NOTE: The following text is unedited and thus may differ somewhat from what appeared in the Kansas City Star.
Dogged coach gets town moving
By Janet Majure
Like waves on a beach, people surge onto the field at KU’s Memorial Stadium at regular intervals all summer and then drain back out to parts unknown. They are there to participate in Red Dog’s Dog Days, a community exercise program.
“Red Dog” is Don Gardner, and if he were a canine, he might be an Australian Koolie, a breed known for its stamina, love of work and eagerness to please. Instead of herding sheep or cattle, though, Gardner herds hundreds of people on their way to fitness.
He isn’t in it for the money. Indeed, participants don’t pay a cent. Gardner instead reaps the benefits of personal satisfaction, friendships and helping others as he leads the conditioning program now in its 25th year.
Laura Dahnert, 47, a participant in her 11th year, said recently, “It’s such a labor of love it’s incredible.”
When Don Gardner, 69, and Jim O’Connell started the workouts back in 1984, with help from Gardner’s daughter Leslie, their goals were modest. Gardner and O’Connell, who were in law enforcement and volunteered with the Lawrence High football program, wanted to get football players in shape so they would be ready when the football season started. O’Connell said they especially wanted to help a few players who were prone to knee injuries, “so they didn’t have so many.”
“We had five or six players,” Gardner said. “The next year we had a few more.”
A couple of years after that volleyball players started attending, “all of them super athletes,” he said, noting Lawrence High’s dominance in high school volleyball competition in those days. Pretty soon, soccer players and their coach joined in to get ready for the fall season, and the leaders started taking roll.
Gardner, a longtime sports fan, also knew the school’s long-term athletic prowess lay in younger athletes, and he began to look beyond the current players and the upcoming season.
“I said, ‘Bring your little brother, your little sister,'” he recalled. “Sometimes I would see a parent out watching (and say) ‘They might as well come, too.'”
Somewhere in around 1988, they started calling the workouts Dog Days, a nod to Gardner’s Red Dog nickname, which the now-graying redhead picked up in junior high school.
In the gray light of dawn on any given summer morning, hundreds of people stream quietly through Gate 30 of Memorial Stadium where they check in with Beverly Gardner, Don’s wife, or one of her helpers before trudging up concrete steps to enter the stands of the 1921 stadium.
It’s a mixed crowd. A young man in dreadlocks walks near a 60-ish construction contractor wearing a cast on his arm. A 50-something mother with her college-age daughter enter together. A few have the taut bodies of committed fitness buffs. Others have spare tires overlapping their waistbands. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, retirees, young parents, high school athletes, business owners and children flow in. A few women and their friends hoist occupied jogging strollers up the stairs and into the stadium.
As the people descend to the playing field, they deposit keys, cell phones, towels and more on aluminum bleachers and set water bottles strategically along the track. Then they scatter from end zone to end zone and generally along stripes at 10-yard intervals down the field.
One day in June, Gardner, a wiry fellow in a ball cap, walks in the north end zone and lifts a microphone to his face. As stragglers enter, he starts without ado.
“OK, let’s stretch,” he says. Speaking with a bit of a growl and twang, he instructs people to reach for the sky, touch their toes, lean to this side and that before he launches them into a series of calisthenics-squats, pushups, leg-raises. Beside and behind him a half-dozen leaders-obscured to most of the crowd-go through the exercises.
Gardner launches into announcements-about running and charity events and the Dog Days 25th anniversary celebration on July 17 and the day’s post-workout coffee venue-before sending the crowd to run the stadium’s steps.
About 30 minutes after the workout began, the people, winded and sweaty, head to the parking lot.
Gardner is quick to note that he is not a certified trainer. He got his education in athletic training on the job in the early 1960s as a student trainer with the football team at the University of Kansas, working under revered trainer Dean Nesmith. (Nesmith, who died in 1985, is a member of the National Athletic Trainers Association’s Hall of Fame and was trainer at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.)
“I picked it up real quick,” Gardner says, “and I liked it.” He adds that he might have become a trainer if he’d finished college. Gardner excelled in taping football players’ ankles, knees and whatever else needed taping.
