Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy played just 23 snaps in Super Bowl 50—but he made every one of them count.
The 6’4”, 275-pound lineman was a nightmare for the Denver Broncos offense, finishing with three punishing sacks of Peyton Manning, a forced fumble, and an incredible one-handed interception. Ealy put his name in the history books too, becoming the becoming the first player in history to have multiple sacks and an interception in the Super Bowl. Had the Panthers emerged victorious, he likely would have won MVP.
Ealy’s performance may have been a surprise to the 100 million-plus watching around the world, but not to the defensive end. The University of Missouri alum is always laser-focused and dedicated to working hard in practice and when he’s training in the gym—so despite the hype and the halftime show, the Super Bowl was just another day at the office.
“Whatever you put into it is what you are going to get out," Ealy tells Men's Fitness. "I approach every game the same way. In practice, I’m always going as hard as I can. We watch film all week. Going into the Super Bowl, I treated it all the same. It was just like one of those practices and I gave my all to it. Mentally, I remember just bringing everything back to doing the little things on each play.”
Ealy’s commitment to keeping his body in peak athletic form and his combination of sheer power and pure speed—his 6.83-second 3-cone drill time at the 2014 NFL combine was the fastest of any player at his position—is a big part of why the Panthers feel they can make another deep run in 2016. Even though quarterback Cam Newton won the NFL MVP award for the 2015 season, Ealy might be the most important player on the team.
During the offseason, Ealy worked with Panthers strength and conditioning coach Joe Kenn, C.S.C.S., to improve even more, trying a gamut of workouts and training techniques to continue his ascent as one of the league's best young defensive players. Ealy focused on core strengthening workouts, pulling tires, sprint drills, squats, bench press work, and resistance band workouts. Along the way, he found a new appreciation for an often underrated aspect of fitness: stretching.
“I cannot emphasize enough how important stretching is," he says. "I'm utilizing and developing muscles that I never knew I had, and it’s because of stretching right. I feel like I am getting to another level in my training because of that work on keeping things loose.”
Ealy spoke with Men’s Fitness about his superhuman Super Bowl performance, his favorite foods to support his training, and what he learned from linebacker Luke Kuechly.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)
MEN’S FITNESS: What is your daily training routine like? How did you train during the offseason?
KONY EALY: Training in the off-season is more of an individual thing within the team concepts, so I like stay close to home. I like to go to the team training facility and work with the training coaches that we have there. Joe Kenn, our strength and conditioning coach, is the best. He's really a one-on-one type guy. He works with you on things that you need to improve as well as some things that everyone needs all the way around. Really just getting into the facility in the off-season, doing drills and exercises that we do during the regular season, it makes me better because I'm catching up and I'm getting ahead.
What types of exercises and drills do you do in the gym that help you the most on the field?
I do squats, bench work, and weight training, but I’ve found that they don’t really dig deep enough on their own to help you develop overall as a player. Stretching is crucial for me. As hard as you’re working out, you also need to dedicate time to stretching—it doesn’t have to be a high-intensity stretch every time, but you need to work through those muscles and keep them loose.
I do a lot of band workouts because of my shoulders and joints. It’s very important to work those muscles and that's where I'm usually the sorest towards the end of a game. The band workouts help a lot, and by keeping those areas strong, and they help prevent injury. I also work on hand-eye coordination, I’ll work on neck strength, and obviously a lot of core. You need to stay flexible and get low, especially when you’re tired.
You’re one of the quickest defensive players in football. What types of exercises and training techniques have helped you improve your speed and agility?
Working on my core and getting my stamina up with running, pulling tires, anything like that. Stretching, too. You need something that helps get you off the edge, which takes you that extra mile. I think that mindset really helped me midway last year and also coming into this year.
How do you train to improve your position-specific skills and techniques?
It’s all about getting off the ball. I love to self-train—nobody else out there, no coaches, just me. I pretend that I’m in game situations and that’s one way that I really focus in the offseason. The second thing would be my hands—I do a lot of quick-twitch exercises trying to come off the ball quickly without pre-planning what I'm going to do. It’s a lot more reactionary and helps you learn to think and react in the moment. That has really helped my game a lot.
What is your nutritional routine and diet like?
