Big Mack Attack

"Mr." Newton trains pros, but he finds bliss inspiring plain folks to get fit.

Mack Newton tells a story about Jay Novacek, the great NFL tight end. It was late 1989, and Novacek was teetering on the edge of a good, but not extraordinary, career. He had just been cut from the Arizona Cardinals after a series of injuries, and suddenly he found himself at loose ends -- all tensed up and no place to go.

At the time, Newton was a relatively unknown fitness trainer who had been hired by the Cardinals as a consultant to rehab their ailing quarterback, Neil Lomax. Each morning, Newton would lead his morning fitness class, then drive from his studio in Phoenix to the Cardinals' training camp in Mesa. He'd work with Lomax, then return to Phoenix to teach his evening class.

Even then, Newton's workouts were legendary among those who were familiar with them. He didn't use weights or any of the torture devices typically seen in gyms. But the sessions, which included long and strenuous periods of stretching, jumping, pushing and pulling one's own body weight -- as well as a constant stream of motivational chatter from Newton -- could easily expand into two or three hours or more.

Mr. Newton inspires the troops.
John Johnston
Mr. Newton inspires the troops.

Novacek was already a well-known fitness fanatic -- he'd nearly made the Olympics as a decathlete. Now, without a team to train with, he had begun showing up at Newton's studio for both the morning and evening sessions. It was a ritual. One day, though, the Cardinals' coach asked Newton to stick around and work a little longer with Lomax. Newton agreed, and he called Novacek to tell him that they'd have to push back the workout session by a couple of hours.

As the day wore on, it became clear that Newton would not make even that later date, and so he contacted Novacek again and told him they would just have to pick up their workout the next day. Newton finally got back to his studio at about one in the morning. As he pulled into the darkened parking lot, he saw a familiar jeep. It belonged to Novacek, who was wearing a huge grin.

"Hey Mack," he said. "Can we still work out?"

Newton didn't hesitate. "You know it," he replied. "Let's hit it."

The two eventually called it quits around 3:30 a.m. It was not long after, Newton points out, that Novacek was picked up by the Cowboys. Two years later, the team, with Newton training several more players, won the Super Bowl. Novacek went on to be named to five Pro Bowl teams.

The story reveals much about Newton, who in the past decade has become one of the most well-known, highest-paid -- and, as of last year, most controversial -- fitness trainers in the country. His students are completely devoted to him, as he is to them. There are plenty of people willing to swear that he gets spectacular results. His list of clients and supporters -- Sammy Sosa, Tony La Russa, Bo Jackson, Don Baylor -- reads like a who's who of professional athletes.

The other thing the story tells you about Newton is that he's not squeamish about a little self-promotion ("We rewrote the book on tight ends," he says of his affiliation with Novacek). So much so that recently, the trainer has found himself in the odd position of having more notoriety than his professional trainees. Last fall, after working with the Chicago Cubs, Newton left a badly divided team; several players complained that their trainer was getting more attention than they were.

In the process, he has created a whole new category of professional athlete: the superstar trainer. In the past fifteen years, Newton has collected three World Series rings for his work as a trainer for the Oakland A's during their 1988-90 heyday and a Super Bowl ring for the expertise he brought to the Dallas Cowboys in their 1993 Super Bowl year.

If anyone has earned the right to a little bragging, it is Mack Newton, whose rags-to-riches story (last year he reportedly earned several hundred thousand dollars to bust the Cubs' balls in spring training) is about as compelling as they get. It has all the elements of a religious fall and resurrection, and it has become an essential part of the inspirational persona he presents to audiences around the country.

Born in Jamaica 56 years ago, Newton was three months old when his mother died. By that time his father had already skipped town, so Newton was raised first by his grandmother, and then, when she died suddenly, by his great-grandmother. When Newton was nine, his great-grandmother became ill, and he was shipped off to the United States to live with his father. In Newton's telling, his father met him in Atlanta and didn't say a single word to him. Instead, he silently hustled his son onto a train bound for California, where Newton spent the next five years shuttling between foster homes.

At age fourteen, with his great-grandmother's intervention, he was again thrown together with his father, this time in Chicago. According to Newton, it was not a happy reunion. "The first thing my father said when I arrived was, 'You stay away from my kids,'" Newton says. "When he was angry with my stepbrothers, he would tell them, 'You're gonna end up just like your brother.'"

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help