It’s 6 a.m. and the Baylor football team is crowded into the tunnel at Floyd Casey Stadium.
Nobody is in the stands on this late June morning, Baylor coach Art Briles and his staff aren’t allowed to watch under NCAA rules, and no national television cameras are on hand.
But when the players hit the field, they know they’d better be psyched to perform for this summer training session like it’s a crucial game in late November.
They’ve got to live up to the standards of one man: Baylor strength and conditioning coach Kaz Kazadi.
With the speakers blasting ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” the players rush the field with high energy and never let up. They start with a series of sprints and move into flexibility exercises designed to work all areas of their bodies.
The players work at a furious pace. Still, Kazadi wants more.
“Wake up!” Kazadi shouts. “You’ve got the whole world waiting on you!”
The players move on to a series of 100-yard runs. When one player starts too quickly, Kazadi makes the whole group move back five yards. They transition to more stretching and flexibility exercises before ending the 90-minute session with a short talk by senior defensive end Chris McAllister, explaining the fine points of his position.
Then the players pack into their cars and drive back to campus for a weight lifting session at the Highers Athletics Complex. They’re done by 8:45 a.m., and then it’s off to breakfast and class.
Kazadi makes sure that every weekday morning workout is intense and focused throughout the summer. He knows the players must be ready to perform at a high level and bonded as a team when he hands them over to Briles and his staff for preseason practices in early August.
“We’re trying to create chemistry and put guys in uncomfortable situations and let the leadership come to the forefront,” Kazadi said. “We’re trying to reinforce character and emphasize commitment and conviction. At the same time, we’re coal mining. We’re searching for diamonds.”
A former NFL linebacker, the 39-year-old Kazadi looks like he could still play football. He’s chiseled and performs martial arts boxing in his spare time. His intimidating demeanor is an asset for a strength and conditioning coach who is trying to mold college football players.
“In my first couple of years, I was really scared of Coach Kaz,” said Baylor fifth-year senior running back Glasco Martin. “But as I got to know him I know he wants to do things for our best interest. He’s tough, but it’s tough love and he gets us better.”
Behind Kazadi’s gruff exterior lies a creative mind. He’s always searching for different ways to approach practice and put the players in position where they have to lead.
Though Kazadi’s booming voice often dominates workouts, sometimes he’ll step back and let some of the veteran players lead the team through exercises. To show the importance of teamwork, he’ll sometimes employ a fireman drill where one player carries another up the bleachers. During some sessions, the Baylor players perform yoga.
Kazadi doesn’t handle all players the same. Some might need more motivation than others, especially freshmen who are experiencing Kazadi’s workouts for the first time.
“I thought he was picking on me when I first got here,” Baylor senior safety Ahmad Dixon said. “He doesn’t care if you were a five-star recruit. But you learn he’s not just looking at today. He’s looking at how it will help you down the line. When you’re no longer a child that needs his hand held, he gives you more freedom.”
Kazadi believes he’s not just developing the players to perform on the football field but also for what they might face after they graduate from Baylor. He thinks he needs to put them through tough situations to get them mentally prepared for future challenges.
“I have you for five years, and you’re 17 and skinny and bony with a container of mommy milk,” Kazadi said. “Then at 22 to 23, you have to change into a young respectable adult who understands life is not easy. Life’s a tough deal. If you live long enough you’re going to go through some very uncomfortable situations and you’re going to have to learn how to address them.”When Kazadi talks of tough situations, he can draw from his own life experiences.
Born in Zaire, Kazadi and his family left for the United States due to war in his native country. His father was a newspaper reporter in Zaire, but he felt he could provide a better life for his wife and children in the United States.
“War was unsettling and my father listened to his intuition and headed to the United States a year before we all did,” said Kazadi, who was 8 when he moved to the United States. “We lived in New York for about a year in an 100 square-foot room, and then lived in the Houston area for a little bit. He felt his number one job was to make sure to raise your kids. We ended up in Newton, just outside of Wichita, Kan.”
Kazadi’s father took a job as a carpenter while his mother worked at a hospital and a bakery. Kazadi began playing soccer as a child, but eventually began playing football in junior high.
“I was a soccer player, which my dad said was real football,” Kazadi said. “My brother and sister also played a lot. But the way my mother was feeding us from working at the bakery, I started growing. One of the kids said you should come out for football. It just made sense.”
Kazadi emerged as a gifted linebacker and running back at Newton and signed an NCAA scholarship with Tulsa. As a senior at Tulsa, he used his physical style of play to collect a team-high 130 tackles and become a Butkus Award semifinalist. But even then he was thinking like a coach.
“As the middle linebacker, you have to make sure your team is in the right state of mind and knows the down and distance,” Kazadi said. “The defensive coordinator has got to know he can trust this guy if I make this call. I was always thinking about how I could control the situation. I believed the harder I worked, I could control the outcome.”
Picked in the sixth round of the 1997 draft, Kazadi played for the St. Louis Rams before stints with Montreal in the Canadian Football League and Barcelona in the World Football League. After a five-year professional football career, Kazadi began pursuing his master’s degree in counseling and sport psychology at the University of Missouri.
Kazadi was always fascinated by what makes great athletes excel at their sports, so sport psychology was a natural fit.
“I was always into what makes that guy so much better than anybody else,” Kazadi said. “How do they respond to that much pressure? I heard guys like Michael Jordan and Tony Dorsett talk about how the game moves slow for them. The basket seemed really big for Michael and Tony would say the hole looked really huge. I was trying to understand the mindset of a champion.”
After graduating from Missouri, Kazadi spent two seasons as a Kansas City Chiefs strength and conditioning coach before taking a similar position at the University of South Florida for the 2007 season.
Eager to learn his craft, Kazadi sought advice from some of the country’s best strength and conditioning coaches including Johnny Parker who served on Super Bowl winning teams with the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
When Briles accepted the Baylor job in 2007, he quickly targeted Kazadi to lead his strength and conditioning program.
“Once I met Kaz, I knew we had a mutual kinship in our goals and how to achieve them,” Briles said. “One of the things that impressed me was that he was very articulate and creative. Not only in his physical training, but his mental training. I know the players are not only going to be in great shape, but also mentally conditioned. They’re going to be tough minded and determined.”
Kazadi has taken a lot of pride in seeing the Bears reach a school-record three straight bowl games because he knows the players have been strong and well conditioned for a long, grueling season.
But he gets the most satisfaction in motivating players to improve every day before the public sees the finished product.
“You can’t put a dollar amount on it,” Kazadi said. “Next to having your own kids, it’s the most rewarding thing ever. There’s no other reason to be in coaching.”
Though more than 30 years have passed since Kazadi left his native Zaire for the United States, he has never forgotten the uncertainty and hardship his family endured as it transitioned into a new life.
“You realize you love this, and realize it’s not forever,” Kazadi said. “So you’re going to do it at a high level. You’re going to grasp it and fulfill it.”