If you watched the recent NFL combine, you would have seen 300-pound athletes with speed comparable to Olympic sprinters from a half-century ago. Today’s athletes are stronger and faster than ever before. That change isn’t just in football. When Tiger Woods burst onto the golf scene, players on the PGA tour looked like country club golfers. Beer bellies were widespread. Tiger’s emphasis on fitness overhauled the game to the point that many top players employ trainers and nutritionists as crucial team members. Strength and Conditioning have made it into every sport. College football programs now pay strength and conditioning coaches seven figures. But, Tiger Woods, college football, nor even the NFL deserve credit for realizing the contribution of strength training for high performance. That honor goes back to the 1950s to a brilliant physical fitness trainer named Alvin Roy.
In the late 1800s, the first “paid” football player, William Heffelfinger, stood at a “towering” 6’3″ and weighed a whopping 200lbs. He was so “big” that he earned the nickname “Pudge” and was the dominant player of his era. He led his Yale Football Club to a 54-2 record in his four years with the team, coached by fellow Hall of Famer Walter Camp. In November 1892, the Allegheny Athletic Association paid Pudge Heffelfinger $500, a king’s ransom at the time, to play in a single game versus the Pittsburg Athletic Club.
Professional football players in those days had ordinary jobs and played football as a not well-compensated hobby. Though many players were slightly larger and faster than the average person, this was predominantly due to their genetics and not from training and nutrition.
In fact, in those days, the prevailing wisdom held that “muscle-bound” players were inherently slower and less agile. Athletic ability, in all sports, was considered a gift, you either possessed it or you did not. Outside of calisthenics to loosen up, running to stay in shape and keep your weight down, unless you were a football lineman—there wasn’t a lot of stock held in ‘working out’ or preparation.
Through the first half of the twentieth century (the 1900s), the popularity of football as a professional sport grew, as did the “muscle-bound” stigma, and players like Pete “Fats” Henry, at 5’11” 245lbs, earned his nickname and Hall of Fame induction through meat and potatoes rather than lifting and grinding.
That would begin to change in the 1950s thanks to the relentless and intentional actions of one man whom you’ve probably never heard of, America’s first Strength and Conditioning Coach, Alvin Roy.
Born April 20, 1920, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alvin Roy wasn’t born with the natural size and athleticism of the professional athlete of the day. Still, his dreams and aspirations were far more considerable. He played football, Basketball, and Track at Istrouma High School and made the Basketball team as a walk-on, at LSU, under legendary head coach Harry Rabenhorst.
Roy left college to serve his country and joined the US Army during World War II’s outbreak. He would rise in rank until he found himself serving as a Captain under the command of General George S. Patton. Roy would be awarded four battle stars and a bronze star and held many critical posts during his distinguished military career. Notably, he served during the invasion of France and the Battle of the Bulge.
Patton, capitalizing on Roy’s athletic background and administrative skill, tasked him with organizing athletic troop competitions and other sporting events to keep the troops in shape and elevate morale. In 1946 he was appointed ‘Aide de Camp’ for the US Weightlifting Team for the first post-war World Championships in Paris, France, where he made a life-changing connection.
The Coach of the US team was Bob Hoffman. He was considered the founding father of American Body Building and would play an essential role in changing Roy’s perception of weightlifting, which would change the direction for the rest of his life. Roy, like the public at large, and most anyone outside of the ‘fringe’ body-building world, was a subscriber to the ‘muscle bound’ theory.
Hoffman educated Roy on the human anatomy and its potential to attain greater strength and speed than was commonly known at that time. During the training and competition, Roy witnessed firsthand bodybuilders from all over the world performing tests of strength, speed, and agility that astonished him. As a former multi-sport athlete and collegiate basketball player, what he witnessed was counter to everything he’d ever learned.
Once he returned to civilian life, to his hometown of Baton Rouge, he leveraged his savings. He convinced a local banker to loan him $10,000 to open what would be Baton Rouge and most likely the South’s first fitness emporium, Alvin Roy’s Strength and Health Studio.
He leaned on his old friend Bob Hoffman—who was now the publisher of Strength and Health Magazine as well as the founder and President of the York Barbell Company in York, PA—to provide the equipment he would use to start what would become a fitness franchise, with over thirty locations. Roy’s program would eventually train athletes at all stages, from Jr. High School through the professional level, in virtually all competitive sports.
In 1952 Hoffman would again captain the US Weightlifting Team, with Alvin Roy as the team’s lead trainer, in the XV Olympiad in Helsinki, Finland. These Olympic games would be seen as the pinnacle of American dominance in weightlifting, with the US Team winning an Olympic-high four gold medals and six medals overall.
Again, Roy returned from abroad inspired to spread the weight and strength training gospel. He had a plan; all he needed now was the right opportunity. He was convinced he could change the face of athletics, starting with his favorite sport, football.
