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Hell's Trainer: The Crazy Truth About The Man Behind The Mask

Ever heard of Frank Matrisciano, better known as "Hell's Trainer," the guy who trained Blake Griffin and won't show his face in interviews? Dan Grunfeld knows him, his training, and his special brand of crazy better than anyone.

Frank Matrisciano
Frank Matrisciano

He's a man of mystery. He's elusive. He's an enigma. Most people don't know much about Frank Matrisciano, the man infamously called "Hell's Trainer," aside from the national attention he's garnered for training some of the NBA's best, including Blake Griffin. Despite this coverage, Frank is still shrouded in mystery, because he won't let his face be shown in photos or revealed during interviews. Even when ESPN did a piece on him, he had his face blacked out on camera.

This all makes me laugh, not just because I have done years of what he calls "chameleon training," which involves sprinting sand hills, pulling sleds, and other unique workout activities, but more so because Frank is like a brother to me. Not only do I know exactly what the man behind the mask looks like, but I've also seen his modeling portfolio from the early '90s that not many people know about. Oh yeah, it exists, and if you think he looks scary wearing a mask and sunglasses, you should see him in a newsboy cap and a corduroy vest.

Because of the obviously close nature of our relationship, I can say whatever I want about Frank. Though he's hard to put into words, the best I can do is to say that, when it comes to working with athletes, Frank is special. No one can replicate the things that he does, and no one is more passionate about training. As a trainer, he's the best I've ever seen, and as a human being, Frank is also, well, special. Unequivocally, he's unlike anyone you've ever met before. Ever. While he refers to himself as "Stealth," he proudly admits that others more commonly call him things like "The Mental Patient," "The Genetic Freak," and, of course, "Crazy Frank." 

No matter what you call him, you can rest assured that, if you're a guy, Frank will address you as "Sir." He wouldn't be Frank if he didn't call every single dude he met "Sir." That's just how he gets down, and it's one of the many unique things that makes him Frank. Other examples would be how he doesn't go anywhere without his Siberian Husky, Seminole, or without wearing hiking boots, basketball shorts, an army vest, sunglasses, and a fisherman's hat that would make him the envy of any reputable retirement village. Frank is a character, perhaps even a cartoon character, and he's a funny story waiting to happen. He's the guy who once met me in Las Vegas, and showed up in the lobby of our hotel an hour after he landed, carrying only a backpack, his face red and his clothes sweaty. He decided to squeeze in a workout by running from the airport to our hotel on The Strip instead of taking a cab. Jogging for miles along the highway in Vegas in the million-degree heat is very clearly not a normal thing to do, but that's just Frank.

He's a nut, but if you buy into what he does, he will almost certainly transform your body and mind. He's been doing the type of things now seen in popular programs like P90X for close to 30 years. He's ahead of his time, and while he'll bust your butt to get you in shape, he'll also change your nutrition and teach you important mental discipline. He's someone who once finished the majority of a 10-mile sand run with a stone in his boot, digging into his foot with every step, while wearing an 84-pound weight vest, just to prove that he could do it. He knows a little something about mental toughness, and despite all that I've said about him thus far, he's really not as crazy as the persona suggests. He can definitely be terrifying to those who don't know him, and his intensity has been known to overwhelm, but ultimately, there's a big heart hidden underneath that army vest. It's not quite as big as his mouth, but still, it's there, even if most people don't get to see it. Those who are in Frank's circle, like me, get to experience his softer side, along with the ridiculous workouts, endless funny stories, and, at the end of the day, a loyal friend.

I have the distinction of being the first college and pro basketball player to consistently train with Frank, but I've known him since I was a kid, when we were family friends in New Jersey. It just so happens that he moved to the Bay Area in 2002, the same year I started college at Stanford. During my first couple years at school, I spent a lot of time with Frank, but I never trained with him. I was still adjusting to life on campus, but more than anything, I was legitimately frightened to train with this sunglassed psychopath in a Mounty hat. 

Finally, after my sophomore season, I took the plunge. It had been an amazing year for my team, but I struggled personally, and I wanted a change of pace with my workouts. One morning, on a Saturday in the spring of 2004, Frank picked me up at my dorm room for my test-run at chameleon training. If I liked it, I said, I would spend a month training with him that summer. Immediately, he drove me right to his bread-and-butter training spot, where the crazy are separated from the really crazy: the sand hills of San Francisco.

One of the amazing things about Frank is that he leads by example, so he didn't just throw me out on the hill and tell me to start running: he did it with me. First, though, we were walking. Then jogging. Then sprinting. Then we did a mixture of all three. After 10 minutes, I felt like I was trudging in hummus, but Frank was just breezing right past me, not even breaking a sweat. (By the way, he also had his 84-pound-vest on the whole time.) As if he hadn't already made his point, he was simultaneously taunting me, saying things like, "You can run to Grandma's at any time, Sir," and "Grandma will have the food on the table as soon as you want, Sir." Just to clarify, I lived with my grandma near Stanford during my college summers.

I kind of hated Frank a little out on that sand hill, but I didn't give up. I kept fighting. Frank saw that I was laboring, and even though I was supposed to be on the hill for 40 minutes, he stopped the workout after 20. After a little recovery, we drove to a playground for more chameleon training, but as soon as I got out of the car, I realized that I was moving like the title character from Weekend at Bernie's. I was so rubbery that I could barely control my limbs, and my extreme exhaustion was making me borderline hallucinate. It's not often that you see a unicorn in San Francisco, so that was memorable. I was beyond tired, and when Frank saw my condition, he actually did take me to my grandma's, and the food was on the table shortly thereafter.

