ORLANDO, Fla. — On the morning of his 23rd birthday, Kenneth Gainwell’s phone is blowing up. He flashes a wide smile as he receives text messages from family, friends, and distant acquaintances. While seated on a bench located inside a modest-size weight room, Gainwell excitedly scrolls. But when the clock strikes 8:45 a.m., the Eagles running back silences his phone and tosses it aside.

He then flips on the hood attached to his black Eagles sweatshirt, pulls down on the drawstrings and suddenly, Gainwell appears to be in a different mode. After he stretches for roughly 15 minutes, it’s time to work.

On this Monday in March, Gainwell is working out alongside his close friend, Bills receiver Gabriel Davis, and under the guidance of “NFL Draft Academy” performance trainer Bert Whigham. For the next five hours, Gainwell will cut his connection to the outside world, and push his body and mind to extreme limits.

Gainwell is what many NFL scouts and coaches would consider a diamond in the rough. After starring as a redshirt freshman at the University of Memphis in 2019, he earned All-AAC first-team honors. Ahead of the ensuing season, he was named a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, an award that was eventually claimed by current teammate DeVonta Smith.

But the pandemic hit Gainwell’s family hard. He lost two uncles and an aunt due to complications with COVID-19. That led to Gainwell opting out of the 2020 season. He later set up shop with Whigham in central Florida, where he began preparing for last year’s NFL draft.

Gainwell slipped into the fifth round, and the Eagles selected him with the 150th pick. Despite beginning the season behind running backs Miles Sanders and Boston Scott on the depth chart, Gainwell finished his rookie campaign with six total touchdowns, which ranked second behind Scott.

On several instances throughout the season, coach Nick Sirianni referenced Gainwell as a player he can never get on the bus without. His hunger, his grit, his motivation — it’s all heightened whether he’s inside the weight room or on the field.

“I’m trying to go into Year 2 and go crazy,” Gainwell said during The Inquirer’s recent visit with him. “Year 1 was good for me. But I feel like Coach Sirianni, he knows what he got out of me. I’m coming back and I’m going to go off.”

‘One of the best athletes I’ve ever coached’

Gainwell was a hurdle machine at Memphis.

Whenever he found himself in the open field, he made it a goal to put his opponents on highlight reels. That often was the result with him thriving as a gadget running back in Mike Norvell’s RPO offense. He’d line up in the backfield, from the slot, even at quarterback.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody work harder than Kenny Gainwell,” Norvell recently told The Inquirer. “Kenny is one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached.”

In 2019 at Memphis, Gainwell rushed for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three touchdowns. His 2,069 all-purpose yards was the most of any freshman across the FBS.

When asked for his fondest memories of his former player, Norvell didn’t mention Gainwell’s record-setting, on-field achievements. Rather, he traced back to one of their first interactions. Before the start of a spring practice, Norvell quizzed the offense about a specific package that required an abundance of pre-snap movement. He likened the buildup to the formation and snap to the most difficult and longest word in a spelling bee. To his surprise, Gainwell spelled out the entire play set, including cadence, blocking assignments, routes specific to each receiver, and the quarterback’s line of progressions.

Norvell, along with his entire coaching staff, was floored.

“We used him in a lot of different ways,” said Norvell, who is now the head coach at Florida State. “We knew the impact he was capable of. But with that, he had to learn the entire spectrum of the offense. To understand not only his protections and rushes, but also route concepts.

“His investment and hard work was remarkable.”

Said Gainwell: “I just want to dominate. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the actual field or the playbook, I’m attacking every part ‘cause that’s all I know.”

‘The hits keep coming’

Expectations can be tame for mid- to late-round draft picks. They typically don’t arrive to the NFL with the same hype as first-round selections, which leaves room for patience and growth. However, Gainwell burst loudly onto the scene.

He impressed Sirianni and running backs coach Jemal Singleton throughout training camp. Following intense joint preseason practices with the Jets, Gainwell backed up all of his trash talking on game day when he scored a rushing touchdown.

That momentum later carried over into the regular season. The Eagles began the year with an imbalanced offense before Sirianni readjusted midseason and shifted toward a run-heavy game plan. While the team favored gashing opponents on the ground, that didn’t necessarily mean Gainwell was guaranteed his touches.

His toughest test came during Week 11. Right before the game against the New Orleans Saints, Gainwell was surprisingly on the team’s inactive list as the Eagles cruised to a 40-29 victory with Sanders and Jordan Howard as the top running backs. Deep down, Gainwell — like how most other players would react in the moment — was crushed. He thought he had proved he belonged. At that point of the season, Gainwell was tied with Smith for most touchdowns on the team with four each.

When Sirianni delivered the news that he wouldn’t be suiting up that week, Gainwell bit his lip and kept his head down. Have a seat on the bench, rook — a rude welcome to the NFL.

After he processed the team’s decision, Gainwell dug deep and remembered, “this is only football.”

“This is a guy – I feel like he’s unfazed,” Sirianni said at the end of December. “He’s able to put behind him, bad things that have happened and good things that have happened, and just work on getting better. After he was inactive, I remember him coming up me and saying, ‘Anything I can do to help this team, I’m here.’ You just admire that in guys that, even through a difficult time. ...I have no doubt that Kenny Gainwell will be able to [reach his ceiling] here as an Eagle.”

Away from the field, he has endured more than his share of trials that make this type of adversity appear minuscule. Growing up in Yazoo City, Miss., Gainwell cherished his family. His biggest inspiration in life is his older brother, Curtis, who overcame a life-altering stroke when Kenneth was 13. At the time, Curtis needed three lifesaving surgeries in one day to stop a brain bleed. Curtis is still dealing with aftereffects from the stroke.

