John Brenkus knows what it’s like to be roughed up.
He’s been flattened by NFL linemen.
He’s been bitten by a snarling attack dog.
He’s been choked by a martial arts athlete.
He’s suffered the humiliation of being out-sprinted by a NFL defensive back—and the pro was running backward.
Brenkus (Col ’93) also knows television, and he knows science. Mixing these ingredients has led to popular success and Emmy awards for his ESPN program, Sport Science, one of his BASE Productions projects.
The show uses science to illustrate the truths and consequences of being an elite athlete, whether it’s measuring the reaction time of NBA star John Wall or the brute hitting power of NFL linebacker Ray Lewis.
“What Sport Science has really brought to the table is showing people you can be entertained and educated at the same time,” Brenkus says.
He often plays the dummy, victim, foil—the “aggressively average” guy, as he bills himself. “We like to use myself as a guinea pig or the human crash test dummy to show how much better elite athletes are versus the average Joe,” he says.
At the far end of the spectrum, Brenkus has written a book, The Perfection Point, that predicts the limits of human athletic endeavor. The fastest anyone will ever run the 100-meter dash, for example, is 8.99 seconds, he concludes.
In the images that follow, Brenkus and some of UVA’s student-athletes team up to demonstrate the science of various aspects of baseball, softball, football and soccer.
Click images below for a detailed look at the science of sports
Click each image to learn more about the science of sports.
Sport Science Q & A with John Brenkus
Were you involved in sports while you were a youth in Northern Virginia?
Growing up, I was always on the Vienna all-star baseball team. I played baseball relatively well at a young age. I played football. I played basketball. We won a couple of town championships in basketball. … But I knew early on that there was a big difference between good and great. I was good at some sports, but I was never great. And I knew that I wasn’t going to be great. I knew that the kids who were great were so far ahead that I knew I was never going to catch up to them. And I never had aspirations to be a professional athlete. With that being said, I’ve always been athletic. So I’ve always worked out, I’ve always stayed in shape. But I always knew that I would never be an amazing athlete. So I had to take a different path.
It’s pretty amazing to have finished an Ironman triathlon. What do you do to stay in shape?
My weekly routine, especially when I’m training for a triathlon, is running, biking, swimming and some weight lifting—stuff that’s largely cardiovascular. This past year, actually, was maybe my best athletic accomplishment. I did the [Kona] Ironman again, and within a week, I did the longest competitive North American swim, the OptimisSport Distance Swim Challenge. It was the inaugural year, a 12.6-mile open-water swim.
How about the science side of you? How did that develop? When you were at UVA, you majored in rhetoric.
I really love to argue—that’s where my science background and interest come from—and it’s hard to argue without science, so science, to me, becomes a part of the argument. Now if you want to prove anything, people say, “Well, back it up with facts.” And whether or not it’s a social science or statistics or some sort of hard science, you use that in your arguments.
Sport Science is one of those things where I think that our use of science allows people to understand how amazing an athlete is. Rather than just looking and saying, “Wow, that’s fast,” you get to say, “How fast?” … What Sport Science has really brought to the table is showing people you can be entertained and educated at the same time.
Other than helping you learn to win arguments, how was the UVA experience important to you?
I knew I always wanted to go into either TV or film or something to do with entertainment, but there wasn’t a direct path at the University of Virginia to do that. I was advised by one of the deans to create my own independent study program. From that, I did an independent study with [director] Steven Soderbergh that I got credit for. He lived very near UVA at the time. And I was an intern at the Darden Graduate School of Business’s Department of Visual Communications. It’s a mouthful, but that’s where I learned how to edit. I had access to video cameras, access to video decks, and taught myself everything, which was the advice that Steven Soderbergh gave me. He said, “Don’t go to film school. Just figure out a way to get your hands on equipment and learn to do everything yourself,” which is exactly what I did.
Have you ever gotten hurt filming Sport Science?
When we did the experiment with [NFL tight end] Vernon Davis, where we tied a water ski tow rope to his back to see if I could hold him back off of the line of scrimmage—that ended up being the worst that I’ve gotten hurt on the show. I ended up shearing all the skin off my arms. I went 5 feet in the air and got dragged on the Astroturf. Generally, we’re setting up the experiments where we’re figuring out what the physics are and pushing it right to the edge, to where we think, OK, I’ll be able to withstand this amount of force. We’re never going to put me into a situation where we think I absolutely will get hurt.
If you had to choose between being an athlete, with all the physical gifts and skills, or a research scientist, with all the intellect and research, but have to stay in a lab, which would you choose?
If I had to choose between being a research scientist or an elite athlete, that’s a no-brainer. You’re going to be an elite athlete every day, because after I’m done, I’ll become a research scientist. But if I were a research scientist, after I was done doing that, there’s no way I [could become] an elite athlete.