The Detroit Lions' home field this offseason hasn't been Ford Field — it's been the football fields and field house at Detroit Country Day.
About 30 Lions players have had two week-long workouts at Country Day’s brand-new field house at the school's upper school during the NFL lockout, which prevents players from using team facilities for any offseason activities.
Country Day has been happy to provide the Lions with a venue to work together while the NFL works out its labor situation.
“The Detroit Lions are an institution in the Detroit area, (s0) any little bit that we can do to help support them, we are going to do that,” Country Day School Headmaster Glen Shilling said.
Country Day alum brings Lions and school together
Steve Mann has strong ties to both the Lions and Country Day.
He is the facility director and managing partner at Athletic Republic, a rehabilitation and fitness center in Auburn Hills. Lions players such as Dominic Raiola and Kyle Vanden Bosch train at the facility and work with Mann.
Mann’s ties to Country Day are even stronger. He’s an alumnus of the school and works as an assistant coach on the football and track teams. His wife, Kira, is also a Country Day graduate, and their three children are enrolled at the school.
Six Country Day seniors are also doing their senior project with Mann at Athletic Republic.
When Raiola and Vanden Bosch started discussing potential venues for team workouts in May, Mann had a suggestion for them.
“They were looking at around some different places; obviously, Country Day was the first thought I had,” Mann said, smiling. “I thought it’d be a great environment for them to train. It’s secluded from the public, for the most part, and it gives our kids and students the chance to be a part of something special.”
He picked up the phone and called Shilling.
“I’ve known Steve since he was a little boy,” Shilling said. “He’s a former student of mine, and his wife is a former student of mine.”
Mann and Shilling discussed what the Lions were looking for, and Shilling quickly agreed when he saw that Country Day didn’t have anything scheduled with students at the field house that would conflict with the Lions' schedule.
“I saw it as a great opportunity for our students to see how professional athletes come in and prepare themselves and the team camaraderie and bonding that’s going on between them,” Shilling said.
The way it all came together spoke to the important relationship the school has with its graduates, Shilling said.
“Country Day is a family,” Shilling said. “Our alumni are every bit as much part of our family, even after they’ve graduated and they’ve gone on to different things in their lives.”
Facility impresses Lions players
The grand opening for Country Day’s new field house was in March. The main goal of the facility was to give students playing on the elementary, middle and upper school’s athletic teams a place to practice year-round.
The field has a regulation turf field perfect for lacrosse, soccer, field hockey and, of course, football. Country Day wanted the 88,000-square-foot indoor training space to be state-of-art, and that’s exactly what Lions players are calling it.
“They love the facility,” Mann said. “They think it’s a state-of-the-art facility and is every bit as good as places they’ve practiced in over the years.”
Defensive tackle Andre Fluellen couldn’t believe the field house was part of a high school.
“This is nicer than Florida State’s facility,” Fluellen said. “I’m being dead serious, too. We didn’t have an indoor field at Florida State. I was, like, is this really a high school? This is crazy.”
Even a player familiar with Country Day was surprised at the size and scope of the addition.
Drew Stanton played against Country Day when he was the quarterback for Farmington Hills Harrison back in 2000 and 2001. He led the Hawks to back-to-back state titles during his junior and senior years before he headed to Michigan State University.
“It’s unbelievable,” Stanton said. “Obviously, I played here years ago. I came to meet the person at the front (before the first workout), and they said, 'You see that big building over there? That’s where you going.' I scratched my head and said that building wasn’t here eight years ago.”
He expected the field house to be nice, but didn’t think the structure would be more impressive than the training fields he had at MSU.
“What a luxury for high school kids to have this kind of facility,” Stanton said. “I don’t think I had as nice of a facility at Michigan State.”
Once-in-a-lifetime experience for Country Day students
Country Day has done everything it can to help its student body benefit from the Lions' workouts.
Coaches and teachers have students sit in and watch the Lions go through their intense condition programming. Student-athletes, such as those doing their senior projects at Athletic Republic, have actually worked with Lions players.
“They (Lions players) have been wonderful with our students, very respectful, very thoughtful,” Shilling said. “Our students have just loved being around them. It’s been a great experience for everyone.”
