Bringing Martial Arts to the NFL – Part 1

Bringing Martial Arts to the NFL

Part one of a series titled Bruce to Bosa

There is a recent trend in coaching football to advocate for players’ participation beyond the gridiron. Because this is especially true at the high school level, the tendency is to advocate for football players to also participate in basketball, wrestling, track, baseball or other school sponsored sport. However, at the collegiate and professional levels, one recent addition is cross training in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). The rise of football players, especially linemen, using MMA as off-season conditioning and, perhaps even more importantly, to further their line of scrimmage hand combat skill has blossomed as the UFC and other MMA fight circuits have increased in popularity.

Additionally, as defenders, primarily, look to martial arts to provide training advantages with drills that the NFL has not yet seen. It is increasingly common to see elite NFL players post videos of their training sessions to their social media accounts. Aaron Donald, the two time Defensive Player of the Year, recently had a viral video of him working to increase his hand reaction time with a coach using a dulled training knife.

While MMA has become increasingly common in training linemen, linebackers and other specific position groups, it has a longer history than most football coaches or historians realize. The cross training between football and martial arts did not begin with Donald, nor with Jay Glazer, in 2004. There are stories that perhaps the Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, and Lawrence Taylor era New York Giants may have been the first team to use the secrets of martial arts strikes in the NFL. But even this claim is too late.

The first team that I am aware of to purposefully pursue martial arts as an advantage for its defense is the 1979 Dallas Cowboys. But before we get into these details, I want to step back, and offer a brief history that ties a lineage that includes Amos Alonzo Stagg, the legendary college football coach; Bruce Lee, perhaps the most influential martial artist in history; and those Dallas Cowboys—and by extension, most football programs across the country. In fact, two football programs in the Mid-Missouri region, South Callaway and Westminster College, are part of that direct lineage back to Stagg and Lee.

Amos Alonzo Stagg was one of the most influential figures in the early history of college football. He was an All-American player and was legendary coach in the heyday of the University of Chicago’s football program. He led Chicago to two national championships, and seven Big Ten conference championships. Yes, Chicago was once a Big Ten powerhouse. After he retired from college coaching, he retired to Stockton, California where he volunteered to coach at a local high school. A running back, Danny Inosanto, was one of his players.

In addition to his football, Inosanto was able to train with some of the most influential Filipino martial artists in the world, because Stockton had a very high percentage of Filipino immigrants, especially after World War II. After graduation he joined the Army, serving in the 101st Airborne. During his service, he found other martial arts, including karate. After returning to the civilian life, Inosanto began to study with Ed Parker, whose Kenpo Karate was highly sought after. Through Parker he was introduced to Bruce Lee, and he began to study Jun Fan Gung Fu and Jeet Kune Do under Sifu Lee. Inosanto was one of Lee’s most important students, training partners, and also taught Lee nunchuku and other weapons. After Lee’s unfortunate death, Inosanto—one of three Lee students to receive teaching credentials under him—became responsible for furthering the legacy of Jeet Kune Do concepts.

Bob Ward, a former student of Lee and Inosanto, became the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning coach. In 1977, seeking to find a training edge over other NFL teams, Ward brought Guro (guro is an instructor in Filipino Martial Arts, akin to sensei in Japanese arts) Inosanto to training camp as a “guest lecturer.” Inosanto’s time in camp proved fortuitous, as the Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl. Ward, seeing the benefits that martial arts had in conditioning and adding to the hand combat skills of the defensive line, continued to bring Guro Inosanto to camp. In 1985, Inosanto was joined by Ajarn (ajarn means teacher or instructor in Thai) Chai Sirsute, a noted muay Thai fighter. I should note here that Sirsute is likely the most important person in popularizing Thai boxing, a staple of Mixed Martial Arts, in its early years in the United States. Inosanto taught hand fighting skills based primarily on his JKD training with Bruce Lee and his widespread training in various fighting arts from the Philippines. His background in FMA led him to teach the Cowboys with sticks in their hands, as well as empty hand.

The question is, of course, did it work? Well, as noted above, Ward brought Inosanto, his training partners, and his students in for training camps over several years. Inosanto was also asked by several other NFL teams, including the Raiders and Saints, to teach hand fighting skills. Other students of Lee were brought in by other franchises at about the same time.

Perhaps the single greatest testament to the addition of Inosanto’s combat knowledge—including his use of sticks in training—came from Randy White. According to White, “The first day, they bring out sticks, and we’re hitting with sticks. A lot of people were like, ‘We can’t play football with sticks.’ They didn’t get it — when you put sticks down, you can do the same stuff with your hands.” White went on to a Hall of Fame career, and last season was named to the NFL’s Top 100 players in the NFL’s first 100 years. He remains an active student of the Filipino Martial Arts.

In addition to the Cowboys and White, many other NFL teams went on to use martial arts in their training. Indeed, much of what has become commonplace training methodology began in Dallas in 1977.

Part II of this series will discuss the explosion of martial arts training in football. Part III will introduce the readers to one of the most common drills in Filipino Martial Arts and utilize this to explore training drills for the defensive line.

Coach Gibson joins the Westminster College Blue Jay coaching staff after five years with the South Callaway Bulldogs, where he coached the defensive line. The Bulldogs were the Eastern Missouri Conference champions twice (2016 and 2018) and the 2019 Missouri Class 1, District 6 champion.

In addition to coaching, Gibson is also the John Langton Professor of Legal Studies and Political Science at Westminster College. He is a founding instructor at the Kali Academy of St. Louis, having earned rank as a Red Tag Instructor in Dog Brothers Martial Arts under Punong Guro Marc “Crafty Dog” Denny, as an advanced instructor of Pacific Archipelago Concepts under Hock Hochheim and as an associate instructor of Apex/Inosanto Blend Filipino Martial Arts while a student at Apex Martial Arts.