“Tony George—he’s not your typical jock,” Paul Tillman says of his personal trainer and the owner and force behind H.E.A.T. Pro Fitness.
It’s a surprising comment given Tony George has an extensive athletic resume that begins on a high school football field in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was named a Parade magazine All American, continues with a four-year football scholarship at the University of Florida, and moves on to the extraordinary distinction of playing in the pros, first for the New England Patriots and then for the Tennessee Titans.
“Tony’s complex,” explains Tillman. “There’s a lot more to him than you might think.”
And while George definitely has the broad-shouldered physique of a pro football player, especially in his surrounds at the H.E.A.T. Pro Fitness gym on Park Road near Highway 51, Tillman is right. George has a story that involves not only football, but a whole lot more.
George credits his younger sister Tari for getting him started in athletics. Tari has cerebral palsy and can’t use the left side of her body. Growing up, kids would tease her about her disability and George says, “I decided I needed to get strong to defend her.” Eventually George stopped the teasing in a creative way.
“I challenged the bullies to try to do things, brush their teeth or ride their bikes, using only one side of their bodies,” he explains.
It worked. Not only did Tari become the honorary “little sister” of many of the kids, but George learned something that stuck with him and led him to study rehabilitative therapy for quadriplegics and paraplegics while at the University of Florida.
He ended up earning one degree in Therapeutic Recreation and another in Leisure Service Management while at Florida and credits these degrees as more important achievements than even his third round draft pick by the Patriots.
But even with its meaningful beginning, George’s athletic career was almost over before it began. In 1991, while only a sophomore in high school, George was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and has been insulin-dependent since.
“Diabetes has been a huge challenge,” says George. “My blood sugar has gotten as low as 16 and as high as 960. Both of those levels can cause coma and death.”
But instead of letting the serious diagnosis destroy his dreams of a scholarship and a shot at a football career, George learned all he could about the disease and how he could manage it and still play sports. A better diet, frequent blood sugar level checks and daily insulin shots became his new routine. And exercise took on a new role.
“I understand what exercise has done for me as a diabetic,” he explains. “Training is preventative medicine. If exercise can help me keep my blood sugar under control, just imagine what it can do for others. I decided I’ve got to pass this along.”
This seed thought would eventually spur George to start H.E.A.T. Pro Fitness, but first, George admits, he had to have a serious reality check.
The life of a pro football player is full of temptations and at one point George found his life as a young, single guy in Atlanta spiraling out of control.
“I could spend $7,000 or $8,000 a night at a club,” he confesses.
A call from his financial advisor after one especially extravagant week dragged him back to reality. George vividly recalls the conversation. “This is your money,” his advisor told him, “and you can spend it any way you want. But if you continue to spend this way, everything you’ve worked for your whole life will be gone in a month.”
The phone call proved to be life-changing for George. He took what was left of his money and invested it, some for the future and some for a college fund for his young daughter, Soleil. He allocated only $10,000 for himself to start the next chapter of his life and vowed “to take that $10,000 and turn it into $1 million.”
George changed his life in other ways as well. While still in Atlanta, he discovered a renewed interest in his faith and credits it as “the driving force to change his life around.”
He also decided that Atlanta wasn’t the right place for him anymore. He had been to Charlotte working a couple of weeks with the Carolina Panthers and thought the area had a stability and atmosphere that would be good for him, so he chose Charlotte for his new home.
H.E.A.T.; Highly Exclusive Athletic Training
H.E.A.T. Pro Fitness began in Charlotte in 2005 as the brainchild of George and two other former football players: Rod Smart of the Panthers and Tory Woodbury of the New York Jets.
H.E.A.T. is an acronym for “Highly Exclusive Athletic Training” as well as a humorous reference to that fact that George’s training clients often say that his more strenuous workouts made their bodies feel like they were on fire.
Today, George is sole owner of the business and has three certified trainers that assist him.
While each client receives a fitness program uniquely tailored for them and their goals, the programs are all influenced by George’s philosophy on health and fitness.
“I emphasize body weight control,” George says referring to the use of someone’s own body weight as the resistance in an exercise. “First you learn the proper technique and how to work using your own body weight. Once you’ve gained that control, you’re ready to work with weighted objects.”
Even the gym reflects George’s philosophy. Unlike some other fitness facilities, open space dominates the workout area. A Smith machine sits in one corner, free weights and a Captain’s Chair take up another corner, and wooden boxes of graduated heights used for plyometric workouts are stacked against a back wall.
