Updated: Oct 1, 2022
My over caffeinated strength coach -- nicknamed, Satan -- roared, “Men, today is Black Monday! Your mission is to squat deep for rep after violent rep until you see black. Then one more rep till you see green.”
Navy Football Gym, Annapolis, MD (source: Navysports.com)
“I vomit the most. That’s why my legs are the best.”
– Mousie (as told by Sam Fussell in Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder)
During my four years on the Navy Football Team, few days demanded more barbarian vigor than Squat-Max day -- known ominously as “Black Monday.” It went a little like this…
Entering the Roger Staubach locker room adjacent to the gym, our head strength and conditioning coach -- an over caffeinated, squared jawed, 6-foot 5-inch Viking with a dark crew cut and the nickname, “Satan” -- roared these instructions: “Men! Today is Black Monday. Your mission is to squat deep for rep after violent rep until you see black. Then one more rep till you see green. Let’s go!”
Like Mongols on a city, we stormed into the 12,000-square-foot gym with, as one coach liked to say, “a smile on our face and murder in our heart.” Lined with 22 squat racks, 22 Olympic platforms, and speakers blaring Pantera and NWA, the U.S. Naval Academy Football Gym felt like an industrial labor camp for blood and guts effort. Workouts got so intense our coaches would line the walls with trashcans so we could puke after volcanic sets of squats.
Here’s how one Black Monday went for me 25 years ago.
Wearing a tight gray t-shirt with “Speed Kills, Strength Punishes” across the front, I took a deep breath and cinched my weight belt tight. Exhaling as I entered the squat cage, I heard my teammates start to clap slowly in unison. As their clapping grew louder and faster, other teammates began to clamor around the squat cage like savages screaming encouragement to Mad Max in Thunderdome.
Three 45-pound plates and one 25-pounder hung from each side of the 45-pound bar. Tightening my grip, my lifting partner slapped my back and I knew it was time to go. Ducking beneath the bar, I lifted it off the rack and felt 365 pounds across my traps. Stepping back, I paralleled my feet, pointed my toes slightly outward, and heard the bell toll.
Lowering the weight till my thighs went below parallel to the floor, I drove my feet hard and blasted out of my first rep. One down, I wanted sixteen more. The next seven reps were solid, squatting up and down, up and down, I felt one with the iron.
After eight reps, however, my cadence of piston repetitions slowed to a crawl. Standing tall with nearly 400 pounds across my shoulders, my heart raced as I struggled to catch my breath. Sucking in more air, I narrowed my eyes towards the wall. I had two options: quit or go “north of the wall” and awaken the barbarian in me.
Despite my screaming teammates, I heard a whisper of “don’t stop” pierce my brain. I lowered the weight from my next rep. Smoldering through reps nine, ten, and eleven, I paused again at the top, gasping for three more breaths to feed my thumping heart. With enough air, I screamed through reps twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and finally, a bug-eyed, red-faced, psychotic fifteenth rep.
Hunched over at the top and shaking like an old man with 400-pounds strapped to his back, I gasped for air like I’d just surfaced from the ocean after holding my breath too long. As I huffed and puffed for air, I heard a deep voice boom from the back -- even louder than the wall of sound coming from my teammates. “Two more reps! I want two more reps!” Oh shit, I thought. It’s Satan! My head strength and conditioning coach, the devil himself, wants two more reps. So I went for my secret weapon: my Light Stick.
When I need max effort, I think of the Light Stick buried deep inside my spine. We all have one. You might call it your soul, your essence, or your true self. Whatever you call it, it powers all that you do (especially hard things) and embodies who you truly are: your effort. When people scream, “dig deep!” they’re talking about harnessing that Light Stick. So in this instance, I dug deep and called upon my Light Stick for “two more f***ing reps!”
With clinched teeth, I grinded inch by bloody inch out my sixteenth rep with the eloquence of a junkyard car crusher. One more rep! I thought. Just one more rep to reach my goal of a 560-pound squat (based on a math formula that factored 365 pounds x 17 reps).
With a blistered face and rubbery thighs, I wobbled with the weight. Then my world turned thin. I couldn’t really see anymore. All I could feel is the hurricane inside my body. So down I went into my seventeenth rep. As my thighs approached parallel, I pressed thru my feet with every atom in my body. Nothing. Gravity took me down into a black hole with 365-pounds of carryon luggage.
Stabbing his forearms beneath my armpits and wrapping his arms across my chest, my lifting partner pulled me into his body to share the load. Simultaneously, two other teammates grabbed each end of the bar, pulled it up (along with me) and racked the weight. They had my back, and still do.
Unable to walk, I slung an arm around a teammate's shoulders and staggered like an injured player off the weight room floor towards an outside patch of grass.
Falling to my knees in battlefield prayer, I panted on all fours as my body quivered. I didn’t get that seventeenth rep, but I sure as hell tried. More importantly, I journeyed “north of the wall.” And I’m telling you, it felt damn good to be a barbarian.
At that moment, I was the strongest I’d ever be in my life. Looking back, had I never been 6th string as a freshman on the depth chart, had I never watched teammates puke buckets as they bulldozed through workouts, had my maniac strength coach never demanded my best, I would have never discovered my superpower for life: Effort. That gym and those days with the Men of Navy Football, broke me, built me, and hardened me for life. And I love them for it.