Will Bartholomew is one of the rare Nashville natives. He is most commonly known for playing college football for the University of Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville as a fullback. Beginning in 2001, Will is now CEO of D1 Sports, where today hosts 36 facilities across 25 states and according to sources, brings in $20 million a year in revenue. Although there was a time when Will couldn’t foresee his own bright future, at 22, his plans to succeed in the NFL blocked any view beyond that horizon. When his professional football dreams were crushed, he chose to battle his way back to a slightly different journey – one you might be surprised to know Will accepted with an open mind, but also with the same grit and determination as his rehabilitation required in his playing days.
Will attended local high school at Montgomery Bell Academy where he says, “This is where I fell in love with the weight room.” He particularly remembers his strength and conditioning coach playing a large role for his love of the game, especially in high school. “He would quote scripture to me while we worked out together,” Will recalls, “I found a lot of inspiration in those words.”
Much of that inspiration would guide him through the following years of rehabilitation, adversity, and recovery. His first true test in playing setbacks faced a young 8th grader with a torn ACL and cartilage. Although, the hardest thing to overcome was the news he wouldn’t play football anymore. Doctors explained the major surgery would be risky, seeing as young, teenage boys are still significantly growing. Nonetheless, after surgery came rehab and so did Will’s lack for any expectation on how the future of his knee would turn out. All he knew was the feeling that “things had been ripped away” from him.
With rehab and a lot of extra work, he had years between his injury and college recruitment to safely harbor the recovery process. “Having that injury at that time was a blessing in disguise,” he maintains. It gave him an education in patience, trust for the process, and he learned that working hard could get him back to the game he loved. Will says all he could think about during the recovery process was, “get in the weight room, work hard, and be the strongest most disciplined athlete I could be.”
Although the knee injury was nothing casual, occurring at a young enough age gave him time to grow, continue to rehab, and strengthen the muscles around the knee for his future career. He also began to understand the level of dedication recovery requires. He says, “Life has to do with patterns and a lot of them depend on how you respond.” Life will always have obstacles, but how we recover sequentially depends on our outlook and the patterns we choose to repeat. Along with the haunting memories of potentially having it stripped away, he left his younger days of football with a gracious perspective.
The University of Tennessee at the time hosted major talent in every aspect. “My goal was to play special teams,” Will admits, “I didn’t even think I could start.” Not only did he quickly earn his way to a starting position, but he also took on the role of team captain and won a National Championship title.
As an undrafted free agent, Bartholomew was set to play in the National Football League for the Denver Broncos. Unexpectedly, Will’s fate circled back to his knee during training camp, when his career looked to be over yet again suffering another injury. This time, the recovery would require multiple surgeries. “At that moment, I thought, ‘How do I respond?’ and I had to go back to that pattern,” he recalls. The approach would need to be in a similar fashion. “I made my response be the same as before – work as hard as I could to come back and be the best athlete I could be,” he remarks. Although, this time, the process of recovery led him to starting D1.
He signed a settlement with the Broncos and moved back to Nashville to seriously rehab his knee. He needed a place to train like an athlete – one that had the caliber of resources but could also be ready him for a return to the NFL. He needed the opportunity to reach his goals and he needed them in the shape of a space with coaches and programming like he’d previously known. Instead, he found himself working out at a community center. “I was powerlifting and being loud, I guess, but the general manager asked me to leave,” Will admits. When he realized his available options were not quite up to par, he created his own and named it D1 Training.
The vision for D1 Training was to contrive fitness facilities that provide custom sports-based training programs to help people achieve their sports and fitness goals. Lining the walls of all D1 Training facilities are the words that say “Iron Sharpens Iron,” and ring true to create the mentality that one person strengthens another. The D1 environment is meant to support you through the process of recovery or the exertion of elite exercise and along the way, you become stronger because of the people that surround you.
A year later, Will had the confidence in his recovery work to return to football. He had a new found strength and new business so he decided it was time to head back to the Broncos. The first thing standing in his way was a mandatory physical. To everyone’s surprise, Will was diagnosed with another torn ACL. “Whether I tore it again or it never really healed didn’t matter,” he claims. Something had already shifted in Will’s mindset. “This time it felt more of a confirmation that God wanted me to put my heart and soul into something else,” he clarifies.
High-level athletes often come to a point in their career when they have to accept the cards they are dealt. Will described the change in mindset as a “stamp on his life” that said, “this is done, it’s time to move on.” He acquired the acceptance of a new process – one that felt similar to healing an injury. “You have to be realistic,” Will says, referring to playing the game of football, but he could just as easily be talking about injury or doubt or hardship. We often forget to remind ourselves that this temporary pain will not last forever. He affirms, “You can always work through it. There will always be a way – even if that means changing your plans.”
So while Will was training for his NFL comeback, a bigger plan seemed to surface. He had been pouring his heart and time into the D1 business. “My faith has been my backbone – of the business and me – it’s who I am,” Will describes, “but there is something bigger at play than just my story.” Trusting his faith and choosing to stay on the course of growing D1, his recovery would now focus on being the best in the business. Recovery became less about his knee and more about his life choices. “The one choice you will always have is your outlook,” Will says. This stage of his career would open up new roles needing the same amount of attention his knee had once required. It would still take dedication, but it was nothing he hadn’t gone through before.
“It goes back to those moments in 8th grade, doing rehab, sitting there listening to someone else tell me how it was going to be,” Will conveys, referring to the doctors saying he would never play football after his first knee injury. “But that wasn’t what I believed. I believed I would recover and I believed in my mindset.” A positive mindset and overall attitude are some of the few things we actually can control according to Will, and he says, “It translates to business owners too.” In both business and recovery, perseverance, discipline, and work ethic will build character. “You are going to have setbacks,” Will plainly states, “and when you do, how are you going to respond? Will you have that mental fortitude?”
Sports psychology is embedded in athletics today and programs recognize the importance of the mental game. Will says, “I think the same thing applies to sports as it does to training as it does to rehab. You have to develop the mental strength because you are going to face adversities.” When we are forced to slow down and are placed in the discomfort of an injury, life, business or whatever it may be, our character carries us through it. Will defines character as our backbone or rather, who we are and what we are made of. In fact, also displayed on the walls of D1 Training is the quote, “Character is who you are when no one is looking.”
Through football, recovery, training, family, and business, Will has always managed to have a great outlook on life. He is one to keep positivity at the forefront of his endeavors. “I want to always be working towards progress,” he explains. Through his recovery journey, Will has worked hard to achieve his goals as they have changed over time. “I’ve had massive gains and massive losses,” he admits, “but both have equally helped shape my character.”