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Told by peers and pros for years that he wasn’t cut out for professional sports, North Shore native and former Redskins player Pat Downey-founder of Gridiron Training-pours his blood, sweat, and tears into helping promising area athletes make the grade. By Noah Leavitt

 When you walk into Gridiron Training, in Woburn, you’ll forget everything you thought you knew about the typical gym.

First, you’ll spot the giant skull and crossbones on the floor right above the slogan “Turning athletes into freaks.” Then, you’ll see the pitch-black turf littered with 400-pound truck tires, heavy chains, and ropes pulled right off of Navy ships.

On this weeknight, the gym isn’t filled with hulking football players. It’s filled with regular adults-moms pushing weighted sleds up and down the turf; a man in his 50s lugging sandbags. It’s not what you would expect, but it’s exactly the type of workout that hundreds of North Shore athletes are seeking out. And it’s just the type of gym that Pat Downey wanted to create.

Downey, a Swampscott resident, married father of three, and former NFL player, set out to create a place that would take clients outside of their comfort zones. “It’s not cookie-cutter,” he says. “I cater to serious, committed athletes who want to be the best they can be.”  Gridiron is also a place that’s uniquely rooted in the North Shore, and it could be a game-changer for area  athletes-specifically, football players.

John Bugli, a Newburyport native and assistant coach at Gridiron, explains that gyms like this one exist everywhere in football powerhouse states, like Texas and Florida. “A place like this is going to help elevate the level of athletes in this area,” he says.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the gym is always bursting with positive energy. You realize this the second you meet Downey. The former offensive lineman stands 6-feet, 3-inches tall and greets everyone he meets with a hug and a smile.

Downey needed this kind attitude along his journey to this spot. He’ll be the first to admit that he wasn’t the fastest or the strongest. Yet he starred at Beverly High School and Worcester Academy before earning a full scholarship to UNH. Downey then parlayed that into an NFL career that included stops with the Patriots, Chargers, Redskins, and Falcons. In between, there were stints with NFL Europe and in the Arena Football League (AFL). Downey battled for every roster spot he earned.

In 2003, Downey reached his pinnacle by making the Redskins’ active roster. It was an accomplishment many said would never happen, and when it did, its meaning wasn’t lost on him. “I saw my Redskins jersey and my name in the game program, and I took the program into the bathroom and started crying like a baby,” Downey says.

Downey has made it his mission to ensure that no one hears that kind of message from him. He likes to find  “diamonds in the rough” and help them reach their full potential. It’s a role he fell in love with as soon as his playing days ended.

Downey was mowing his lawn the day rocker Jon Bon Jovi called. At the time, Downey had left football and was working in medical sales. Bon Jovi-a majority owner of the AFL’s Philadelphia Soul-was now offering Downey a path back to the game he loved, as one of the team’s assistant head coaches. The position allowed Downey to offer contracts to players like him-the “bubble guys” (players who are on the cusp of being picked up by a professional team). But Downey wanted a different challenge-taking those bubble guys and making them faster, stronger, more agile. Downey got that chance when he became the strength and conditioning coach for the Soul in 2008.

The bubble burst after a year, when the AFL suspended its operations. So, in 2009, Downey found himself out of football once again. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Downey turned that adversity into a positive situation.

Downey was driving through Swampscott with his family on July 4th, 2009, when he heard someone shout “P-Diddy!”-a nickname Downey had somehow earned. It was Brian Palangi, a former Swampscott High School athlete and current Northern Iowa offensive lineman. He wanted Downey to train him, and Downey agreed.

He took Palangi to Bishop Fenwick High School and put the 6-foot, 5-inch, 310-pound lineman through “the greatest workout of his life.” Word spread from there. Soon, Downey was training several dozen athletes for free before his wife, Andrea, suggested that he make some money for his work.

A few weeks later, Gridiron Training launched at the site of North Shore Crossfit in Danvers. Owner Dave Picardi gave Downey space to train about 30 athletes. A year later, that number ballooned to 300, and Downey found himself in need of his own space. He now has more than 500 patrons.

