Call of Booty

Want to know the real key to being a superstar athlete? You're sitting on it.

Updated: July 18, 2012, 1:41 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

tkDenny Medley/US PresswireDontari Poe is hoping to become a Hall of Fame player with a Hall of Fame butt.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 23, 2012 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

I DON'T REALLY NOTICE the Preciosa crystal chandeliers that adorn the Conrad Indianapolis Hotel until I'm flat on my back on the lobby floor. Five minutes ago, during a short break from the NFL combine, I was strolling across this Hilton's marble mosaic entryway, enjoying the collection of modern art. Then, among the Warhols and Lichtensteins and past Andy Reid lounging, abstractly, in a big brown leather chair, I bumped into Mark Verstegen, the author, trainer and founder of Athletes' Performance. I asked him what I thought was a simple, innocent question: What's the most important part of an athlete's body?

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Paul Connors/AP Images"Hockey butt" is so common in the NHL that one major apparel company targets players with a line of pants with extra room in the rear.

A moment later, I'm on the lobby floor, performing exercises that are either supposed to serve as his answer or get us both arrested. Verstegen stands over me, his eyebrows pinched into an intense V. Drawing air back in through pursed lips, he makes a loud, high-pitched smooching sound while simultaneously poking my ass cheeks with his fingertips, the way Cesar Millan shocks unruly canines back to compliance.

"Fire!" Verstegen yells. "Fire those glutes!"

Instinctively my cheeks contract, and my body rises off the carpet. Verstegen stretches his arms out, palms up, in a hallelujah pose. "The outside world might not talk about them," says the man who trained the rear ends of No. 1 pick Andrew Luck and 62 other players taken in the 2012 draft. "But for us, for athletes, glutes are everything -- the absolute epicenter and powerhouse of all athletic movement.

"It's all about the ass."


IT HAS BEEN all about the ass for more than two million years. When primitive man first raised his hands off the ground to become bipedal, it was the buttocks, serving as a counterbalance to the chest, that allowed our ancestors to stand erect, then propel themselves to the top of the food chain. By 330 B.C., after studying the anthropological and physiological impact of the glutes, Aristotle became the first ass man of record when he boldly declared the booty a hallmark of humanity. "Man needs a seat," he wrote.

Today, in addition to their role as the biggest and most important muscle group in the athlete's body, the glutes serve as a source of pride and envy in locker rooms, a crucial tactile tool for communicating during competition and even an onboard computer, of sorts, at the racetrack. From the dawn of man to the first round of the 2012 draft, no body part has played a more significant role in sports -- or been talked about less outside of it.

"Maybe normal people don't discuss this all day long, but we sure do," says Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. "Every strength coach I've ever been around, it's glute, glute, glute -- always, always, always. It's a broken record. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase 'You want to look better going than coming.'"

No one looks better in the rear view than Dontari Poe, the NFL's new gold standard in badonkadonk. At the combine, the 346-pound nose tackle from Memphis made scouts' hearts race after he ran a 4.98 40-yard dash in a pair of impossibly large compression shorts. Instantly, Poe's bouncing, bodacious bubble butt (also referred to in scouting parlance as the shelf, high ass, assy, great hips, the crevice and the timeless classic "big enough to land airplanes on") turned the usually taciturn fraternity of football scouts into a chatty horde of Sir Mix-a-Lots.

It's glute, glute, glute -- always, always, always. I can't tell you have many times I've heard the phrase, 'You want to look better going than coming.'

-- Matt Hasselbeck

The following is an actual transcript of the NFL Network's TV feed during those five seismic seconds when Poe rendered Mike Mayock, Michael Lombardi and Warren Sapp thunderstruck.

Mayock: "You guys, look at that butt ... are you kidding me?"

Sapp: "That looked so good, didn't it? Holy smokes."

Mayock: "I'm sorry, I'm getting all excited."

Lombardi: "Oh ... "

Mayock: "I'm beside myself."

Lombardi: "That butt, now that's where you get your power from."

Judge not, puritans: Lombardi is exactly right. The bulk of any athlete's power sits squarely in the gluteus maximus. Roughly three times the size of the biceps, it is the largest of the three gluteal muscles. It begins at the top of the pelvis (right near your rear pants pockets). Then it wraps around the bottom of the hip, where it connects to the front side of the femur. Besides giving the butt its girth, the glute max is mainly responsible for hip extension. That means it provides the initial push needed to get up from the bottom of a squat, along with the final stretch of the femur that gives athletes the explosive power needed for jumping, cutting and, in Poe's case, blowing up double-teams and pile-driving quarterbacks.

