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Eagles rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell is driven to excel, and it shows

Eagles rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell doesn't need anyone to motivate him

Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell (14) during practice at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. The Eagles will face the San Francisco 49ers at home in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.
Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell (14) during practice at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. The Eagles will face the San Francisco 49ers at home in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Kenny Gainwell is beat.

It’s a Thursday evening in early April in Orlando, Fla., and the former Memphis running back is in the final stretch of an eight-hour predraft workout. Gainwell’s long day has consisted of lifting, Pilates, and on-field work. The final task on his to-do list: catch 300 footballs from the JUGS machine.

Following a quick sip from his water bottle, Gainwell is ready to attack the JUGS.

With his personal trainer Bert Whigham feeding the machine, he catches the first 200 balls with ease. Not a single observer is present to witness his masterful catch-and-tuck form, which helped Gainwell total 610 receiving yards during his one full season in 2019 at Memphis.

After catch No. 200, Whigham pauses for a second and grabs a nearby BOSU ball and places it in front of the JUGS machine. Gainwell already knows the drill. He carefully steps onto the BOSU ball and proceeds to catch 50 more footballs ... while balancing on one leg. He switches legs for the final 50 reps.

This is like clockwork for the player the Eagles would draft in the fifth round.

“He trained pretty much by himself,” Whigham said of Gainwell. “He’s not bought into any of the other bull. He’s all football. He really is. The fact Kenny could sit and live a slow life and just focus on himself for month after month.

“He has a grown-up approach to this sport. His willingness to do two-a-days. Hard sessions and then come out and catch 300 balls on the JUGS. It was by himself.”

During a phone interview with The Inquirer earlier this week, Whigham’s tone noticeably changes when he mentions Gainwell trained alone. He emphasizes this point. Even repeats it.

It took a lot for Gainwell to leave everything behind in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss. His family means the world to him. He finds infinite inspiration in his older brother, Curtis, who overcame a life-altering stroke when Kenny was 13. At the time, Curtis needed three lifesaving surgeries in one day to stop brain bleed.

“What he’s gone through, what he’s had to deal with, has only made me work harder,” Gainwell said. “I’m playing for the both of us.”

After losing four family members to COVID-19, Gainwell opted out of Memphis’ season last year and set his eyes on the NFL draft. He was confident that if he put in enough work, he’d be able to take care of Curtis and the rest of his family. And if he needed any extra convincing, all Gainwell needed to do was look at his cousin ... Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

“I’m extremely happy he’s here,” Cox said earlier this week. “He’s a hard worker and he’s incredibly tough to contain. That’s family right there.”

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Gainwell, 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, plays bigger than his frame, and it shows on tape.

Whigham, who counts Miles Sanders, Saquon Barkley, Dak Prescott, and Khalil Mack among his clients, noticed this about Gainwell when he was first introduced to him at the beginning of 2020. Whigham had previously trained Cowboys running back Tony Pollard, Gainwell’s former college teammate.

“The moment we met, I already knew he was talented,” Whigham said. “You could tell how explosive he was. The way he ran routes, that’s something that I have rarely seen in a running back. The way he was fluid and could cut in and out of breaks, he’s a receiver but has the build of a running back.

“I was blown away.”

When the pandemic hit, Memphis didn’t allow any athletes to stay on campus. So Gainwell fled to Orlando and set up shop with Whigham.

Of all places to train ... Orlando?

“If they can stay still, meaning most athletes want to train in L.A. or Arizona or Miami because they want to work out but they also want to live fast,” Whigham said. “You can’t really do that in Orlando, not like in those other cities.”

While Gainwell trained in Florida, his lone hobby was fishing. He says he enjoys the peacefulness of being out on the water and the jolt of adrenaline he feels whenever his line gets a bite. When Gainwell wasn’t on the football field, in the gym or studying tape, he was likely fishing with former Central Florida receiver Gabriel Davis, another Whigham client now with the Buffalo Bills.

“They became good friends,” Whigham said. “It was all about the work, none of the off-field distractions.”

This past weekend, Whigham watched Gainwell make his NFL debut from his home in Sanford, Fla. Gainwell finished with nine rushes for 37 yards and one touchdown. He also caught two passes for 6 yards while splitting reps in the backfield with Sanders. Most notably, Gainwell was on the field during the two-minute drill at the end of the first half against the Falcons.

“He has the best hands in our running back room,” Sanders said. “That’s his thing — the two-minute drill. That’s it.”

Said Whigham: “We knew the best way to get him on the field was for him to be a receiving back. Kenny is on a different level than most running backs. He can naturally run whips or jerk routes, where you’re doing multiple routes, setting up defenders to go one way and you’re going the other. He’s just so smooth with that type of stuff. We knew that was the differentiator.”

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His ability as a receiver might have been what attracted the Eagles to Gainwell. But his willingness to block might be what earns him consistent reps. On multiple occasions in Week 1, Gainwell stepped up, flashed power, and executed precise blocks with proper form. At one point, Gainwell pancaked Falcons defensive end Dante Fowler, who outweighs him by 60 pounds.

“We had to show that he could protect,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “Because we know his ability as a pass catcher. ... We had to feel comfortable that he was a complete player there before we put him out there.”

No longer training alone, Gainwell has fully arrived to the NFL. Sirianni showed confidence in using Gainwell in different packages and his usage could increase as the season develops and the first-year coach reveals more wrinkles in the offense.

“It felt different because I’m now in the big leagues,” Gainwell said. “I’ve got to make sure I have to listen to calls from the center and quarterback. I have to understand everything and be attentive.”

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Other notes

  1. By the end of the week, every player on the roster practiced at some capacity. Only safety Rodney McLeod (knee) was ruled out of Sunday’s home opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Running back Miles Sanders (ankle), wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (ankle), tight end Zach Ertz (hamstring), offensive lineman Brandon Brooks (knee) and cornerback Avonte Maddox (groin) were all listed as limited participants earlier in the week. “I feel good with our secondary,” Sirianni said. “We have some really good playmakers back there.”

  2. Ahead of Sunday’s home opener, the Eagles held practice Friday at Lincoln Financial Field. Sirianni plans to make this a regular occurrence throughout the season, weather permitting. He discussed wanting to get players properly adapted their surroundings. “Our main reason why is ‘cause we’re playing there Sunday,” Sirianni said. “We have an easy trip to get over there. Not every stadium is next to their facility. If it matters this much, it’s worth it. The receivers get to see the ball a certain way in that stadium. Just the surroundings of being there and executing plays in the stadium. I really believe [there’s] a difference.”

  1. Sirianni sported a T-shirt with Jalen Hurts’ face planted front and center on Friday. Said Sirianni: “I’m just supporting Jalen. ... Letting him know I believe in him.”