Going into and throughout the season, I eat a lot of lean protein and baked foods—nothing fried. I eat a lot of fruit, veggies, and yogurt as well. This diet has helped me keep my energy levels high and it really makes a big difference. Everything that goes into your body is important.
How many meals do you eat per day during the season?
I eat five meals per day during the season. You are burning so many calories at practice and in games, it’s important to maintain your weight. I start the day with a well-rounded breakfast in the morning and then will have a small meal and snack mid-morning. Around noon, I’ll have lunch and then another small meal or snack mid-afternoon before dinner in the evening.
What are some of your favorite meals?
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I love scrambled eggs and fruit with a few strips of lean bacon. Sometimes I will also add a slice or two of French toast.
How has your training contributed to your quick rise in the NFL? What have you learned from your teammates since coming into the league?
You can never stop growing in this league, you can never stop learning, and you’re never too big or have too many years behind you to stop getting better. A lot of that credit goes to my incredible coaches and my fellow defensive linemen. Just working together with those guys, especially getting with them in the offseason has made a huge difference. I could go through so many teammates that have helped me develop, but one in particular is Charles Johnson. I've worked a lot with him over the last year. We did a lot of functional exercises to help in game situations. On top of that, it's helped me tremendously, mentally, to get in the classroom with guys like Luke Kuechly who know this game inside and out.
What did it feel like to play in the Super Bowl last year? What did it feel like to be one of the standout players in that game?
I was blessed to have such a talented group of players around me that were all doing their jobs. They were in the right positions, which afforded me the opportunity to step into my role and to make plays. It was definitely a team effort. We worked hard in practice and I just kept going back to everything our coaches taught us that week.
What is the best training advice you have received in your career?
You have to put in the work if you want to get the results. At this stage, obviously we aren't babied. We aren't mentored 24/7—everything is more so on you. Everyone is accountable for themselves. This is my livelihood. This is how I feed my family, how I take care of my sister. So in order to do that and to provide, I have to go in early, put my time in, work hard to stay in shape all year, and really push myself. That kind of motivation helps push me through things I may not enjoy doing, but when you’re in the fourth quarter and your legs are heavy, you’re tired, it helps you remain in a different mental state.
What are your expectations for the team and and yourself for the 2016 season?
My expectations for the team are to exceed in every category. I want to win. My individual goal is to win. Period.
What’s your least favorite exercise to do?
I don’t want to speak for all defensive linemen, but generally I don’t think anybody likes just running. That’s not to say that I don’t run—I absolutely do and it remains very important in helping with overall conditioning. But I can’t say it's my favorite workout.
What has it meant to you to be part of the Allegro Foundation and helping children with disabilities? What do you hope to bring with your involvement in the organization?
I first heard about the Allegro Foundation and the incredible work they are doing through an event flyer a friend of mine sent me. It really touched a soft spot in my heart because of the resources and programming they provide with children for disabilities. Some people may not know this, but I have a sister that is handicapped – she has a severe chromosomal condition that limits her ability to speak and bounds her to a wheelchair. I really wanted to learn more, so during our first-round bye in the playoffs last season, I went to their annual gala and I had an amazing time. I met with some of their board members, I got a chance to speak with Pat Farmer, their founder and president, and I even got a chance to meet some of the local kids that they support.
Being around their staff and volunteers and meeting those kids. Those are the types of people that I want to be around and that I want to learn from. Since that first night, I have had great conversations with their staff and have been able to interact with some of their kids again – it’s been a great experience and I look forward to continuing to help support their mission of providing movement instruction with education and medical expertise to create new techniques that teach children with disabilities and enhance their quality of life. To learn more, please visit www.allegrofoundation.net.
What types of things do you enjoy doing in your down time?
I like listening to all types of music. On TV, I’ll watch pretty much anything that comes on and I love when I get a chance to see my alma mater, the Mizzou Tigers. Honestly, though, in most of my downtime, I'm with my girlfriend playing with our daughter Royal, and just watching her grow up. When we have free time during camp or at the team hotel before games, sometimes we’ll play cards—especially UNO—or dominoes. It’s funny because everyone is still so competitive, but it’s more of a relaxed, chill competitive. It’s a lot of fun and keeps things in perspective.