In the 1960s, some former KU players who had children at Lawrence High recruited him to volunteer with the high school football team, which in time led to the summer program. A couple of years later-“I don’t know where I came up with the idea,” he says-he approached Floyd Temple, then in charge of KU’s athletic facilities, and asked if the group could use Memorial Stadium.
“He said, ‘Yes, that’s OK. I’ll need $25 for the key,'” Gardner recalls. “I never have gotten that $25 back.” He laughs and ventures that KU officials probably have been cussing Temple ever since. “Make sure you thank the KU athletic department,” he adds.
If they’re cursing him now, they’re doing it privately. Jim Marchiony, associate athletic director, says KU continues to allow Dog Days, and at no charge, “because it’s an exercise of good will, it helps people stay active and healthy, and we’re glad to be able to help with that.”
He also says that if any other schools have similar arrangements, he’s unaware of it.
The athletic department also employs Gardner as supervisor of class checkers. Those are people who check to make sure scholarship athletes, especially freshman, are attending class.
Off the cuff
Some 800 people showed up for the first morning session in June this year. Although Dog Days is a year-round venture, participation swells in the summertime. (See sidebar.) In July, the program intensifies, but participation remains high. Late in the month more than 650 were showing up on a typical weekday morning, plus about 80 at noon and 450 in the evening. And, yes, a few people show up more than once a day.
One noontime in July, Gardner stood in the heat of the day and hollered instructions. It’s the same routine, more or less, that he gave the much-larger morning group and that he would give the evening group, but he makes the workouts up as he goes.
“A planner I am not,” he said, although he does recruit various guest speakers, especially sports figures, to address participants.
Beverly Gardner, 52, does the planning. She oversees the thrice-daily check-ins-before work, during lunch break, and after working her full-time job as a mainframe computer technician with Douglas County-and collects sponsorships to buy the T-shirts that the program awards to participants who attend at least 25 summer sessions. The couple also cash in aluminum cans that they ask participants to contribute.
She’s been helping with the program since she and Don married in 1995, and she enforced a little more structure in the T-shirt department. Don Gardner says he always gave athletes T-shirts, often freebies that he picked up from various sources, and he and O’Connell started taking roll just a couple of years into the program.
By the time Beverly Gardner came into the picture, many more people were joining in. She organized and later computerized the attendance lists.
At the end of the sessions, Don used to go through two lists of participants-the young people and the “has-beens” (the ones out of high school)-and identify people to receive shirts even though they didn’t join in the required number of workouts. He couldn’t say “no” to the kids. This year, the coveted T-shirts are handed out August 8.
“Don’s theory is if you came, you get a shirt. ‘If you came once and I know your daddy is really great, I give him a shirt,'” she says, imitating him. Now, she says, Don only gets the adult list to review.
After the brothers, sisters and parents joined in back in the 1980s and 1990s, other adults started showing up, including those who had taken part as high school students. Don Gardner recites lists of people who have participated at one time or another, from Keith DeLong, who later played in the National Football League, to groups of U.S. Marine ROTC students from KU to assorted Lawrence community leaders to (more recently) country singing star Sarah Buxton, a former Lawrence resident who made an appearance this summer, too.
As the program has grown, it’s also changed.
“Don has to think of ways to keep it from getting too crowded,” said Jerry Henley, a 66-year-old retiree who has been participating since 1997 and pitches in to help where needed. Case in point: One morning Don Gardner divides the crowd into male and female on opposite sidelines and then starts them by age groups to do high-kick walking across the field. Henley also said that they added a sound system last year so that everyone could hear.
Don Gardner says the workouts involve less running than they used to, partly due to the size of the crowds, and fewer young people, at least as a percentage of the participants. Gardner always wants more kids.
“I just like more kids,” he says. “The more kids I get, the happier I am.”
The program’s success also has contributed to some losses. O’Connell left the program in 2002, partly because of a change in his job schedule but also partly because the crowds diluted the youth contingent. In 2003, Lawrence High football coach Dirk Wedd decided to provide his own summer conditioning program for his players.
