It’s just minutes before 6 a.m., but hundreds of people are streaming quietly through Gate 30 of KU’s Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.
It’s a mixed crowd trudging up concrete steps to enter the stands of the 1921 stadium. A young guy in dreadlocks walks near a 60-ish construction contractor with a cast on his arm. A 50-something mother with her college-age daughter are here together.
A few have the taut bodies of committed fitness buffs. Others have spare tires overlapping their waistbands.
Doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, retirees, young parents, high school athletes, business owners and children flow in. A few women and their friends hoist occupied jogging strollers up the steps.
They deposit keys, cell phones and towels on the aluminum bleachers and descend to the playing field, setting water bottles strategically along the track. Then they scatter from end zone to end zone, generally along stripes at 10-yard intervals down the field.
Welcome to Red Dog’s Dog Days, a community exercise program.
Red Dog is Don Gardner, a wiry fellow in a ball cap, who walks into the north end zone and lifts a microphone to his face. As stragglers enter, he starts without ado.
“OK, let’s stretch,” he says.
Speaking with a bit of a growl and twang, he instructs folks to reach for the sky, touch their toes, lean to this side and that. Then he launches them into a series of calisthenics — squats, push-ups, leg raises.
Afterward, Gardner makes some announcements — including info on running events and the day’s post-workout coffee venue — before sending the crowd to run the stadium’s steps.
After about 30 minutes in all the participants, winded and sweaty, head to the parking lot.A labor of love
If Red Dog Gardner were, in fact, a canine, he might be an Australian Koolie, a breed known for its stamina, love of work and eagerness to please.
He isn’t in it for the money. Indeed, participants don’t pay a cent. Gardner, 69, instead reaps the benefits of personal satisfaction, friendships and helping others as he leads the program, now in its 25th year.
“It’s such a labor of love, it’s incredible,” says Laura Dahnert, 47, a participant in her 11th year.
When Gardner and Jim O’Connell started the workouts in 1984, with help from Gardner’s daughter Leslie, their goals were modest. Gardner and O’Connell, who were in law enforcement and volunteered with the Lawrence High football program, wanted to get players in shape so they would be ready when the season started. O’Connell says they especially wanted to help a few players who were prone to knee injuries, “so they didn’t have so many.”
“We had five or six players,” Gardner says. “The next year we had a few more.”
A couple of years after that, volleyball players started attending, “all of them super athletes,” says Gardner, noting Lawrence High’s dominance in volleyball in those days.
Pretty soon soccer players and their coach joined in to get ready for the fall season, and the leaders started taking roll.
Gardner, a longtime sports fan, began to look beyond the current players.
“I said, ‘Bring your little brother, your little sister,’ ” he recalls. “Sometimes I would see a parent out watching (and say), ‘They might as well come, too.’ ”
Sometime around 1988, they started calling the workouts Dog Days, a nod to Gardner’s Red Dog nickname, which the now-graying redhead picked up in junior high.The KU connection
Gardner is quick to note that he is not a certified trainer. He got his education in athletic training in the early 1960s as a student trainer with the University of Kansas football team, working under revered trainer Dean Nesmith. (Nesmith, who died in 1985, is a member of the National Athletic Trainers Association’s Hall of Fame and was a trainer at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.)
“I picked it up real quick,” Gardner says, “and I liked it.” He might have become a trainer if he’d finished college. Gardner excelled in taping football players’ ankles, knees and whatever else needed taping.
In the 1960s some former KU players who had children at Lawrence High recruited him to volunteer with the high school football team, which in time led to the summer program.
A couple of years later he approached Floyd Temple, then in charge of KU’s athletic facilities, and asked if the group could use Memorial Stadium.
“He said, ‘Yes, that’s OK. I’ll need $25 for the key,’ ” Gardner recalls. “I never have gotten that $25 back.” He laughs and ventures that KU officials probably have been cussing Temple ever since. “Make sure you thank the KU athletic department,” he adds.
If they’re cursing him now, they’re doing it privately. Jim Marchiony, associate athletic director, says KU continues to allow Dog Days, and at no charge, “because it’s an exercise of goodwill, it helps people stay active and healthy, and we’re glad to be able to help with that.”
But that hospitality is changing.
KU officials met with Gardner recently and presented a schedule of football and track activities that Dog Days will have to work around. In the past, the football team mostly used practice fields elsewhere on campus.
Meanwhile stadium locks were changed July 31, between the noon and 6 p.m. Dog Days sessions (in July, there are three a day). The workout moved to a grassy area nearby for the rest of the summer session, which ended with T-shirt Day Aug. 8.
Marchiony said the locks were changed because of “an increased number of unauthorized people going onto the field” and had nothing to do with Dog Days. Marchiony didn’t realize Gardner had a key in the first place.
Nevertheless, the lockout riled Dog Days faithful.
A week later, Beverly Gardner said things were getting worked out. The Gardners are coming to accept that the stadium will be unavailable until football season ends. Marchiony says he sees no reason the summer sessions can’t continue.
For his part, Don expects to continue his job for the athletic department, as supervisor of class checkers. Those are people who check to make sure scholarship athletes, especially freshmen, are attending class.Off the cuff
About 800 people showed up for the first Dog Days morning session this summer. Although the exercise program is a year-round venture, participation swells in the summertime.
In July the program intensifies, but participation remains high. Late in the month more than 650 were showing up on a typical weekday morning, plus about 80 at noon and 450 in the evening. And, yes, a few people show up more than once a day.
