If you watch a lot of football, you’ve probably seen Jeff Friday M.S. ’92 on TV. He’s one of the guys wearing a team polo shirt, helping stretch out players on the field during pregame warm-ups.

But that’s just a small glimpse into the full scope of Friday’s job as assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. The exercise science grad began his 16th year in the NFL on September 8, when the Bengals took on the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Game day is when everyone’s watching, but Friday is part of a rigorous weeklong regimen of physical and mental preparations for his players.

“It’s an emotional build-up throughout the week up until game time. And it takes that kind of build-up to get that player ready,” Friday told STATEside. “And we’re part of that build-up.”

Friday is a key off-the-field member of the Bengals organization, helping lead a strength training routine that also serves as a form of recovery for players who put their bodies through enormous physical stress every week. Friday sees his role as part of a holistic process. As a strength coach, he helps the players in their physical development, but has also observed that development is needed in the mental, social, and even spiritual foundations, in order to reach the athlete’s potential.

Jeff Friday smiles

Jeff Friday, an exercise science master’s graduate, begins his 16th year in the NFL on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of the Bengals)

“You want to be successful at everything you do,” Friday said. “You want to be the best you can be. That’s what winning is.”

Friday has done a lot of winning. He was head strength and conditioning coach for the Baltimore Ravens when they won the Super Bowl in the 2000 season, when Friday was named Professional Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year by his peers. He’s worked with seven Hall of Famers.

Friday’s success traces back to his time at Illinois State. While an undergraduate student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he decided he wanted a career that melded his two passions—sports and fitness. He explored grad schools across the country, looking to build a solid foundation in strength and conditioning while also getting hands-on experience with student-athletes in the workout room.

“ISU provided me the best opportunity to do that,” Friday said. “It was a win-win.”

Friday, as a grad assistant, was the Redbirds’ assistant strength and conditioning coach in 1990-91. (He briefly served as interim head strength and conditioning coach when the top job became vacant.) The master’s “propelled me forward in my career,” he said, making him a better writer and critical thinker.

“My two years (at Illinois State) were very, very valuable to me, professionally and personally,” said Friday, who returned to campus in February 2013 to speak to School of Kinesiology and Recreation students.

Transition to the pros

After a stint at Northwestern, Friday moved to the pros with the Minnesota Vikings in 1996-98. He then spent nine seasons (1999-2007) as head strength and conditioning coach with the Ravens.

He’s now in his fourth season with the Bengals. During the week, Friday is a key player in the regimented Bengals practice schedule, which includes early-morning weight training, team meetings, player weigh-in, administrative work, and other sessions.

Friday says a big part of his job is building relationships with the players. He does that by getting to know them, staying in tune with their goals, and keeping himself updated on the most current and best information in his profession to help his team.

He’s coached more than 30 Pro Bowlers. He knows what a successful pro looks like.

“The player has to trust you,” Friday said. “They’re grown men, and they have their own ideas on things. They’re pros. They’re getting paid to perform. You have to have a respect for that setting.”

On game days, he helps players during warm-ups, and after kickoff stays accessible for additional stretching, or even to hand out nutrition bars. But those relationships are vital, he said, because a big part of his game-day duties is offering up words of encouragement to players as he walks the sidelines.

“It’s a highly stressful event,” Friday said, “so you look for opportunities to offer that.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.