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Barber: On 'The Hill' with 49ers strength coach Ray Wright

With Levi's Stadium in the background, 49ers strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright (bottom) guides Press Democrat columnist Phil Barber through the "gorilla crawl" on the steep artificial hill of the team's practice facility in Santa Clara, Sept. 5, 2017. (Photo: Meg Williams / 49ers)

PHIL BARBER,

SANTA CLARA — What got me were the tennis balls.

I wasn’t surprised that The Hill wore me down, elevated my heart rate and tightened my cute little quad muscles like cement. But the climbing was over now. All that remained was a little game of pitch and catch. Ray Wright, the 49ers’ head strength and conditioning coach, stood at the top of the The Hill with a bucket of tennis balls. I waited at the bottom, where the earth was nice and flat. “Just catch each ball and drop it on the ground,” he said. “You ready?”

I was ready.

Oops, not ready. Wright didn’t roll ground balls. He fired one-hoppers in rapid succession, dragging me left and right. And I was so tired from the workout he had just put me through, my legs so resembling canned cranberry sauce, that even basic hand-eye coordination deserted me. I think I caught three of 20 balls.

It was humbling, but you have to understand what I was up against. The Hill, despite Wright’s apparent affability, is a training device befitting a religious inquisition. The hypotenuse of this hate triangle stretches 20 yards and reaches a height of a little over 30 feet. It is pitched at a 30 percent grade. For local reference, the west side of the Trinity Grade, known as Sonoma County’s most diabolical cycling climb, averages about 8.8 percent.

The 49ers players have been attacking this ramp since training camp opened, and will continue to do so through the regular season, which begins Sunday with a home game against the Panthers. On Tuesday, Wright invited me for an abridged workout.

It just wasn’t as abridged as I had imagined.

I figured he’d let me run to the top of The Hill a few times, and maybe give me an idea of a couple of the other drills he has devised. And to be clear, my workout fell far short of what the players endure. I was probably up there no more than 20 minutes. But I’m not gonna lie. The Hill is a bastard.

I donned my specialized, extra-grip running shoes — they’re arranged in cubbies beneath The Hill like shoes in a bowling alley —and we started with some simple calf warmups. My first assignment was to backpedal up the slope. Wright advised me to dig in with my heels, but I found this difficult; I moved in slow motion. Next, I clasped my hands behind my back and high-stepped up The Hill.

Then Wright got creative. He has spray painted circles on The Hill, and I zig-zagged up, planting my feet on various dots. Also spray-painted: a hopscotch-style “ladder” for footwork drills. Like I know how to do a stupid ladder drill.

Then came a lateral shuffle to the top, facing to one side; a forward crawl on hands and feet, as fast as I could; a “gorilla crawl” that involved pushing off with two hands and bounding with both legs; an absolutely unforgivable backward crawl — four yards up, controlled descent, four yards up, controlled descent — that broke me; and a series of two-footed broad jumps. Broad jumps up a 30 percent grade. It took me 17 jumps to reach the top, every leap a little shorter than the last. Wright said most of his players get there in 10 or 11.

Movement on The Hill was disorienting. I felt almost as if I were running and jumping for the first time, as in a bad dream. I made it to the top without incident in my lateral shuffle, for example, but found that I had drifted about six feet off course.

The ladder drill ended with a simple sprint to the top, but near the apex I got too far out in front and stumbled forward onto my hands.

After I had been properly humbled by the tennis balls, Wright and I retired to the shade of the 49ers’ giant weightlifting barn to talk about his evil baby.

Placekicker Robbie Gould, in mocking kindness, wandered over to give me a towel and a bottle of water, and suggested that I demand a post-workout massage. As if I would let Ray Wright or any of his assistants have additional input into my physical state.

Wright has always incorporated the uphill into his workouts, even if it was just on a treadmill or a small natural knoll. His initial crack at creating a permanent structure was in Houston in 2002, his first year as an assistant strength coach with the Texans. (He was with Houston from 2002-09, then in Washington from 2010-14.) This was a more modest incline than the Santa Clara version. It was constructed of wood, with no spray-painted bells or whistles. It lasted about four years.

“The engineers built it wrong, and we had to tear it down,” Wright said. “It actually ended up costing more to tear it down.”

The Texans wound up building a second ramp, more similar to this one. Around the same time, then-coach Mike Singletary added a hill to the 49ers practice field. It was a no-frills mound of dirt and grass, and the grounds crew hated it. Every time guys ran on it, it flattened a little and had to be reshaped. It’s been gone since Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in 2011.

When head coach Kyle Shanahan added Wright to his staff in February, the new strength coach was certain he wanted a hill. And he’d go Third Little Pig on this one, constructing it on a steel frame. A manufacturer in Houston built the structure, disassembled it and shipped it in pieces to Santa Clara, where the 49ers raised it in the southwest corner of the practice fields.

When camp opened July 28, The Hill loomed over the facility like a giant carnival slide. Or maybe a hangman’s scaffold is more appropriate. Players were intrigued, and perhaps a little spooked.

“It’s not so bad once they get on it,” Wright said. “But I think if you just look at it, it’s intimidating.”

Every healthy 49er, and even most of the injured ones, have been subjected to The Hill by now, though Wright tends to tailor workouts to position groups. So, the defensive backs backpedal, the running backs high-step and the linemen bear-crawl. Wright occasionally times them and measures their leaps. He described The Hill as popular.

“These guys are so competitive,” Wright said. “Once we start, ‘All right, let’s line up and go,’ they want to do well.”

I asked him if his invention had caused any injuries. He said it was responsible for two blisters.

Wright admits that he can’t peg particular on-field performance to what happens on The Hill. But he is convinced it adds to some of the fundamental qualities he is trying to instill. For example, the climb gets guys into proper running form.

“We preach ‘knee up, toe up’ as the proper mechanics when you run,” Wright said. “If you don’t do that on The Hill, you’re gonna drive your toe right into The Hill. So just by the angle alone, it’s helping guys’ running form.”

It also encourages arm pumping.

The Hill is a strength workout, too.

“It’s resistance running. So you don’t need a parachute or rope or anything to resist you,” Wright said. “You’re being resisted by gravity. When you have that, a guy is able to run uninhibited. If you have a belt on him, or a parachute, he’s gonna run differently.”

He noted that some of the NFL’s most legendary conditioning warriors —like Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and LaDainian Tomlinson — regularly added hills to their workouts.

Perhaps most important, The Hill has thrown players off-balance. NFL athletes exercise all the time. Their bodies become accustomed to stress, and their minds start to check out. The challenge is to get them out of their routines, and nothing says “this is weird” like a ramp disappearing into the blue sky.

I’m not sure all of them love The Hill as much as Wright suggested, though. As the Press Democrat’s 49ers Insider, Grant Cohn, recounted earlier this summer, the strength coach had three rehabbing defensive linemen doing extended upside-down bear crawls during training camp when one of them, Aaron Lynch, stopped abruptly, uttered an obscenity, slid down the ramp on his butt and walked away.

If only I had known that was an option.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.