One noontime in July, Gardner stood in the heat of the day and hollered instructions. It’s the same routine, more or less, that he gave the much-larger morning group and that he would give the evening group, but he makes the workouts up as he goes.
“A planner I am not,” he says, although he does recruit various guest speakers, especially sports figures, to address participants.
His wife, Beverly, 52, does the planning. She oversees thrice-daily check-ins — before work, on lunch break and after working her full-time job as a mainframe computer technician with Douglas County. She also collects sponsorships to buy the T-shirts awarded to participants who attend at least 25 summer sessions (this year, nearly 800 shirts were handed out). The couple also cash in aluminum cans they ask participants to contribute.
She’s been helping with the program since she and Don married in 1995, and she enforced a little more structure in the T-shirt department. Don Gardner says he always gave athletes T-shirts, often freebies that he picked up from various sources.
By the time Beverly came into the picture, many more people were joining in. She organized and later computerized the attendance lists.
At the end of the sessions, Don used to go through two lists of participants — the young people and the “has-beens” (the ones out of high school) — to identify people to receive shirts. But he couldn’t say no to the kids.
“Don’s theory is if you came, you get a shirt. ‘If you came once and I know your daddy is really great, I give him a shirt,’ ” she says, imitating him. Now, she says, Don only gets the adult list to review.‘I was about ready to quit’
After the siblings and parents of student athletes started joining in the 1980s and 1990s, other adults started showing up, including those who’d taken part as students.
Don Gardner recites lists of people who have participated at one time or another, from Keith DeLong, later an NFL player, to groups of U.S. Marine ROTC students from KU to assorted Lawrence community leaders to country singer Sarah Buxton, a former Lawrence resident who also made an appearance this summer.
As the program has grown, it has also changed.
“Don has to think of ways to keep it from getting too crowded,” says Jerry Henley, a 66-year-old retiree who has been participating since 1997 and pitches in to help.
Gardner says the workouts involve less running than they used to, partly due to the size of the crowds, and fewer young people, at least as a percentage of the participants.
“I just like more kids,” he says. “The more kids I get, the happier I am.”
The program’s success also has contributed to some losses. O’Connell left in 2002, partly because of a change in his job schedule but also because the crowds diluted the youth contingent. In 2003 Lawrence High football coach Dirk Wedd started his own summer conditioning program for his players.
Wedd praises Dog Days as “a tremendous community thing,” but “I just felt like I couldn’t monitor the kids too well. It almost became too popular.” Lawrence High also got the services of Fred Roll, former strength coach at KU. “It was definitely nothing against Red Dog,” Wedd says.
It hurt Gardner just the same: “I was about ready to quit. You wear out. You think people are tired of you.”Renewing the tradition
People just keep coming, though, including the Lawrence Free State High School football team and the Lawrence High volleyball team.
Stephanie Magnuson, 30, the second-year volleyball coach at Lawrence High School, was a volleyball player there when she started doing Dog Days in 1991. There were about 50 participants then, mostly students.
“It was required for the high school volleyball team,” she says. “I hated running. Red Dog really took me under his wing and helped me. Of course, he took us all, football and volleyball players, under his wing. Soccer, too. We were his babies.”
Magnuson requires her team to attend now, and once a week she follows the Dog Days workout with additional jumping training. While the crowd can get in the way of her players’ getting a maximum workout, Dog Days is still worth it: “It’s good for the community to be behind us. It makes a big difference.”
“Community” may well be a key to the program’s success.
Participant Laura Dahnert says it is for people from “all walks of life, all stages of fitness. It’s for everyone; everybody can do Dog Days.” That sentiment is echoed by others.
Beverly Gardner understands.
“My first Dog Days, I couldn’t even do a push-up,” she says. “I was not athletic.” But with lots of encouragement, she kept working at it, and now she’s as fit as anyone. And she gets pleasure watching others become fit.
“I always look forward to it,” she says. “It’s like a family reunion.”
Don Gardner doesn’t do the workouts regularly anymore, but he runs “at the tail” on Saturday mornings. Beverly usually completes the morning workouts and a Saturday run.
The couple spend about five hours a day in the summertime setting up, taking down, doing the workouts and taking care of details. “We give up our summer entirely,” Beverly says. “We live out of laundry baskets.”
Don also mows lawns all season long. Beverly did, too, until last year, but it got to be too much as the Dog Days recordkeeping grew.
Don can’t explain why he continues Dog Days but says he must like doing it. He likes to see the local teams win state titles. But mostly, he says, he likes people.
It seems they like him, too. Which means that if he were a dog, he’d be wagging his tail. ★
Don Gardner leads fitness activities year-round in Lawrence.SUMMER
•Running only 7 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. Saturdays on KU’s West Campus
•Workouts 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays in June
•Workouts 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays in July through early AugustFALL UNTIL THANKSGIVING
•Running only 8 a.m. Saturdays starting from Eighth and Vermont
•Workouts 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, location to be announcedWINTER
•Running only 8 a.m. Saturdays starting from Eighth and Vermont
•Workouts 6 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually at Allen Fieldhouse
•Bring a bottle of water. A towel is also recommended.
•No cell phones on the field.
•No headphones or MP3 players.
•Always encourage other participants. Never put anyone down.
Social exercise is as much a part of Dog Days as the physical part, at least for many participants.
At the end of morning sessions, Don Gardner announces the location where they’ll be meeting for coffee, and scores often attend.
“We’re good for the economy,” he says. “We’ve been known to go out for a drink. We look like hell.”
What’s more, 20 to 25 participants meet every Sunday for coffee, and a few times a season they have other social gatherings, too.