Chris Edmonds says Pittsburgh saved his life.
He came here 26 years ago as a high school junior, seeking refuge from the unforgiving streets of East Point just outside of Atlanta. His mother, a Pittsburgh native raising him alone, sent him back to her hometown to live with his aunt on Highland Avenue in Turtle Creek. It changed the trajectory of his life.
On his first day at Woodland Hills High School, he encountered legendary Wolverines head coach George Novak, who coaxed him onto the football field, beginning a journey that would take him to big-time college football at West Virginia University and culminate in two seasons in the National Football League.
“It was the best thing for me and the best decision my mom probably ever made because it just made my life turn in a different way,” he said.
Now, at 42, he goes back to that same field, the Wolvarena, and local gyms to teach fitness and nutrition free of charge to folks chronically underserved in both areas, and just maybe change the trajectory of their lives, too. That he continues to do so amidst a pandemic only heightens the importance of his mission.
At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds with shoulders like boulders, biceps like bowling balls and a thick beard flecked with gray, Mr. Edmonds’ presence belies the affable, upbeat nature of the founder of the Athletic Trauma Unit. He creates a genuine community with his workouts, which sometimes attract hundreds of people. But they started with just him and two others.
In 2006, he had played a few years with the Cincinnati Bengals and a little time in NFL Europe. Then the 29-year-old hung up his helmet.
“I felt good about walking away from it, with my knees and my shoulders and my head intact,” he said. “I wanted to get on with some different ventures in life — something that was mine, something that I could say, ‘I did that.’
“I had in my mind that I was always going to come back. I felt indebted to the Woodland Hills community.”
He worked as a juvenile correctional officer until June 2014. At another crossroads, he delved into his true passion — fitness — but also with a specific mission: giving people advice to get in shape when they don’t have a gym or the means to pay for it.
“I didn’t want people to have to pay me. I felt like the gripe within the community was they didn’t want to go to the gym because they were far away — in Monroeville, in Murrysville, or way Downtown.”
The concept of food deserts — areas with residents of lower income and reduced mobility who have limited access to affordable and nutritious food — has gained increasing awareness in recent years. So too have “fitness deserts.” Neighborhoods such as Braddock, Rankin and Turtle Creek are like the overlapping part of a Venn diagram for both types of deserts.
Edmonds became a certified personal trainer, then eliminated the need for a gym from the equation. His workout was designed around the principles of body resistance movements, so all participants need is themselves and gravity. No weights, no machines, no ropes, no kettlebells or box jumps.
He hosted his first workout at the Wolvarena in 2014.
“Two people showed up the first day. Within a few weeks, there were 10. By the end of the summer, we’d have 50 to 100 people. It really caught hold.”
Anyone from kids to seniors can participate and go at their own pace, although Edmonds will push them with positivity. After a workout, a friend remarked, “Man, this is like, traumatic. We put ourselves through some real trauma — athletic trauma.”
The name Athletic Trauma Unit — ATU for short — was born.
Edmonds does private athletic training as a separate business, but to continue the mission of free workouts, he started a 501c3 charitable organization that relies on donations. He’s also started a food truck to promote healthy eating.
“I’m not a nutritionist, but the whole intention of the food truck is teaching people healthy eating by showing them ‘this tastes good.’ I’ll give you the recipe and you can make it at home without a lot of salt and sauce. You can help your family be more healthy so we can build a healthier community.”
He’s led turkey drives at Thanksgiving and his Athletic Trauma Unit participates in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Goodfellows fund, which helps Toys for Tots provide toys to families in need during the holiday season.
Edmonds has not let the pandemic get in the way of his mission, even if that means mandatory masks, temperature checks, limiting class attendees and scheduling more frequent workouts with fewer people. He started a YouTube channel for workouts and moved his classes to Zoom in response to the most recent state restrictions.
“I don’t care if it’s one person or 100, we’re going to work out,” he said. “That person might be dealing with mental health or family issues, so I approach everyone the same. I struggle too, just like everyone else. Taking away some of these different barriers can be helping someone save their own life.
“I’ve seen people meet in these classes and get married and have kids. One person met another and ended up donating their kidney to them. A friend lost 250 pounds and got a grant to have excess skin removed because he did it naturally. A woman with a prosthetic got a grant for a running leg. We have a 93-year-old woman who comes here.”
Candace Foster, an accountant from Homewood, has been coming since the beginning. The 53-year-old single mother of three has precious little time to work out and gyms weren’t for her. With ATU, she found not only an avenue to fitness, but a genuine community of friends who work out together and have dinner and socialize together, too.
“I knew from the first workout that this was it. It was all levels, ages, men and women, all in different places in life with one thing in common: We wanted to get or stay fit and maintain health and wellness.
“Now it’s this big whole network,” she said. “We’re just regular people. No one comes to work out thinking they can’t measure up. We all finish together and make sure no one is left behind. He really has an impact, and it helps during these dark times.”
These dark times make exercise difficult, especially when you add snow into the mix. Edmonds says that right now, it’s not as important what you do, but that like the Nike slogan says, you just do it. Every day.
Find something that you like to do, even if it’s just a little video class or a stationary bike or jumping rope, he said. Just do something. If you walk your pets, walk them a little longer. Do the steps at your house. Anything that you can do to move and to get your heart rate going.
“We’re all human beings. It’s like anything. It’s a force of habit. If you take yourself off of the things that you do every day, it can lead to different issues.”
Besides, he said, “No one wants to get COVID handles.”