Part of the gym is dedicated to and equipped for cycling enthusiasts in a partnership with Total Cyclist, and a 300-pound tractor tire leans against the dividing wall.
“All my exercises are time-based. There are no certain number of reps you need to do. I’ve found the body gets accustomed to doing reps but if I say, ‘You’ve got 45 seconds—you did 16 last time, let’s shoot for 17,’ it works. It’s also my job to join in on the tough exercises,” he adds.
When asked how much of his old football training is reflected in his exercise programs, he shakes his head. “Zero percent comes from football training,” he answers. “Our workouts are specific for each individual and what’s right for a football player wouldn’t be right for a young girl or an older client. Besides, football training is more about watching game films. I’m in better shape now than when I played for the NFL.”
George uses both resistance and cardio training in his program and keeps it interesting with 4,600 different workouts. He’s also a great believer in diet modification but not in deprivation.
“Your body just goes into starvation mode when you don’t eat enough,” he explains. “The key is small portioned meals 5 to 6 times a day, about every 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Diet is the most important thing. Exercise is 25 percent and diet 75 percent in terms of importance. Get your eating right.”
While getting fit requires discipline and effort, H.E.A.T Pro Fitness offers flexibility to make it easier to accomplish. Individual, Group and Team Training Plans are available to suit different needs and budgets. George encourages families to come and work out together as well.
“I can be available from Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. I work when clients can work out and I offer unlimited workout sessions at different times during the day,” he says. “The goal is to give a client all the tools they need to get fit in two to three months. After that they know what to do to maintain it.”
But even after they have all the tools, many clients choose to continue training with H.E.A.T. Pro Fitness. Paul Tillman has been a client for over four years. Tillman, a 69-year-old retired teacher now spends his time writing, conducting seminars and working with Queens University, and credits George as instrumental in his healthy, active life.
“I don’t know where I’d be without Tony,” he says. “I’ve never felt better. Since I’ve been seeing Tony my weight set point has gone from 215 pounds to 200 pounds. I’m shooting for 185 next. Working out with Tony is like visiting with an old friend.”
Tillman also mentions all the work George does with and for local kids.
H.E.A.T. 4 Kids
George had had enough success training clients in the community that it allowed him to put a special focus on a cause that was especially close to his heart—training children.
Tina McCoy, whose two sons have trained with George for the past five years, claims George has an uncanny ability to work with kids.
“It’s difficult to explain how much the kids respect and admire Tony,” she says. “He really connects with kids. He teaches them physical fitness, of course, but he also talks to them about being a good student, how they need to respect their parents and their teachers. And it works! The kids don’t want to disappoint Tony.”
And although George’s clients range in age from 6 to 91, he says he gets a special satisfaction from working with kids.
“It’s really something to take a kid who is a third string player and with hard work and diligence, see him make All City,” George says. “But I always balance the athletics with education. My parents taught me early on that education was always the priority.”
George’s dedication to kids is most evident in his scholarship program for those unable to afford training. Scholarship recipients must maintain a 3.0 GPA and are required to train three days per week. In the last 5 1/2 years, H.E.A.T. Pro Fitness has provided scholarships for 72 deserving student athletes.
“One of our scholarship kids, Antonio Marshall, is a track athlete at East Carolina University now,” George says with obvious pride.
George has big plans to expand the program in the coming year and is looking for a new facility to accommodate it. Ideally, the new program, called H.E.A.T. 4 Kids, will be located closer to uptown and, in addition to training, it will also provide a space for kids to study, access to computers and the Internet to assist with homework, and even in-house tutoring.
George enjoys his time training kids but he’s quick to point out that he expects them to be accountable and do the right thing in return.
“Parents use me as a mediator,” George explains. “If a parent comes here and tells me their kid’s been out of line, I tell them, ‘Okay, I’ll make him push my car around the building,’ and the parents laugh. They think I’m joking; until they see their kid pushing a car around the building.”
Currently, H.E.A.T. Pro Fitness has a hundred-some clients, mostly through word of mouth recommendations, and George is busy realizing his dream for H.E.A.T 4 Kids, but he has big plans for the future of the business.
He’s looking for a larger facility for the Charlotte gym and investigating franchise possibilities in Atlanta, Cincinnati, New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
“I would have to find the right people to run them,” he says, “people who feel the same way that I do about training.
“There’s nothing I would trade for this profession. I can help every person who walks through that door to change their life. That’s the best thing about this business. I can change people’s lives for the better.”
When asked about the biggest challenge to his work, George smiles and says, “Getting people to see that their lives will change.”