Wedd praised Dog Days as “a tremendous community thing,” but said “I just felt like I couldn’t monitor the kids too well. It almost became too popular.” Lawrence High also got the services of Fred Roll, former strength coach at KU. “It was definitely nothing against Red Dog (Gardner),” Wedd said.
It hurt Gardner just the same: “I was about ready to quit. You wear out. You think people are tired of you.”
Renewing the tradition
People just keep coming, though, including the Lawrence Free State High School football team and the Lawrence high volleyball team.
Stephanie Magnuson, 30, the second-year volleyball coach at Lawrence High school, was a Lawrence High volleyball player when she started doing Dog Days in 1991. There were about 50 participants then, mostly students.
“It was required for the high school volleyball team,” she said. “I hated running. Red Dog really took me under his wing and helped me. Of course, he took us all, football and volleyball players, under his wing. Soccer, too. We were his babies.”
Magnuson requires her team to attend now, and once a week she follows the Dog Days workout with additional jumping training. She says that while the crowd can get in the way of her players’ getting a maximum workout, Dog Days is still worth it as it helps the team and the community connect.
“It’s good for the community to be behind us,” she said. “It makes a big difference.”
“Community” may well be a key to the program’s success.
Participant Dahnert says it is for people from “all walks of life, all stages of fitness. It’s for everyone; everybody can do Dog Days,” a sentiment echoed by many people interviewed.
Beverly Gardner understands.
“My first Dog Days, I couldn’t even do a push up,” she says. “I was not athletic.” But with lots of encouragement, she kept working at it, and now she’s as fit as anyone and she gets pleasure watching others become fit.
“I always look forward to it,” she said. “It’s like family reunion.”
Don Gardner does not complete the workouts regularly any more, but he runs “at the tail” on Saturday mornings. Beverly usually completes the morning workouts and a Saturday run.
They spend about five hours a day in the summer time setting up, taking down, doing the workouts and taking care of details. “We give up our summer entirely,” Beverly says. “We live out of laundry baskets.”
In addition, Don also mows lawns all season long; Beverly did, too, until last year, but it got to be too much as the Dog Days recordkeeping grew.
Don Gardner can’t explain why he continues Dog Days but says he must like doing it. He likes to see the local teams win state titles, but mostly, he says, he likes people. It appears that they like him, too, which means that if he were a canine, he’d be wagging his tail.
It’s always time for Dog Days
Don Gardner leads fitness activities year-round in Lawrence.
- Running only 7 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. Saturdays on KU’s West Campus
- Workouts 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays in June
- Workouts 6 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays<> in July, with the last day usually some time during first week of August
Fall, until Thanksgiving
- Running only 8 a.m. Saturdays starting from 8th and Vermont streets
- Workouts 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays
- Running only 8 a.m. Saturdays starting from 8th and Vermont streets
- Workouts 6 a.m. at Allen Field House
Dog Days rules
- Bring a bottle of water (a towel is also recommended)
- No cell phones
- No headphones/mp3 players
- Always encourage other runners. Never put anyone down.
Exercise and injuries
Considering the number of years and the number of participants, Dog Days has been remarkably injury-free, although there’s no telling how many people have stayed home now and then with sore or strained muscles. Don and Beverly Gardner recall a few knee injuries.
The most spectacular injury occurred a few years back with a Lawrence High football player who weighed about 220 pounds fell head-first down the stairs at the stadium. Still, the boy was back the next day to work out.
One year, a young woman fell while running backward and broke her arm, and a few people have had to sit down because of heat.
But pain can be a help, too. Gardner said, “Last year we had four men through Dog Days figured out they had heart problems. They were smart enough to get medical help.” One wound up getting a heart stint, and another had bypass surgery.
Exercise and coffee
Social exercise is as much a part of Dog Days as the physical part, at least for many participants. At the end of morning sessions, Don Gardner announces the location where they’ll be meeting for coffee, and scores often attend.
“We’re good for the economy,” he says. “We’ve been known to go out for a drink. We look like hell.”
What is more, 20 to 25 of them meet every Sunday for coffee, and a few times a season, they have other social gatherings, too.
All material is copyright 2008, Janet Majure, and is not to be reproduced by any means without the express permission of Janet Majure.