“That’s my No. 1 priority,” Gainwell said. “I want to take care of them, just for them to be comfortable in life. Between my brother and then losing uncles to COVID, that was such a hard time for my family. It’s extremely tough. My grandma just passed four weeks ago. The hits keep coming. But I need to focus on the task at hand. It’s my goal to continue bringing positivity in life.”

Football is his joy, his peace. And during times of distress, Gainwell remembers his family.

“He has incredible purpose with what he’s trying to achieve,” Norvell said. “After one conversation, you have a sense of the genuineness and heart of Kenny. He is all about relationships. He really cares about people.”

‘We revere football’

Back inside the weight room that overlooks the practice fields sitting on the campus of the University of Central Florida, Gainwell lets out a scream and pounds his chest after he completes a set of banded bench presses.

He jumps up from the bench, turns around, daps up Whigham, stares into the mirror and flexes his bulging muscles the way a bodybuilder poses at a competition.

“That’s a biiiig body!” Davis shouts. “My guy, Kenny G!”

This space serves as Gainwell’s haven. After being introduced to Whigham a few years ago while he was still attending Memphis, Gainwell became intrigued by his training program, which Whigham describes as intricate and intense. Over the last decade, Whigham has trained numerous NFL players, including Sanders, Saquon Barkley, Latavius Murray, Dak Prescott, and Khalil Mack.

Whigham is proudest of his budding relationship with Gainwell, Davis, and Saints receiver Tre’Quan Smith. The trio of players have been working together on a daily basis since the start of the offseason. Smith and Davis both attended UCF, and they’ve welcomed Gainwell with open arms.

“Once you find a guy like Kenny who has the same mindset as you, it’s pretty easy to be around him,” said Davis, who broke the NFL record for most receiving touchdowns in a postseason game when he scored four times vs. the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC divisional round. “Bert knows we put a lot of work in. It’s genuine people here, and we’re going to take care of you when times are hard, as they’ve been with Kenny.”

Davis continued: “I wish he was up in Buffalo. I was raving to my coaches how we needed to pick him up. But he’s all business in Philadelphia — he’s balling out.”

Gainwell is built like a bowling ball, Whigham references. He’s 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds — coming out of Memphis, some analysts and scouts questioned his size and wondered if his success would translate in the NFL. Gainwell utilizes his strength to bounce off defenders, drive his legs into the ground, and tumble into the end zone. Gainwell plays well above his size, and his pass-catching ability is widely viewed as one of his strongest traits. By the end of his rookie year, Sirianni tabbed Gainwell as the featured tailback in nearly all of the team’s goal-line packages.

There’s a bit of uncertainty regarding the starting role beyond this season as Sanders enters the final year of his rookie contract. Gainwell insists he’ll be satisfied with any role, but he proved to be productive in limited reps.

He finished his rookie campaign with 68 carries, 291 rushing yards, and five rushing touchdowns. He also hauled in 33 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown. Gainwell was quietly efficient; of his 101 touches, he recorded 33 first downs.

“I appreciate his sacrifice,” Whigham said. “What he’s sacrificing to be great. He moved away from his family and away from his Memphis team, and came down here because he knew he was in a good system, in a good place. That’s rare for a 23-year-old to up and leave and just create a new home, new environment, new place to get better.

“Young guys especially, they think because of their talent, they deserve to play football. [At Draft Academy], you do not deserve to play football. It is a privilege to play football, and we treat it that way. That’s where we set the tone. We revere football.”

» READ MORE: Eagles rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell is driven to excel, and it shows

During this session, Whigham concentrates on improving the group’s speed and mobility. The full-body, two-a-day workout is filled with a variety of concentrated and also sudden movements. After watching the three players rotate between sets, Gainwell’s intense workout ethic becomes obvious. Despite the disparity in size between the three players, not once does Gainwell lower the weight.

“This is their life — they’re competing with each other,” said Whigham of the atmosphere created by Gainwell and Davis. “They’re not in it as a competition against each other. When you have guys that deep down want it for themselves, that mentality comes out of them. Neither of them are going to lower the weight. They’re both in competition within themselves. Most people live by comparison. But Kenny just lives to his capacity, and he doesn’t have to worry about anyone else.”

Outside of football, Gainwell and Davis enjoy playing video games and fishing — both are in agreement that Davis is the superior fisherman, but Gainwell claims he’d stomp Davis in a private lobby on Call of Duty: Warzone. At one point during the workout, Davis flipped on one of the 60-inch TVs mounted on the wall and pulled up a Warzone streamer on Twitch. During his free time, Gainwell streams video games himself from his Twitch account.

“You’ve got to have fun,” Davis said. “It’s a grind, it’s a process — but not every day you’re going to feel ready. Doing things like watching Twitch during our rest periods, it relaxes you a little bit. We try to keep it comfortable here.”

After wrapping up a 2½-hour session in the weight room, it’s time to transition to the football field. The group heads toward UCF’s indoor practice facility, where sled machines and stacks of 45-pound plates await. Gainwell is the first one to strap the sled to his body. With country music blaring on a portable speaker, he blasts off with his eyes set straight ahead.

In his mind, the weight he slugs behind him is slight compared to everything Gainwell has endured to this point. During the final 20-yard stretch of sled sprints, Gainwell hears Davis and Tre’Quan Smith inching behind him. Before they can fully catch up, Gainwell exhausts himself and reaches the end zone first.