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

Big Mack Attack

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.

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.'"

Newton soon left home. He began living on the streets, working at a local grocery store, sleeping in back yards and restrooms. "You can get used to the smell of urine," he says. At age seventeen, with his father only too happy to sign an age waiver, he entered the Army "I joined for one reason," he says. "To get clean sheets."

The day he enlisted, he walked out of the recruiting office, closed his eyes and walked across State Street, one of the city's busiest thoroughfares. "I was just waiting to feel something," he says. Instead, he was startled to find himself on the other side. In 1965, he shipped out to Vietnam. On June 18 that year, while leaping out of a Huey helicopter, he was hit with shrapnel. As he lay on the ground with wounds to his legs, face and torso, he recalls that, paradoxically, "For the first time in my life, I wasn't afraid of dying."

Newton was rescued, though, and sent to a VA hospital in Chicago. There he had a hip replaced and spent the next three years "in a wheelchair, staring out a window at the people who could walk."

"I was addicted to sympathy," he adds. "I was addicted to self-pity."

Newton's epiphany and resurrection came in the form of Korean martial arts, when he was visited in the hospital by a tae kwon do instructor who had been referred to him by another teacher Newton had met while in Vietnam. But it wasn't just kicks and punches that drew him to the discipline: Newton had been studying karate since the age of nine. "I started tae kwon do not because of the physical aspect of it -- there's not a nickel's worth of difference between all of the styles out there," he says. "What I really got out of it was an attitude."

The attitude told him to get up, so he left the hospital soon after, he says, and hobbled to the man's studio and asked the teacher if he could train with him. "I will not accept excuses," the man said, and so Newton began training on crutches. In 1972, according to Newton's personal lore, he won the world tae kwon do championship. Several years later he opened his own martial-arts studio; soon he would have a half-dozen in the Chicago area.

A few years later, Newton gained his first professional-athlete client. His Chicago studios had begun to attract a bit of media attention, and one day he got a call from Bill Buckner, who, before becoming an infamous first baseman for the Red Sox, was a solid player for the Cubs. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing," Newton recalls. But, he adds, it wasn't exactly deciphering hieroglyphics: "They asked, 'What would you do if you were training me to play baseball?' and I figured it out."

As he began training more and more athletes for different sports, Newton made what was to be a revolutionary -- both philosophically and financially -- discovery. He learned that, while not many people were necessarily willing to adhere to the regimented discipline and obedience demanded by tae kwon do, plenty were willing to pay a lot of money to get the martial-arts training without the actual martial arts.

At first, Newton balked at reducing his art. But then he reached a compromise: In order to reconcile the corruption, he vowed to work his clients until they could barely stand. "I taught classes for two, two and a half hours," he says. "It was relentless; only the strongest survived. I would try to sell people off of it by telling them, 'I'm not interested in mediocrity.'"

It was a sales psychology lesson perfected by the Marines: Tell people that only a select few can handle the rigors you offer, and you will be deluged with applications. Eventually, Newton began to throw into the mix a running commentary of motivational thoughts he'd pondered over the years, and he hit gold. Today, operating out of his Phoenix studio, Newton charges up to $1,500 a month for his fitness classes. He hosts a local radio show, "The Power Hour," and a television show by the same name.

He still teaches tae kwon do ("For $100 a month," he says. "That's my art") and juggles a client load of professional athletes from three of the four major sports ("I've never really worked with hockey players"). He has written a book, and he is in huge demand on the motivational-lecture circuit, commanding up to $8,000 per speech. A lifelong bachelor, he lives in a 6,000-square-foot house.

Last spring, with great fanfare and at the insistence of manager Don Baylor, who'd become a fan during his final year with the A's in 1988, Newton was brought into the Chicago Cubs spring training camp to turn around a club that had not won a World Series in nearly a century. "Last to first," he chanted to them over a loudspeaker system while putting the players through stretching and yoga sessions three and four times as long as the ones they had previously experienced.

In March he told the Cubs: "When we win the World Series this year, this team will be immortalized. You will be remembered forever. All the kids will know your names and stats. You have the chance to break tradition that borders on a century of losing. When you look at that legacy, it's going to take more than killing a goat to reverse this."

At first Newton's speechifying seemed to mystify the players. "The first day I came in, I went into the room with everybody, and he started talking, and it was like outer space," Sammy Sosa told a reporter. But, the star slugger added, "After that he started saying some things that made sense to me." Sosa became a staunch supporter.

And for a while, it seemed as though Newton was a miracle worker. By mid-June, the Cubs held an unlikely five-game lead in their division. Even more remarkable, they had avoided any debilitating injuries. At times Newton found himself sharing equal billing with the players.

