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Sports Science Sleuth

Jack Rummells is investigating the relationship between biomechanics and player performance.

Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Nicolas Carrillo

As an All-American offensive lineman at the University of Northern Iowa, Jack Rummells became intrigued by the subject of exercise science and how athletes might be able to benefit from biomechanical data collected during their athletic endeavors.

Rummells is now in his second season as a sports science data analyst for the Griffins. Working in a field that is still relatively new to professional sports, Rummells is exploring ways that archived performance data can guide decisions about players’ routines in practice or games.

“I’ve always been fascinated by unsolved mysteries,” Rummells said. “Each form of data is like a piece of evidence in a mystery. You try to arrange the pieces to build a story. I think being a storyteller is a skill that is important in this role.”

A native of rural Iowa, Rummells tried several school sports until he settled on football at West Branch High School, where his father served as the offensive coordinator for nearly three decades before stepping down so he had more time to watch his son play in college.

It was in high school that Rummells also found an important mentor. Phil Johnson, a strength and conditioning guru who had married Rummells’ cousin, ran his own private performance development gym where Rummells soon became a regular and soaked up everything he could learn.

“I had an internship there and that’s what got me started doing a lot of reading,” he said. “I got interested in competitive weightlifting, which led me to think I wanted to be a strength coach at the end of the day. I was already buried deep into the literature.”

Never a model musclehead, Rummells started looking at athletics from a cerebral point of view.

He started seeking out distinguishing factors that could push him to be “unusual among the unusual.” The intricacies of sports performance became more than a passing interest. “I wanted my niche to be working hard like everyone else but doing it in a smarter fashion,” he said. “I decided to work my butt off but do it in a way that optimizes my abilities.”

Indifferent about his future in football, he was surprised when the University of Northern Iowa offered him a full-ride scholarship. At 6-foot-5-1/2 and 235 pounds, he was recruited as a defensive end. But the school switched him to the offensive line, where he was able to excel after being redshirted his freshman year.

Rummells quickly became one of the best offensive linemen on the team.

“I had to force-feed myself until I averaged 305 pounds playing weight my last couple of years at school,” he said. “That’s 65-70 pounds and the pounds didn’t come easily. I had a bad relationship with food for a while. Nothing clinical by any means but to get that weight, I had to go to my dining center three times a day and eat until I left with a stomach ache.

“People think how cool it would be to eat whatever you wanted, but it felt like I was in a consistently sickly state. That’s the downside of being an offensive lineman – 300 pounds is the minimum. At that weight, I felt I still had enough speed and flexibility to be effective.”

Rummells said the best part of his five years at Northern Iowa was learning how to live within a team atmosphere. “I developed a keen awareness of the team culture and a vague sense of how to influence that culture,” he said. “I wanted to be one of the best offensive linemen on my team, and with that came a lot of leadership roles.”

In the classroom, Rummells earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in kinesiology, with a focus on biomechanics.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue my football journey,” said Rummells, who went unnoticed during the 2015 NFL Draft. “Free agency was on my radar but I was not sure. I got calls from the [Minnesota] Vikings and [Jacksonville] Jaguars for mini-camp invites.”

Rummells decided to fight for a spot with the Jaguars.

“You’re one of 100 players who are competing for one of three or four open spots,” he said. “You’re wearing only a helmet, no pads, but it’s a very physical three days because everyone is fighting for a job. The heat and humidity index in Jacksonville for that three-day stint was 114 degrees – you can only practice if it’s below 120 – so I was dead-tired, but I knew I was being watched. It was easily the most tired I have ever been in my life.”

Rummells ended up being rewarded with a spot on the Jaguars’ 90-man roster. “If you suffer a lot and you succeed, it makes that joy of success way better,” he said. “I was very proud that I was able to battle through that.”

He subsequently saw action in a couple of exhibition games but was ultimately cut before the regular season. He went out to Denver for a tryout with the Broncos then attempted to catch on with the Washington Redskins the following season before conceding that his playing days were finally over.

