
“Believe it or not, they would tend to skip those things if they have to pay for them,” Wright said. “But it’s our job to maintain their bodies as best we can. So they (team officials) graciously allowed us to bring this body-maintenance team in.”
As it turns out, more than 80 of the 90 players on the roster took advantage.
Lest you think Wright is running a new-age spa in Santa Clara, he also had some decidedly old-school surprises in store for training camp, including one that stands nearly 40 feet tall.
A man-made hill constructed on the southwest corner of the playing fields was trucked in from Houston in June and assembled over the next six weeks. Made of steel and covered with turf, it’s the most striking structure at 49ers headquarters and it dwarfs the earthen hill Mike Singletary had built in 2009 that he dubbed Mount Pain. That hill was flattened after Singletary was fired the following year.
The new edifice supports a 60-foot-long ramp that’s on a 30-degree incline. Wright has no name for it yet – “At some point someone will call it something and that name will stick,” he said – but it’s already stirring plenty of dread among the players.
“Honestly, I thought it was a joke,” said cornerback Dontae Johnson when asked his impression when he first saw the hill. “The incline – it looks like it’s 45 degrees. Coach Ray has got some tricks up his sleeve. I don’t know if I really want to really get into ’em.”
Johnson and the rest of the defensive backs have been the first to tackle the hill.
“We do backpedals up it, we do bear crawls up it, unfortunately” Johnson said with a grin.
Are bear crawls the hardest?
“Yeah,” he said, “because you’re going backward. So, yeah, it’s pretty rough.”
That toil, however, is the reason players already believe in Wright.
Running back Carlos Hyde, offensive tackle Trent Brown and defensive end Aaron Lynch, for example, were asked to drop weight this summer, in Lynch’s and Brown’s cases, a dramatic amount. They also were among the group that trained in Santa Clara during the long, six-week stretch between spring drills and training camp.
All three reported in what they have individually said is the best shapes of their lives. Lynch dropped about 25 pounds, Brown was under the 358-pound benchmark the 49ers had set for him this summer, while Hyde’s body fat went from 16 percent to single digits, according to Wright.
“Ray’s workouts are real, so there was no point in going anywhere else,” said Hyde, who intends to play under 230 pounds for the first time in his career. “Even in college I wasn’t this light. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life.”
In 2002, the Houston Texans hired Wright as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. It was there that he met Kyle Shanahan, who was instrumental in bringing Wright to Washington when he and his father, Mike, were hired there in 2010, and to Santa Clara when Shanahan became the 49ers’ head coach.
Houston also was where Wright first learned the value of a sturdy, man-made hill.
The Texans had one that was similar in dimensions to the one in Santa Clara. It was made of wood that, after being drenched by a few South Texas rainstorms, began to warp and had to be removed for double the cost it took to install it. In Northern California, the concern is earthquakes, so Wright’s hill had to be built to withstand a temblor.
Wright said the beauty of the steep incline is that players must exert full energy to climb to the top with gravity ensuring they don’t overdo it and pull a muscle. The angle also forces them into an ideal running motion.
“If you were to take a picture of someone on the hill, the form they’re in – because of the angle of the hill – it’s perfect,” he said. “Even if you don’t know anything about running, you’re going to run with good form. You have to, to get up it.”
Forget science, Johnson said. It simply burns the thighs like nothing else.
“Whatever the hardest quad workout you’ve done – (multiply) it by 10,” he said.