It’s called a gym, but more accurately, Gridiron is a warehouse filled with tools. That’s precisely what Downey wanted-a no-nonsense place where athletes could work out, make noise, and get stronger. “It’s the Rocky mentality,” says Steve Cardillo, a friend of Downey who is an author and the maker of popular weight-lifting belts. “It shows that you don’t need all that fancy stuff.”

At Gridiron, it’s about more than just “stuff.” Here, there’s a different kind of attitude, which is summed up by some of the women who have embraced Gridiron.

“When [Pat] says, ‘How are you?’ he really cares.” That’s how Molly Foster sums up Downey’s personality. Foster is a mother of two from Peabody. She’s also a teacher and a cancer survivor. The lifelong athlete started working with Downey last year after a battle with breast cancer. She’s grown stronger and faster, but has taken from her workouts with Downey more than just improved physical condition- she’s found self-confidence.

The same is true for Anna Moulton, a senior three-sport star at Bishop Fenwick High School. Like Foster, Moulton battled cancer. But, last year, she found herself flipping tires, lifting chains, and hauling ship ropes in a gym filled with guys. “At first, I was nervous,” Moulton says. “But Pat is such a welcoming person. It helped boost my self-confidence.”

Then, there’s Rebecca Bucklin from Swampscott, who makes the drive to Woburn just to train with Downey. She calls his energy “infectious.” Within two weeks, Bucklin started seeing the results, including new definition in her arms and legs. “It’s not like the typical gym setting,” she says. “It makes me want to work out even when I don’t really want to work out.”

That’s why people keep coming back-for the results. Downey treats exercise like a science. Each new athlete undergoes an evaluation of his or her strength, speed, and agility. Then, Downey and his coaches design a program that aims to unlock the athlete’s full potential. Downey likes to focus on two concepts: what he calls “posterior chain development” and “shocking the central nervous system.” In layman’s terms, Downey and his coaches want to strengthen your back while never letting your body relax.

Dave Bellmont is Gridiron’s assistant director of strength and conditioning, and he tries to break the normal routine of most athletes. “The goal is to put yourself outside your comfort zone. Over the course of a year, a single workout won’t be repeated.” For clients, the training doesn’t end when they stop sweating. Each athlete gets free protein shakes and supplements courtesy of Downey’s sponsors, American Nutrition Company in Everett and MET-RX.

The plan works. In addition to local clients, Downey has become one of the go-to trainers for NFL agents who hope to get their clients drafted. He helped train former Merrimack College star Shawn Loiseau for the NFL Combine-the yearly test of a player’s strength, speed, and quickness-helping the linebacker earn a spot in training camp with the Texans.

Downey has earned respect at every level-from NFL coaches to the parents of young kids. Dr. Dwight DeGeorge of Lynnfield sent two of his children to train with Downey, explaining that “[Downey] teaches old-world ethics-how to respect your elders and to be accountable for your actions.” DeGeorge also marvels at Downey’s ability to reach everyone he teaches. “He really challenges every child. He has a God-given talent to be able to point out a flaw and, without being negative, turn it into strength for that child.”

Downey commands attention because he’s achieved what his athlete clients dream of. NFL contracts hang on a wall at Gridiron as motivation. In his book, How a Champion is Made, author Steve Cardillo dedicated a full chapter to Downey. Cardillo says, “[Downey] has an ability to explain things to the kids through his own experiences. They said he couldn’t do it, and he did it.”

Back at the entrance to Gridiron, a giant metal sign bears the slogan “Train like a champion today.” Every athlete who walks in here knows to touch the giant metal panel-a small gesture to build camaraderie. After all, everyone is there for the same reasons-to be challenged and to grow stronger. They’ve put their faith in Pat Downey, and he refuses to let them fail. Unlimited classes at Gridiron Training can run up to $100 a month, while one-hour private training sessions range from $75 to $125 apiece. Downey offers high school athletes a 10-week training program starting at $495.