Downtown Lewes is a quiet place at 5:15 in the morning.
On a brisk November day, the only signs of activity are construction crews on the Savannah Road bridge and the police car monitoring traffic.
But down at the tennis courts at Canalfront Park, 10 men are about to kick off their morning exercise routine.
The group refers to themselves strictly by their nicknames like “Chattahoochie,” “Chairman,” “Chappie” and “Leatherman.” Later, a few group members joke about how unfamiliar they are with each other’s real names.
They do exercises with equally unusual names such as “Lt. Dans” and “American Hammers.” Even when they come together for a motivational message, that has a nickname: a Weinkes, named for former Carolina Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke, who won the Heisman Trophy at Florida State.
This is the world of F3, a fast-paced fitness program for men that combines working out with a message intended to help men come together, not only to get in shape, but also to become better husbands, fathers and leaders.
Workouts are five days a week for about 45 minutes apiece, with the exception of the Saturday workout in Georgetown, which lasts about an hour. Tuesday and Thursday workouts are in Milton, Wednesday in Lewes and Friday is the “RuckF3st,” which is at a rotating location and features the whole group walking while carrying 40-pound backpacks on their backs.
Each workout has a different leader and each workout ends with a COT or circle of trust, where the group comes together for a final message before breaking for the day. The group ranges in age from 31 to 67, the eldest being Dan O’Brien of Milton, aka Wild Wing.
The workout begins with “Bring Sally Up,” where each person starts in plank position before doing a push-up and then holding the plank position. The exercise is scored to the song “Flowers,” by Moby which is noted for its earworm hook “Bring Sally Up/Bring Sally Down/Lift and squat/gotta tear the ground.” The song is infectious enough that team members find themselves singing it long after the exercise is done.
From there, the workout moves to the canal bridge, where the group goes across and back doing bear crawls - walking with hands and feet on the ground - and transitioning to “Lt. Dans,” a squat followed by two lunges. The group goes back to the tennis court to finish with burpees and planking before wrapping up.
For most group members, the hardest part at first wasn’t the high-impact exercise; it was being used to getting there at 5:15 a.m.
Johnny Longo, aka Leatherman, said, “It took me about a month and a half to want to wake up this early to come work out.”
At the Nov. 6 workout, Longo was nursing an injured knee, so he was unable to do the lunges on the bridge or jog back to the park. As he walked back to the tennis courts, the rest of the group, which had already made it there, came back to get Leatherman and go back to the courts together, or as they call it, “pick up your six.”
“It’s a ‘no man left behind’ mentality,” Longo said.
Johnny Hopkins, aka Fireplex, is president of Milton Fire Company, and like many in the group, he was friends with fellow Milton firefighter Allan Jackson, aka Chattahoochie, and Todd Bean, aka Chappie, who brought F3 to Delaware with him from South Carolina.
“I’m getting a little older, so I needed a way to stay in shape,” Hopkins said. “Came out and I was hooked.”
Hopkins and Jackson also drew in another fellow firefighter, DJ Hughes.
“Every monthly company meeting - we call it ‘EH’ - emotional headlock - they would always get on me to come out. I would be up that early anyway doing work, so I figured I’d give it a try,” Hughes said.
He said when he started two and a half years ago, it was a struggle.
“When they’d pick up the six, I was the six,” Hughes said. “After your first one, you wonder if this is the thing for you or not. But Chappie has a saying, ‘The workouts don’t get easier, you get better.’ And it really is true.”
Bean’s nickname, Chappie, came to him honestly: he is chaplain at Grace Church in Milton, where he relocated from York, S.C., which is near Charlotte where F3 began in 2011. The three F’s are fitness, fellowship and faith. There are an estimated 20,000 men who participate around the country; there is a women’s version of F3 called FiA, Females in Action, that has 5,000 members.
Bean said he started an F3 group, called Mustard Seeds, in Milton in 2016 because he missed the camaraderie he had with his group in South Carolina.
“If these other guys aren’t here, I’m not getting out of bed to work out by myself. I’ve never had that personal discipline. But knowing these guys are out here? My youth pastor jumped in it with me. It’s just rolled.”
“It just connects us. We go to Proverb 17 a lot, which says ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ We sharpen each other a lot. It goes outside of here. We’ve helped each other move. We lift each other up in prayer all the time. The mission of F3 is leadership. We challenge each other in that way. You’re thinking about being a high-impact man at home, in your workplace and in the community.”
For more information on F3, visit F3Nation.com. To learn more about the Sussex County group, visit f3firststate on Facebook and Instagram or call 803-810-4709.