This summer, after he was taken 11th overall by the Chiefs, Poe spent most of his first rookie minicamp in a four-point stance. He worked for hours on uncoiling at the snap and transferring the stored energy from his hips upward, violently, into the center's chest. When his effort lagged, Chiefs defensive line coach Anthony Pleasant reminded Poe where his power base was by slapping him, loudly, on his hubcap-size hindquarters. After one such prodding near the goal line, Poe blasted out of his stance, knocking an assistant coach woozy and halfway back to the goalpost. "That's my anchor," Poe says proudly. "I've had it since I was a kid, and I appreciate the compliments. But it's a little strange that so many people are talking about it."

He'd better get used to his buttocks being a conversation starter. Among elite athletes, a well-developed backside is a badge of honor, a bulbous symbol of a lifelong, body-altering commitment to the craft. The glutes are so vital and pronounced in the NHL, in fact, that Vancouver-based apparel company Lululemon now markets a line of pants with a wider cut in the seat for what's affectionately known as hockey butt.

"This is a real defining characteristic of a hockey player," says veteran NHL winger Mike Knuble. "There's not a guy in here without a hockey ass. They would get a lot of s-- if they didn't have one."

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Michael Johnson/SCG/Zuma PressDrivers like Mark Martin and Brad Keselowski (right) may talk before races, but once the flag drops, they listen -- intently -- to their bottoms.

Olympic sprinters are subject to even tougher backseat scrutiny. After winning back-to-back NCAA titles in the 200 meters, Wallace Spearmon Jr. turned pro in 2005. But he says he didn't feel he'd arrived until his mom called to tell him, "Wow, you have a really big butt now." After the 2010 season, Spearmon's training lagged. His current coach, Monte Stratton, lamented the loss of his "crevice," the distinct inverted heart-shaped demarcation between the top of the hammy and the bottom of the glutes. Spearmon asked his Twitter followers to take a look and make their assessment. The response was overwhelming: They too wanted more crevice. He went straight to the weight room, got his track booty back and by mid-June owned two of the five best 200-meter times in the world. He was joined at the U.S. Olympic trials by 400-meter gold medal favorite Sanya Richards-Ross, whose husband, Jaguars cornerback Aaron Ross, can predict her performance with just one glance at her glutes. Well? "He thinks it's perfect, Olympic-ready," she says.

What Spearmon's tweeps and Richards-Ross' husband both know is that when it comes to leaving the competition behind, form equals function. Underneath and around the glute max is a critical network of smaller muscles: the gluteus medius, the gluteus minimus and a group of thinner muscles known as the deep six. Together, they surround the femur and pelvis like a rubber-band ball. By providing lift, heft and firmness, these muscles give the athlete's butt its distinct look. They also act as stabilizers for the legs and the torso. Put more simply, the butt -- which most of us treat as if it were a vestigial bleacher cushion -- isn't just the main engine of the lower body, it's also the steering wheel.

But wait, there's more. Any act of throwing or hitting is a byproduct of the rotational torque created by the uncoiling of the hips, core and torso -- a kinetic catapult that begins and ends, you guessed it, with the butt. That's why at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., when it's time to teach campers how to throw the long ball, Peyton, Eli and Archie can all be seen accentuating their technique by patting the butt cheek above their plant foot. And why, despite weighing all of 195 pounds and lacking Popeye arms, Yankees All-Star centerfielder Curtis Granderson crushed 41 homers last year and led the AL with 119 RBIs. He generates power and drive, he says, "from the belly button down." Hitting, he says, is a battle of the bulge because the best pitchers also "have a lot of meat back there."

The butt, which most of us treat as a vestigial bleacher cushion, isn't just the main engine of the lower body -- it's also the steering wheel.

Adds Yankees teammate Nick Swisher: "Your legs and your butt take the swing. Look at a guy like Albert Pujols. He's not a monster dude up top, but he's a monster guy down low. Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Hank Aaron -- all monster legs and ass."