In 1951 Roy had approached the head football coach of his High School alma mater, Istrouma. James “Big Fuzz” Brown was a beloved head coach and a staunch believer in the muscle binding theory. “No way,” was Brown’s answer. Big Fuzz and his brother, Ellis “Little Fuzz” Brown, the school’s principal, rejected Alvin Roy and his plan to train football players with barbells.
Roy soon began working with a professional football player, Walter “Piggie” Barnes, who had been an All-American at LSU and a collegiate weightlifting Champion. Barnes would provide Roy with a perfect working model as his athletic prowess and increasingly fit physique made him a household name in the NFL. It helped to sprout a successful acting career that would span four decades, with approximately sixty Hollywood screen credits to his name.
By 1954, Istrouma High struggled, and Big Fuzz was feeling the heat. In the biggest game of the year, the Warriors suffered an embarrassing defeat to cross-town rival Baton Rouge High, and Roy believed the time was right to try again. With the fame he had achieved as the Olympic Weightlifting team’s coach, a Saturday morning television fitness show called Future Champions with Alvin Roy, and the notoriety of Piggie Barnes, Roy had real success selling to the Fuzzes.
Little Fuzz would later say that Roy was a salesman; you couldn’t help but believe what he was selling. Alvin Roy was hired as Istrouma High School’s assistant football coach for Strength and Conditioning. Roy contacted the York Barbell company, and soon an eighteen-wheeler packed with the latest and greatest weight training equipment arrived at the Warrior’s gymnasium.
That off-season, Roy trained with the team at the school, and many of the players, especially those in the neighborhood, worked out at Roy’s Health Studio on Oklahoma Street, near Nicholson Drive. One of Roy’s prized students at Oklahoma Street was also the starting tailback for the Istrouma Warriors, future Heisman winner Billy Cannon.
In 1955 Cannon would rewrite the state’s record books by scoring 33 touchdowns and averaging more than 100 yards per game rushing. In the State Championship, he led the Warriors in demolishing Fair Park 40-6 by scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 178 yards.
Cannon wasn’t the only breakout star for the Warriors that year, and powerhouse college football teams recruited several of Istrouma’s seniors from across the nation. Istrouma would be the first “pipeline program” as many Warriors would earn full scholarships over the next decade, even as the Big Fuzz’s Warriors won six State Championships over the next eight years. (1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1961, 1962)
Cannon would be the biggest prize for college coaches. In a recruiting battle by Bear Bryant, Texas A&M, Johnny Vaught at Ole Miss, and USC’s Jess Hill, the process ended with a phone call from Alvin Roy’s office to LSU head coach Paul Dietzel. Hometown superstar Billy Cannon would be a Tiger.
Roy would, however, again find resistance to his weight training regiment, as Dietzel was a longtime adherent to the “muscle-bound” myth. Nonetheless, Dietzel watched in awe as Cannon, and a couple of his teammates from Istrouma ran roughshod over the Jr. Varsity as LSU freshmen. Roy repeatedly asked Dietzel to give him a shot with the Tiger’s Varsity roster, but Dietzel repeatedly resisted.
By the end of the 1957 season, Dietzel was roasting in the proverbial hot seat, having amassed just ten wins in three seasons versus 17 losses with two ties. The Tiger faithful had grown impatient, and Dietzel faced an ultimatum, beat Tulane in the season finale or find another job. The Tigers ended a four-game losing streak by beating the home state rivals, the Green Wave, 25 – 6, in front of a sold-out Tiger Stadium to save Dietzel’s job. Dietzel was also ready to try anything, and a conversation with Alvin Roy after the game set the Tigers on the Championship trail.
Roy became the first collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach before the 1958 season. 1958 would be the year of the famed “Chinese Bandits” and the short-lived platoon system often credited with LSU’s fantastic turnaround. Yet, much like the Istrouma Warriors, the Tigers were in better physical shape than their opponents and overpowered and outran virtually every team they faced. LSU would go undefeated, win the National Championship for the first time since 1908, and Billy Cannon, All-American, was considered one of the best players in the nation. 1959 was his Heisman Trophy season, and he led LSU to its second straight undefeated regular season.
Roy was soon invited to High Schools and Colleges throughout the South, who would all, realizing the benefits of Roy’s program, begin Strength and Conditioning programs of their own. Ole Miss, who was on the raw end of Cannon’s “hallowed run” and his goal-line stand, which preserved the Tiger’s 7-3 victory in the infamous Halloween Game, was one of the first SEC programs to follow LSU with weight training. Georgia Tech, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and others were right behind, as well as schools outside the conference like Clemson and the Military Academy at West Point.
In 1963 the AFL came calling, and Roy became the first Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Professional level, training the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers had been an abysmal 4 – 10 in 1962; they would win the AFL Championship in Roy’s first year. They would repeat as AFL East Champions in 1964 and 1965, losing to the Buffalo Bills in the AFL Championship Game both years.