"The Cubs' Secret Weapon: Newton teaching Chicago how to win," a Chicago Tribune headline exalted after the Cubs had notched their twelfth straight victory, the team's longest winning streak in nearly seventy years. "I've tried to give the players an idea of what winners do, and we're starting to see the results of that," Newton told the reporter.

"It turns out that the least-publicized acquisition of all may have had the biggest impact," gushed Sports Illustrated, referring to Newton in a June article titled "Magic Act."

As Chicago fans know all too well, however, the Cubs' magic never holds. Although the team held on to first place as late as August 17, it soon stumbled into a late-summer swoon, eventually finishing third in its division. There were bright spots: The Cubs won 23 more games than they did the previous year, and Sosa hit more than sixty home runs for the third year running, an unprecedented feat. But by year's end, the team had begun cannibalizing itself.

Not surprisingly, Newton, who himself had griped that had he been allowed to condition the players all year as he saw fit, the team would have won more, got his share of the blame. And his own notoriety began to work against him. Several pitchers, in particular, derided Newton as a "self-promoter." Many seemed to resent the high profile attained by what they saw as the hired help.

A couple of weeks ago, Mack Newton flew into Denver. Over the past two decades, he has trained several tae kwon do students who have then, with his blessing, split off to start their own martial-arts and fitness studios. One of them, a boyish-looking fitness fanatic from Chicago named Nick Kapande, opened for business in Evergreen in 1996.

An outstanding high school athlete, Kapande in 1981 was casting around for something to do with his body when a friend told him about Newton. Intrigued, Kapande stopped by one of Newton's studios. "I was so scared I didn't join," he recalls. "It was the most intense thing I'd ever seen." Six months later, he ran into Newton again and decided to give his method another shot. He hasn't stopped going since, and over the years, he's become a disciple, preaching the Newton gospel whenever given the chance.

"There was no one in my life until Mr. Newton who challenged me like that -- who would tell me the things I didn't want to hear," he says. "I believe I'm the person I am today because of Mack Newton. I wouldn't even be close."

Every few months, Kapande flies down to Phoenix for a few days of nonstop training. And every half a year or so, Newton makes the trip north to Kapande's foothills studio to give Colorado students an injection of Newtonian attitude.

His fitness workouts today are just as long -- up to 150 minutes -- as ever. As always, they start with a healthy dose of stretching and warm-up ("I've never been injured in eighteen years of training with him," Kapande says) before becoming more intense and sweaty, with hundreds of push-ups, sit-ups and various exercises designed to work different parts of the body using only the body's own weight and mechanics.

These days, however, Newton also spends a good amount of time talking to his students. "I now have two artificial hips," he tells students seated on the floor in front of him. "I can stretch and do splits and dunk a basketball and still run fast. I endured the pain so I didn't have to suffer. If you argue enough for your limitations, you'll have them.

"I am going to take you to the edge today," he promises. "We're going to the Bermuda Triangle. You're already good; you're already in shape. You've come here because you just want to see what the possibilities are."

A woman has a question. "I had to leave the room last night because I literally was seeing stars and I couldn't hear anything anymore," she says. "Should I be pushing through that?"

Newton reassures her. "That was not pain," he points out. "That was disorientation."

Unlike other fitness instructors, Newton doesn't work out with his students. Instead he walks around the room, addressing each by name, urging them on and lecturing them with motivational messages and stories. "You're getting better and better at something that brings you nothing," he tells one woman whose technique comes up short. "Talk to that muscle! Yeeeeahhhh!" he yells as soul music blares. After a day and a half and four two-hour-plus workouts, Newton is on his way back to Phoenix.

Newton says that Baylor and the Cubs are hammering at him to come back for another season; some published reports offer a different view, saying that after last fall's bickering, Newton is not welcome. Either way, Newton says, it doesn't matter. He has made up his mind: For the moment, he is finished with professional athletes. They are too pampered, too soft, too unwilling to learn. Too much trouble.

"In Chicago, I was hired to create a winner, to create an attitude, a perspective that winning was easy," he explains. "In the process, there is pain. My job was to tell the players that pain was unavoidable -- but that suffering was not."

Players today, he adds, in addition to being spoiled and in deplorable physical condition for what they are paid to do, are not receptive to the message. "The physical part is easy," he says. "These guys are in good shape. But it's hard to tell someone making $3 million a year that he needs to get better. Baseball is a country-club sport. They decide when they want to quit -- when it hurts. They don't want to work through the pain. That's why most don't live up to their potential. They are lacking character -- emotional and mental development. In the face of all their physical gifts, they are very fearful; they are dominated by fear."

And where, he asks, is the thrill in working with that? "It's not about overpaid babies who always want their way," Newton says. Rather, he continues, real gratification comes in everyday victories. "To take someone who has never played a sport in their life, or who is eighty pounds overweight, or who has arthritis, and who then comes to work out with me and gets better -- I'm inspired by that. That is what inspires me."


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