Defensive back Bryan Scott was like most of the Buffalo Bills when he first met strength and conditioning coach John Gamble back in the spring.
Scott didn't know much about him.
"I was in the weight room," recalled Scott, "and he had picked up, like, 50-pound dumbbells. I said, 'Coach, be careful, I don't want you to hurt yourself.' One of the other coaches was like, 'Do you know what he used to do?' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Go home and Google his name.' "
What Scott learned was Gamble brings lofty credentials to his job.
"I found out he puts houses on his back," Scott joked.
Make that used to put houses on his back. The 53-year-old Virginia native was the top-ranked powerlifter in the world in the 275-pound class from 1981 to 1983. He once lifted 826 1/2 pounds off the ground. He was inducted to the U.S. Weightlifting Hall of Fame in 1999.
Gamble quit competitive lifting way back in 1984, the year he became a full-time strength and conditioning coach. He has coached in the NFL for the past 17 years.
Bills players say Gamble never says a word about his competitive exploits.
"You would never know any of that from talking to him," linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "He's a very low-key guy."
But players come to realize Gamble speaks from great experience. Gamble has been an influential presence on the team this season, both in the weight room and outside it.
"He's one of those guys who's not only studied his job but he's participated in the world's strongest man competition," Bills linebacker Akin Ayodele said. "When he says this is probably how you want to go about conditioning yourself, you know that he's been through it and he knows what we're going through. From his workouts, you understand you're going to get stronger, you're going to get better."
Gamble worked for the Miami Dolphins from 1994 through last season. That's where he crossed paths with Bills coach Chan Gailey, who was offensive coordinator with the Dolphins in 2000 and 2001.
When Gailey was named Bills head coach, he decided to place a greater emphasis on strength and conditioning. He hired co-strength coaches, bringing Gamble from the Dolphins and Eric Ciano from Georgia Tech, where Gailey had coached from 2002 to 2007.
Gamble generally oversees the big men. Ciano generally oversees the speed positions.
For all players, there has been a greater emphasis placed on powerlifting. The Bills do more "cleans" and "squats" than ever before.
The clean portion of the lift refers to the lifter explosively pulling the weight from the floor to a racked position across deltoids and clavicles. A squat lift is an exercise that trains primarily the muscles of the thighs, hips, hamstrings and buttocks.
"It's very different than what we've done in the past," Posluszny said. "This is the first year in my career that I've cleaned. I didn't do it in school or my first three years here. It's a good addition. I think the way it transfers on the field is I'm more explosive through my hips and use them more."
"It's more powerlifting here," tackle Mansfield Wrotto said. "Front squats, back squats, shoulder, quads, hamstrings, hips, [abdominal] workouts. It's a little more intense than it was when I was in Seattle. But I think it's beneficial. It's helped me maintain strength throughout the entire season. The lower-body work has helped me out a lot, considering that the greatest strength coming off the line is from the lower body -- the legs, the glutes, the core stability. You use your hands mostly for punching and grabbing."
Players also like the variety of the team's workouts.
"He also understands the nature of the game, and he changes his workouts so it's not so predictable," Ayodele said. "It doesn't get so monotonous that after weeks and weeks you get bored."
Gailey's aim has been to build a bigger, stronger, more physical team. The Bills have been pushed around in the AFC East for much of this decade. On defense under former coach Dick Jauron, they were decidedly the smallest team in the division.
Of course, it's hard to draw a direct line for any team from weight-room statistics to wins on the field. But Gailey thinks the team's weight program is helping.
"I thought the first year we've made very good progress," Gailey said. "But really, the way you build is over a series of offseasons with guys. If we can get another good offseason with these guys, which obviously is still up in the air, we think we can make really good strides. But I think we made good strides in basic core lower body strength with our linemen this past year."
It's also hard to identify the secret to avoiding injuries in the NFL. The Bills had the most injury-plagued roster in the league last season, with 18 guys going on injured reserve from Week One to the end of the year. The Bills have put 10 in IR since Week One this year (not counting Shawne Merriman, who arrived injured). That's fewer but still a lot.
"The stronger you are, the better you can avoid injuries in the long run," Gailey said. "The things that happen on the field sometimes happen. You can't control those. But I do feel we can stave off injuries and increase our production later in the season with added strength."
Gamble has shied away from the spotlight his entire NFL career. Very little has been written about him. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Players say that's consistent with Gamble's style. He's a big man who speaks softly but has a big presence behind the scenes.
In fact, Gamble spent the last four years of his Miami tenure working as the team's director of player development, helping players with many off-the-field issues.
"He's a man I think very highly of, probably one of the top three men I know in this world," said linebacker Reggie Torbor, who came to the Bills from the Dolphins. "It's funny. I've been playing football since I was 6 years old and I've only had probably two or three coaches that can have a relationship where you can approach them, but they also don't cross the line as far as: I am the coach, you are the player. There's a respect line there. I'm not trying to be your buddy-buddy, but if you have something to say, you can come to me."
"He's a person I've looked to for advice, on and off the field," Ayodele said. "I'm pretty sure if I needed something he'd be there."
Numerous players see Gamble as a voice of reason and insight.
"I worked with him in Miami and had a great deal of respect for his knowledge, his work ethic, all the tangible things," Gailey said. "Then getting to know him as a person, I realized all the intangibles he brings to the table. You can't put a value on that."
"People say this is a game," Torbor said, "but things happen at work here, just like they happen at anybody's workplace. And you get the hot head. Sometimes he might say, 'Let's think about this. Maybe you didn't think about this.' He has a presence. He's not a yes-man. Sometimes what he says is the hard thing to say. But you respect him for it."