ORCHARD PARK - Hal Luther, a 1992 graduate of Dolgeville High School, is responsible for the strength, conditioning, nutrition, flexibility, and injury prevention of some of the best athletes on planet Earth.
Luther will tell you he wasn't a very good athlete in high school, but when newly hired NFL head coach Doug Marrone came up on his caller ID nearly one year ago with an offer to shuffle off to Buffalo, Luther's playing days surely entered his consciousness.
It was as a quarterback at Dolgeville that Luther began his football career. Luther was a part of three Blue Devils Section III championships, including two as their starting signal caller. During Luther's junior year in 1990, Dolgeville lost one game, to West Canada Valley, during the regular season. Two weeks later, Dolgeville got revenge on West Canada at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse for the title. The Carrier Dome is, fittingly, where Luther would find himself 10 years and two college degrees later.
Dolgeville graduate Hal Luther is an assistant strength and conditioning coach of the Buffalo Bills. (Photo contributed by the Buffalo Bills)
Luther took an interest in the organizational aspect of team sports at an early age.
"I was not a very good athlete, but I enjoyed the concepts and the idea of being a part of something bigger than just the individual," said Luther. "Obviously, football being the ultimate team sport, everybody's got to be kind of all doing the same things and be on the same page and all for the cause. At an early age I found that."
Luther took the lessons he learned at Dolgeville, especially those from head coach Jerry Walczak, and decided to make football his career.
"For me, Dolgeville and playing football there really instilled what football is supposed to be about as far as a team and guys working together towards a common goal," Luther said. "I kind of decided at that point that this is something I enjoy very much and I wanted to see if I can continue to do that."
Modest attitude aside, Luther went on to play four years of college football at Springfield College after no recruitment out of high school. Luther began his collegiate playing career with the goal of putting Dolgeville on the map. Not many people go on to play football after their days as a Blue Devil have come to an end, and Luther said he wanted to do something "different."
"Everything that I've done up to this point, everybody's told me I couldn't do it," said Luther. "It's always been a little bit of a driving force for me to go and do those kinds of things."
Knowing that his playing chapter was nearly closed, Luther concentrated on life under center.
"Not too many people were looking for a 5'8'' quarterback to go play at the college level," Luther joked. "Doug Flutie's about the only guy and I wasn't even remotely close to anything like that."
Luther earned a degree in health and fitness from Springfield in 1996 before earning a master's in exercise physiology the following year from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Luther knew in high school that his ultimate goal was to become some sort of athletic or strength coach.
"I would tell them I want to train athletes and they would say, 'oh, cool so you want to be an athletic trainer,'" said Luther. "No, no, no. Different. I don't want to tape ankles. I want to train athletes, simply because I used that as a vehicle to be able to give myself an opportunity to compete and I enjoyed doing that. I wanted to start to do that with other athletes."
Luther parlayed his academic career back into a football career while working on his master's degree when he took a strength and conditioning coaching position at Western Michigan University in 1996. After stops at Wisconsin-LaCrosse and North Carolina State, Luther accompanied NC State director of athletic improvement William Hicks to Syracuse University.
"My dad graduated from Syracuse in 1972 and I met my wife there. She graduated from Syracuse in 2005," said Luther. "I used to go to Syracuse football camps and Coach P [Pasqualone] was that coach. Ten years later I was back there and now I was one of the coaches actually helping out running the camp and being around the kids. That was always very rewarding for me."
Luther drew inspiration from anyone he could when coming up as a young coach. Luther was able to absorb information like a sponge in order to put the pieces together and craft his own personal coaching style. From 2007-2012 Luther served as the director of strength and conditioning for the Syracuse Orange football program. Early this year, Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone was hired as the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. He wanted Luther to come along for the ride.
"My highlights [at Syracuse] were all the players that I got the chance to coach over those 12-13 seasons," said Luther. "Some of those guys wouldn't necessarily be household names. You have the Dwight Freeney's that I coached, the Will Allen's, and the David Tyree's, but then there are other guys that were just as important to the team who I still keep in contact with now."
Luther also served as the strength coach of the men's lacrosse team from 2007-2013. They won three national titles.
When Marrone called, the football team had just finished 8-5, won a share of the Big East title, and defeated long-time rival West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl 38-14. Luther accepted the position as the assistant strength and conditioning coach of the Buffalo Bills citing his trust that Marrone will take care of his family.
As Luther's first season in Buffalo comes to an end, he says the biggest difference between coaching in college versus the pros is the range of players.
"In college you're going to have from a freshman to a senior so you're talking a four-year span," said Luther. "In the pros you can have a rookie who's 22 or you can have a 10-year vet who's 32 or 33."
Reigning in rookies who are adjusting to life as a professional in a multi-billion dollar organization is just as part of Luther's job description as anything else. He also has to make sure that training plans and overall treatment of players is handled on a more subjective level than in college due to the diversity.
Luther says that he typically wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and is over to the training facility by 6 a.m. His day ends around 6:30 p.m. The Bills are back to training the day after a game and are preparing for the following game by Wednesday. That is the formula all season until players leave Buffalo in the offseason.
"The players don't stay here," said Luther. "For a lot of guys this isn't their place to live as far as January, February, and March go so they're going to take off."
By April, organized team activities have begun, draft preparations are made, rookies are brought in, training camp begins, and a roster of more than 90 of the most well-conditioned athletes on the planet is whittled down to close to 50. Then, the process repeats. Through it all, Luther is there to provide the players with anything he possibly can to give them the best opportunity to win (within the scope of the rules, of course). Luther writes workouts, sets weights, spots weights, lifts weights with the players, and organizes programs that are tailored to specific guys. For the record, Mario Williams is pound-for-pound the strongest man on the Buffalo Bills.
Although the Bills are currently struggling through a ninth-straight losing season and their playoff drought will now stand at 14 seasons, the third-longest active drought in professional sports, Marrone is not going anywhere and neither is Luther. With one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL, C.J. Spiller, and supposed franchise quarterback E.J. Manuel in the fold, the Bills will look to put it all together in 2014.
Luther speaks with excitement when he talks about how far he's come, but a Super Bowl Ring would tell the whole story.