And when that monster is hurting, it's hard for athletes to function. Verstegen believes that as much as 70 percent of overuse injuries in sports are a result of gluteal dysfunction, though numbers are hard to track because of the stigma attached to announcing an ailing ass. Hasselbeck knows that better than anyone else. When he was with the Seahawks in 2010, the QB says he took a helmet to his left butt cheek in a late-season game. The following week, when he tried to play against the Bucs, "I felt something snap in my ass," he says.

But on the injury report that week, Hasselbeck's doubtful status was explained as a hip injury. In reality, trainers were draining syringes full of yellow fluid from his swelled glutes every day, right up until kickoff of Seattle's wild-card playoff game against the Saints. "It's embarrassing," he says. "They aren't gonna put 'QB tore his glute' on there. It's really not funny -- it was actually painful and kind of scary."

By game time, ass-piration had led to inspiration. Despite being sore and gimpy, Hasselbeck threw four touchdowns against the defending champs, leading the Seahawks to a 41-36 upset victory. By the time he hit the showers, he says the bruise on his battered butt cheek was as big and colorful as "an Arizona sunset."

That grotesque discoloration was a clear warning to teammates not to include their quarterback in the time-honored football tradition of the celebratory butt slap. And according to recent research, that makes the Seahawks' win even more astounding -- because butt slappers win more. Inside loud sports arenas, players must rely heavily on tactile cues to clearly and quickly signal success, happiness, anger and even trust. The butt plays a major part in delivering those messages. A 2001 study in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior tracked the touching habits of 171 college athletes. The stunning discovery? The butt slap trails only high-fives and hand taps as the most preferred and effective nonverbal tool for jocks. On a molecular level, butt slaps produce oxytocin, the hormone that generates feelings of trust. In other words, there's a scientific connection between flicking ass and kicking ass.

NASCAR drivers take "talking out of your ass" to a whole different level. In the past two decades, as Sprint Cup teams moved from bias-ply to the stronger and less sensitive radial tires, the feel for the control and balance of the car moved from the driver's hands to the seat of his pants. Drivers use the more than 40 nerve-rich pieces of connective tissue in the glutes as a sixth sense, helping them to read the road with a kind of butt braille. "My ass is my compass," says 2010 Nationwide Series champion Brad Keselowski. "Without it, I'd crash like an airplane."

In 2000, while driving for Richard Petty during an open test at Daytona, John Andretti pulled his car into the garage, where it was immediately hooked up to a diagnostic computer. While waiting for the data to download, the King himself climbed down from his observation deck and in his curd-chewing drawl asked Andretti, "What'd yer ass tell ya?" Andretti thought for a moment, then told Petty that the car needed a few more pounds of air pressure in the left front tire.

"You heard him, boys," shouted Petty. "Coupla pounds in the left front!"

As he walked away, the King pointed at his own rear end. "'At's still the best computer God ever gave a race car driver," he said.


SO MARK VERSTEGEN was right: It's all about the ass. After 90 days of interviewing athletes, trainers and scientists about the rear end, I find myself coming full circle at the Olympic media summit in Dallas this spring. Late in the day, while walking through the Hilton Anatole hotel's second-floor lobby, I spot Hyleas Fountain, the 2008 silver medalist in the heptathlon, and I jump at the chance to talk to one of the most fit athletes in the world.

During the past three months, I had nailed down the anthropology, physiology and even the sociology of the glutes. All the while, I heard rumors of a crippling injury known as booty lock. When elite athletes give in to fatigue due to a buildup of lactic acid in their muscles, they supposedly feel it first, and worst, in their butt.

Quickly and emphatically, Fountain confirms the existence of booty lock. "What does it feel like?" I stupidly ask.

Somehow, once again, I find myself contorted on the fancy lobby floor of a Hilton, bent over at the waist, right in the middle of foot traffic, while a total stranger is analyzing my ass. Fountain instructs me to violently knuckle-punch my own butt cheeks. It's a debilitating pain. Even if I wanted to stand back up, I would have struggled. As I follow her orders, decathlete Trey Hardee and several other Olympians pass by, with knowing nods and whispers. "Ah, booty lock," I hear.

It's hard for me to respond, because hanging here, upside down, my face is hidden from sight. Then I catch a glimpse of an angry Hilton security guard rapidly approaching us from his post.

And I swear -- he has a look on his face as if he recognizes my butt from somewhere.

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