In the meantime, he was working on his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa. His dissertation examined “quantifying biomechanical fatigue for predictive athlete modeling” – essentially an effort to see if monitoring an individual’s workload could mitigate overuse injuries. “I was looking at the military where so many injuries are self-inflicted from overuse,” he said. “Because military data is hard to get, I used data from Olympic athletes instead.”

Rummells left the world of academia for a six-month internship with Driveline Baseball, a data-driven performance training center located in Kent, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. The program, which is geared to players of all ages from youth to professional, uses state-of-the-art motion capture assessments to develop specialized training for elite athletes.

Driveline, which trains 75 professional pitchers and consults with four major league teams, counts Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Matthew Boyd among its clients.

“Both of my master’s degree advisors were big baseball fans and they knew I had a huge interest in training and biomechanics,” Rummells said. “Driveline Baseball was one of the few places on their radar that was producing peer-reviewed research while also making people better at that sport, which was the synergy of where I was heading.”

His experience with Driveline two years ago caught the attention of Mike Barwis, the director of sports science and human performance for the Red Wings who was looking for a person to head data collection and analysis in Grand Rapids.

Rummells had virtually no exposure to hockey, but his general knowledge and expertise in the sports science field – along with his inquisitive nature – made him an ideal fit for the job. And in his typical fashion, he has immersed himself, delving into every detail that might impact his work.

“I was a multi-sport athlete and I love trying to solve things,” he said. “I enjoy things that have some element of mystery because I’m a curious person in general. I’m always curious to learn more and I think having conversations with players is one of my strengths.”

Having skated only a couple of times before getting the job with the Griffins, Rummells felt the need to lace up some skates to get a feel of what it is like.

“I’m not a spectator of sports,” he said. “I get almost anxious watching sports because I feel like it’s fun that I’m missing out on. [Assistant coach] Mike Knuble gave me a pair of his skates and I’ve taught myself to skate. When possible, I’m hanging around the ice, seeing where I can help with drills, whether it’s collecting pucks or being a live dummy.

“If I take pride in biomechanics, I should understand the necessary postures.”

Most of his first year with the Griffins was spent building a proprietary version of an Athlete Management System (AMS) that compiles all the data collected from players who have consented to wear body monitors that track heart rate, movement, and other biomechanical statistics.

“We’ve created a program that compiles our on-ice data and produces reports for players and coaches on either a practice-to-practice or game-by-game basis,” said Rummells, whose coding skills have helped build the necessary infrastructure for the app.

Currently, Rummells is collecting various forms of data that can be analyzed and applied in different ways, whether the goal is to enhance performance, prevent injury, or optimize rehab and recovery. Although he works autonomously, he shares his findings with Griffins players, coaches, and the team’s high-performance staff (i.e. the athletic trainers as well as the strength and conditioning coordinator).

“We’re still early in the use of statistics, at least in terms of data-driven biometric analysis, so we haven’t yet pinpointed the correct KPI [Key Performance Indicators],” he said. “We need to gather a huge backload of data before teams can employ futuristic AI [artificial intelligence]. At some point, somebody will need to translate all this data into more useful information.”

For now, Rummells continues to collect the kind of data that should prove to be pieces of evidence for change.

Statistics alone will not alter the way players approach their jobs, but the data may lead to techniques that help fight fatigue or reduce the potential for injury. Coaches may learn how to boost their players’ ability to reach their peak performance.

Not all organizations employ research and development personnel just yet and more than a few coaches remain suspicious of statistics, but Rummells believes it is almost inevitable that sports science will eventually be more universally understood and respected.

“I believe our role is to provide tools that will enhance coaches’ ability to make better decisions,” he said. “Our job is to give players strategies that allow them to optimize themselves. Sports science does not produce step-by-step reports but rather it creates an intuitive awareness of biomechanics and it can provide internal cues that can be beneficial to the athlete.

“By sharing this knowledge, we are building on the shoulders of giants.”

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