Kenny Knight is one of the six seniors working on his senior project at Athletic Republic. Knight, a wide receiver on the varsity football team, also played varsity basketball at Country Day and will play football next year at the University of Illinois.
“When Calvin Johnson was up here a couple weeks ago, he was helping me with some of my routes,” Knight said. “With both of us being tall, he had some tips, what things to look at. I talked to Titus Young yesterday, and he was just telling me to focus as a wide receiver and make sure I look the ball in every single time.”
Knight helped Country Day to a 10-1 record last season. He caught 42 balls for 560 yards and had seven touchdowns. Watching the Lions go through their voluntary conditioning sessions and practices has definitely had an impact, he said.
“You can see it in everybody’s face that they’re focused, and every second of the day, they are trying to get better,” Knight said. “Being an athlete myself and playing the game of football next year at Illinois, it definitely shows me it’s a dedication thing. Football is not a one-season sport. It’s not just played in the fall, it’s played year-round.”
Laurel Zaima echoed those sentiments. The Country Day senior plays on the Country Day varsity softball team, and she’s paid extra attention to the Lions' conditioning program.
The Lions do a lot of the same stretches the Yellowjackets do before games, but she said it’s been helpful for her to see the techniques professional athletes use.
“Some of the stretches they do, I think we can even do for my softball team,” Zaima said. “The workouts they’ve been doing at Athletic Republic are things we’ve been working on. I think it’s important to see the proper ways to stretch so you don’t hurt yourself and stay athletically fit.”
And it’s not just the upper school students who are getting a chance to see the Lions. Country Day has made a point of making sure younger students in the elementary and middle schools watch the players in action.
“Yesterday, for example, we had all of our Grade 2 students in here,” Shilling said. “They surrounded the field and watched the players. It’s good for our students to see the preparation and commitment of these athletes to each other when they’re effectively in the offseason.”
The enthusiasm of the students hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Lions players, who have enjoyed and embraced the extra attention.
“It’s been cool,” Fluellen said. “I know some of the kids already from working at Athletic Republic. Seeing them up and down the hallways giving them high-fives. When I was in high school and middle school, I would've loved to see some NFL players walking around school. So I know what they’re feeling like.”
Workouts keeping Lions connected during lockout
Vanden Bosch, Raiola and teammate Matthew Stafford spearheaded the effort to get players together for the two workout sessions. The turnout for both was tremendous: Attendance for the training sessions was around 25 to 30 players a day — around half the team.
“Guys can work out anywhere, but everybody is really making an effort to get up here and collectively work together,” Fluellen said. “It shows we are real serious about what we’re doing and real serious about the season coming up.”
Stanton gave his three teammates a lot of credit for the positive direction the team and the locker room has taken during the past year. The workouts were another example of that.
“In the past, we’ve had some guys in the locker room that kind of take away from what we were trying to accomplish, or be selfish and do some things if stuff wasn’t going their way,” Stanton said.
“We haven’t had that, (and) that’s a huge testament to the leaders of this team getting the ship on course and making sure it stays on the right direction," he said. "Vanden Bosch, Stafford and Raiola went a long way to make sure we had a great turnout.”
The informal workouts are a combination of conditioning work, drills and playbook work. The biggest advantages to working out in a group is being able to run through offensive and defensive plays as a team.
“The biggest determining factor in usually winning a football game is communication, (and) for us to be able to communicate as an offense and do it efficiently, it separates us from guys that are sitting home playing video games or lifting weights,” Stanton said.
“Everyone being on the same page is where you’re going to have success, and we are trying to pick up where we left off last year,” he said.
Detroit ended last season with a four-game win streak that included a 7-3 win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Players are focused on keeping that momentum going into next season, if and when it starts.
“We didn’t want anything like a lockout to take away from the success we were having,” Stanton said. “We want to be a team that the city of Detroit can be proud of. This is a blue-collar city, and there’s no substitute for hard work.”
Country Day officials are confident that the work the Lions are putting in will pay off.
“When they make the playoffs, I hope they look back and realize that Detroit Country Day and their students here had a little something to do with that,” Shilling said.