To call Detroit Tough a gym is to grossly underestimate it. Located a couple blocks away from the venerable corner of Michigan and Trumbull, in a neighborhood once regarded as one of the most dangerous in Detroit, it’s easy to dismiss the unassuming old red brick building which used to house a small now defunct automotive parts supplier, as just another dump. Until you step inside. The "Sons of Anarchy" -inspired interior with 5 star quality graffiti by local artists (“Suffer in Silence”, “It’s Not About You, It’s Never Been About You”) gives way to barbells, free weights, gymnastic rings, TRX bands, kettlebells, weight sleds, yokes, atlas stones, tires, and a plethora of other equipment that would entice the most medieval of men. Oh yes, there is also one treadmill and a couple of stationary bikes. You're not here for the cardio. You can run outside for that. In here, it’s about your strength, your endurance. It’s about how much you can take before you can’t take anymore. It should be intimidating. But thanks to the man who runs the place, it’s not.
I meet Roger Dyjak on a Monday morning for his class, called simply, Detroit Tough. Obviously super fit, ink covered arms and shaved head, he adds to my "Sons of Anarchy" impression of the place. “We want everyone to feel comfortable coming here. Any age, any fitness level. Everyone is welcome. But there’s no bullshit here. I don’t give a shit about 6 pack abs or any of that bullshit. It’s about how hard you work, and getting you to be strong, fit, and healthy. And getting your mind right. Everything else out there is just noise.”
He gives me a walk-around of the place and I notice in what used to be the former loading dock, 3 large wooden crates. “Those are clothes we have collected. We have a lot of homeless in the area, a lot of homeless vets.” “Which organization do you give them to?” I ask. “No organization. We give them out. My coaches and our members - we go out once a month and give them out to people who need them. We’re in Detroit, we are in a neighborhood, part of a community, we want to help the community we are in.”
I realize this is not just a gym; it’s a group of people from all walks of life who all love fitness, and they all seem to love Roger. There are over 40 classes a week at Detroit Tough. From Barbell to Pilates, from Powerlifting to Yoga. There is literally something for everyone. In my class, there were a variety of people from young professionals, to a female Detroit City sheriff, in her late 50s. They all possess one thing in common, these people are tough. "Grab a sandbag and go to the lot across the street", Roger's first orders to us, after we were instructed to zip tie each others hands together. Clutching the sandbag to my chest with my forearms, I approach the gravel lot. "OK, now drop down and give me 30 sit ups, while doing leg flutters, with the sandbag". We all oblige. "I don't hear you counting! Count! Louder!" Someone's sandbag breaks. Roger is behind us and all of a sudden I hear moaning and spitting. Then I feel the dirt being poured on my head. Roger is spilling out the contents of the broken sandbag on each one of us. It was then that I realized this was going to be as much about mental toughness as it was about physical aptitude. In fact, for the entire hour, we are pushed further and further mentally, yet also as a team. "Run to Tiger Stadium, with your sandbag... in 2 and a half minutes. Go! Faster! Harder!". We run to the old Stadium, and I am dirty, I am sweaty - and I'm in my glory. I am remembering as a little girl, watching Kirk Gibson, rounding the bases, fists in the air. It was now empty, yet still had the original baseball diamond, with the same flagpole standing tall in center field. "Ok, drop the sandbags on the picnic table." "Thank G-d," I'm thinking. But no. "Pick up the table and carry it to the flagpole in 2 and a half minutes!" We are in a team of 4, our hands still zip-tied together, carrying a large picnic table with 4 sandbags on it across the baseball diamond to center field. It's kind of amazing.
The sheriff is on my team, and she's killing it. She's the only one who Roger seems to take shit from. They banter back and forth while he handcuffs us in groups of two and makes us sprint back and forth from home plate to the flagpole and give him 30 push ups and hold plank, then 30 mountain climbers. We repeat this pattern for awhile and then it's time to head back with our sandbags - still handcuffed -and run 5 laps around the block. On the way, we notice a taxi which had been set on fire the night before around the corner. It was left at the curb, completely burned out. "Man, I wish I had the tools to use that. Would be great to sand it down and use it on our obstacle course", Roger laments. His thinking outside the box seems to permeate everything he does: from how he builds his classes, to how he trains, even how he designed his gym. In one corner, there is an upright piano, and behind the front desk is an old cigarette vending machine - (you know, the kind with the pull out handles), in it he keeps protein bars. Everywhere there is Detroit memorabilia, vintage baseball posters, and a lot of soul. The idea seems to be - the old Detroit never left. The new Detroit may be re-building and re-branding as something new, and something awesome. But the grit, the intensity, the spirit that was Detroit, still is. The toughness that built the auto industry and brought up the great motown legends didn’t die. It can’t be killed. It’s alive and well in Roger Dyjak and in Detroit Tough. In fact, it’s hard to tell where Detroit the city ends, and where Detroit Tough, the gym begins. At once woven into the neighborhood around it, with the workouts seamlessly combining outdoor and indoor elements, Detroit Tough is symbolic of it’s city. Strong, prevailing… a fighter.
There is a lot of buzz around the fact that the new "Hockeytown", a $650 million sports, entertainment and residential mega-complex, will be opening less then a half mile away, as well as a new Meijer’s retail development just around the corner. These two new projects are meant to bring a large inflow of additional revenue and jobs to the city, and to the immediate neighborhood, which is badly needed. I ask about this. Roger shrugs. “You know, everyone is talking about how Detroit needs to be rescued, how we need to be saved. Detroit doesn’t need to be rescued. Detroit needs to be loved. We aren’t going to be another Manhattan, or even San Diego, or Atlanta. We are tough, we are gritty. We are Detroit. Love us for that.”