Strength and conditioning coordinators are the ones that toil behind the scenes. They get their players to put in the work even when they might not have the desire to do so. They help their players reach goals and overcome setbacks. What Bills strength and conditioning coordinator Eric Ciano had presented to him one year ago, while he was Director of Player Development at Georgia Tech, was perhaps the biggest challenge of his career… literally.
With shooting to begin on the major motion picture, 'The Blind Side' last summer, the lead role of Michael Oher was to be played by 24-year old actor Quinton Aaron. Aaron certainly had the height for the part standing nearly 6'8", but he was much too heavy to pass for a high school or even college football player.
"He was humongous," said Ciano. "I've seen big guys, but not 475 pounds."
The original plan was to have Aaron work with some of Georgia Tech's players during spring practices to get him more accustomed to football drills while also "slimming" him down. But those plans changed when the actor weighed in at 472. Ciano didn't even try to get him in the 'bod pod' that measures body fat percentage. He wasn't sure Aaron would fit.
"He wasn't physically ready to be able to perform and do anything the players were doing," Ciano told Buffalobills.com. "When he first stepped on the scale and weighed 472 pounds we knew we had to get him in good enough shape to look athletic and play the role and try to play Michael Oher and also be able to perform some of the physical demands that the movie had in the script."
The goal was to get him under 400 pounds by the time shooting for the film began, which was a mere 12 weeks away. The problem was Aaron was perhaps the most sedentary person Ciano had ever met in his life.
"The first day he walked for 22 minutes and had to sit down," Ciano said. "He was tired. So it was a major challenge."
"Coach was real cool, but at the same time he knew right away what I could and could not do," Aaron told Buffalobills.com. "He knew how hard to push me to get the job done. I don't know how he knew me so well, but he was exactly what I needed to succeed. He was a blessing."
Ciano's program was relentless. Knowing the ground that had to be covered in a short period of time his program for Aaron went two times a day, seven days a week, with both sessions lasting about two hours. There was a nutritionist to lay out all his meals for him, and they were numbered to make it easy to follow. Instead of three big meals a day, there were six smaller ones. There were no extra portions, six small meals and nothing else.
"Changing him was about changing his lifestyle in general," said Ciano. "He was a guy that was used to staying up all night long with his brother and he wouldn't go to bed until seven or eight o'clock in the morning. Then he'd sleep all day. It was essential to get him in a routine."
Ciano would call him every morning and wake him up, get him over to the gym. They'd start before eight o'clock every day and go until 10. Aaron would go back to his place, eat lunch, take a nap and go again in the afternoon and work out for a couple of hours and then go home and eat a snack and rest.
"He didn't move much those first couple of months because it was so much more activity than he was used to," said Ciano. "He never really did a lot. His day consisted of sitting behind a computer and watching TV. He didn't go out and do stuff. So once we got him outside and had him coming up to Tech that's when we started seeing progress."
The first week he dropped 20 pounds simply by being active and controlling his caloric intake.
"When we first started it was a lot of just walking because he was so big and so out of shape," said Ciano. "It took two or three weeks before we got into some light running. We did a lot of stuff on the bike. We tried to do a lot of stuff that was lower impact because he was so big we didn't want to pound on his knees and ankles. We went from walking to incline walking and then running and by the end it was unreal the stuff he could do."
As Aaron became stronger and improved his endurance Ciano moved him into circuit training and that's when the weight really came off.
"The circuit training was brutal," said Aaron. "It was high speed stuff with 20 seconds on and 20 seconds off. The more in shape I got the harder it got. There'd be less down time. It would be 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off. There would be 12 or 13 stations in the circuit and I'd go through the circuit three or four times. Then I'd go on the treadmill for 20 minutes followed by the bike for 20 minutes and then I'd go outside and run around the football field for 20 minutes.
"It was a lot of hard work, but I loved the fact that I was able to do it because I could see the shape I was getting in. Working with coach at Tech put me in the best shape of my life."
"The intensity of the circuit training was so much higher than was he was initially doing with the walking," Ciano said. "So we saw some huge (weight) drops for a while and then it got to a point where he'd steadily lose five or six pounds a week."
By the time shooting for the movie began Aaron was sub-400 for the first time in a long time.
"He lost almost 100 pounds in 12 weeks," said Ciano. "That's ridiculous. He cut out so much so fast."
Aaron continued to train with Ciano throughout the movie. Shooting the movie however, forced the training tandem to move the workout schedule around. Sometimes the second workout of the day did not begin until nine or 10 pm. It afforded Ciano the opportunity to be exposed to how Hollywood makes movies.
"I got to go to the set and see that side of it which was neat," he said. "It was totally different. And Quinton had to be very disciplined on the set. I've never seen so much food thrown at people in my life. There's so much and it's all junk food out there all day long. We actually had our nutrition lady on the set with him a lot to help him make the right choices."
"The first time coach came on set everyone was anxious to meet him so he was kind of the celebrity," said Aaron. "Everybody was congratulating him and hitting him up for tips on what he was doing with me because everyone was inspired by all the weight I was losing."
Aaron ultimately got down to a low of 362 pounds. When Ciano finally saw the movie he could tell when the different scenes were taped based on Aaron's weight-loss progress.
"There were scenes where he was still bigger when it was first shot compared to other scenes in the movie when he was so much thinner," he said. "He really worked hard and did a really nice job. He bought in and did everything he was asked to do. By the end it was really amazing some of the things he could do."
Aaron went from feeling like he was going to pass out after walking on the treadmill to running 10 miles per hour and doing sets of multiple sprints.
After the movie wrapped, Ciano did not see Aaron for a while. A couple of months before the movie premiere in November the on screen Michael Oher called.
"He came back about three months before the premiere and I had to get him back in shape for that," said Ciano. "He had put on about 20 or 30 pounds since the movie finished. When he had a routine and he knew we were working out every day he was good. He needs routine."
Aaron appeared on Jay Leno earlier this week on the heels of the Oscar Awards, with his co-star Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress. Ciano is confident that Aaron's desire to be a successful actor will continue to motivate him to maintain his new lifestyle.
"We still talk on a regular basis about where his goals are and where he needs to be down around," said Ciano. "It was more than just a movie. It was trying to make a lifestyle change so he could live. There aren't that many people that are 50-years old that are over 500 pounds and that was the path he was on. He was really educated on how to lose the weight nutrition-wise. His ideal weight would be about 315."
Aaron admits he slips from time to time with his routine, but he knows his main motivator is always just a phone call away.
"I've kind of fallen off a little bit lately with all the traveling and press stuff and things that make it difficult to get to the gym every day and work out," he said. "I kind of miss doing that daily routine with him. I'm back into it now though and I've lost some weight recently.
"He told me, 'That's good, but you still have to get back down where you were or I'm going to come out there and kick your behind.' So I told him I don't want him to do that so I'm going to do what he tells me. I appreciate that support from all the way in Buffalo. He's helping me and keeping me on task out here in L.A."