I was beat, but I was also convinced that this was what I needed to take my game to the next level. I'd never been pushed like this before, but I also saw that Frank had an amazing ability to recognize my limits and to pull me back at the right time. That same day, we made our plans, and that summer, just like I said, I worked out with Frank for a month straight. It was just Frank and I, three days on, one day off, three sessions a day. On days I worked out, we were together from nine in the morning until seven at night, and man, did we go hard. Of course, we worked in the sand, but we also sprinted steps, did backwards circuits up insanely steep hills, ran twisty fire-roads, did a variety of push-ups and pull-ups, pause-squats, plyo-jumps, hanging holds, swims, wooders, dirty dogs, step-ups, and one of my personal favorites, "save the kids," where you pull yourself up and use just your arms to shuffle along two parallel bars, from one side of a playground contraption to the other, as if you're traversing a pool of liquid hot magma to save stranded kids on the other side. We also did basketball drills at the YMCA every day. 

At the time, it was impossible for me to describe the stuff that I was doing, but the results spoke for themselves, and I could see them almost immediately. The sand hill that had destroyed me earlier that spring eventually became too easy, so I moved to a steeper one. By the end of the summer, I could do twice as many pull-ups as when I started, even while wearing a 30-pound weight vest. My nutrition had also reached a new level. Believe me, I wasn't choosing to eat a mix of brown rice, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and grilled chicken breast for breakfast every morning (at 5:00 a.m., many hours before my first workout). It was Frank's mandate, and while it definitely would have made Padma say "please pack your knives and go," I'm glad I did it. It provided the fuel I needed, and more than that, it taught me the importance of being disciplined in my approach and being willing to sacrifice for my goals. 

So, how did this summer with "Hell's Trainer" translate to the basketball court once the season started? This might sound too good to be true, but the following year, I was the most -improved player in Division-I basketball. Literally, I had the highest increase in scoring average in the country. I went from 3.4 points per game as a sophomore to 17.9 as a junior. Now, this obviously was not all Frank's doing. It had a lot do with opportunity, motivation, ability, maturity and other important factors. I'd be lying, though, if I said that Frank wasn't a huge part of the leap I took. His training gave me increased strength, speed, and stamina, but also, it gave me a mental edge that helped just as much. I internalized so many Frankisms, like "nothing good comes out of being negative and nothing bad comes out of being positive," and it all helped me go from a role player to a first team All-Pac 10 performer in a year's time.

It was a great ride, but it came to an end too soon. I tore my ACL in a game against Cal near the end of my junior year, at the height of my success, and I missed the last nine games of the season. The injury was crushing, especially considering all the work I'd put in to get to that level. The night I got hurt, I ate with Frank and my grandma at the Cheesecake Factory, and instead of the brown rice concoction, Frank ordered me not one, but two slices of Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cheesecake. And he made sure that I finished them both.

That's the side of him that most people never get to see. After I had my surgery, he not only helped my dad carry all 220 pounds of me out of cars, down hallways, and into my grandma's apartment, but he also visited me every day to play cards, where I managed to somehow dominate him even while hopped up on pain meds. Once I started going to class again, it was Frank who would often pick me up from Stanford and drive me a half-hour to my grandma's, where I was staying while I recuperated. And after my long rehab was completed, it was Frank who led me back to those hills to rebuild what was lost.

We worked together for another summer, and when school started again the following year, I finished first in our team's annual mile run, with a time of 5 minutes, 10 seconds, just 5 seconds slower than my time the previous year. That was less than eight months after my surgery. Though it was impossible for me to keep up that pace for an entire season post-surgery, and my numbers dropped significantly, I'm not sure where I would have been without that mask-wearing madman. And you better believe that Frank was at every home game, not only that year, but every year I was at school.

Nowadays, I'm lucky if I can find a week each summer to steal a few workouts with "Hell's Trainer," but that's okay. I'm at a different stage in my career, and so is he. Somehow, Josh Pastner and the basketball staff at Memphis were able to lure Frank from the Bay Area, and now he has brought his chameleon training to the Tigers. He refuses to call himself their strength coach, but instead, their "life changer." That's a very Frank way to put it, but it makes some sense.

The Memphis program now has a huge advantage, and I hope those kids know how fortunate they are to be able to train with a guy like Frank. Also, I hope they don't try to take a picture of his face with their iPhones and post it on Facebook, because that could end badly for them. While he's in Memphis, Frank has also talked about raising money to finally start the non-profit he's always dreamed about -- what he envisions as his "Find-A-Way Foundation" -- to buy land to build schools and housing for kids less fortunate than some of the ones he's trained. Again, that's the heart under the vest. Frank is a crazy man, no doubt, but he's a great person to have in your corner, and he's the best trainer I've ever seen. He also has a Hansel-esque modeling portfolio, but that was a long time ago, long before he brought his sick brand of training to the Bay Area, and long before he decided to don his signature face-mask in order to stay, as he calls it, "Stealth."  It was also long before I worked out with him, long before I had an unlimited arsenal of absurd Frank stories, and, more importantly, long before I made such a loyal friend.