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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Former football player finds passion training dogs

Andre Hastings has gone from being a Bulldog to training them.

The former standout wide receiver at the University of Georgia has shifted his focus from footballs to canines.

“I train anything from Schnauzers to Australian Shepherds, Shi Tzus to Rottweilers,” he said.

These days, Hastings, 38, competes in competitive dog training shows around the country and the world.

The Atlanta native is starting a training and kennel business —- Best in Show Boarding and Training —- in Phoenix, where he’s lived since 1993.

He wants to change the tainted view of the relationship between athletes and dogs.

“People are always saying ‘What are you training them for? Fighting dogs?’” Hastings said. “That’s just this general perception of things. I want to show people that somebody made a mistake. I’m an animal lover. I want people to appreciate dogs.”

Hastings, who was the 1989 USA Today Offensive Player of the Year while at Morrow High School, played for Georgia from 1990-1992. He’s still fifth all-time for receiving yards in a season and first in average yards per kickoff return at the school. He remains close with his Georgia teammates, including college teammate and roommate Garrison Hearst, who also lives in Phoenix.

Hastings played eight seasons in the NFL, starting with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then heading to the New Orleans Saints and, finally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He retired in 2002.

The biggest game of his career may have been Super Bowl XXX, when Hastings pulled in 10 catches for 98 yards and returned two punts for 18 yards for the Steelers.

Hastings never had a dog growing up, but in 1999 he adopted a Rottweiler a friend was giving away.

“I said ‘I’ll take it’, ” he said. “I wasted a whole lot of money on a whole lot of people that knew a whole lot less than I do about training.”

Finding an expert became an obsession. During the NFL season, he’d check out trainers in different cities. It wasn’t until he went to a seminar by Ivan Balabov, one of the preeminent trainers in the country, that Hasting found someone he trusted.

“From there, I started learning how he trains, his methods,” he said. “I started to learn that I had a knack for dogs and I started to compete.”

Hastings’ talent grew quickly. Last year, his dog Kaden, a Malinois, placed second at the American Working Malinois Association championships.

In May, Hastings and Kaden will head to Prague to compete in the World Federation of Belgian Shepherd Dogs World Championships.

“Athletes and dogs have a bad reputation. I’m trying to make that better,” he said.

Hastings actually found his NFL background helped.

“There are a lot of similarities,” he said. “It’s you and your dog, you are a team. You have to work together when you are out there competing.”

He misses football and the camaraderie of being on a team and admits he still fights the urge to get back on the field.

At the Super Bowl in Tampa, Hastings ran into old teammates, including Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis.

“They said ‘You look great, you could still be playing,’ ” Hastings said. “In my mind, I’m still just as fast as I ever was. But your body definitely slows down.”

He still is involved in football. He helps train college players getting ready to make the jump to the pros, training them for the NFL combine.

Hastings’ passion has obviously moved to dogs.

“I enjoy this a whole lot,” he said. “It’s a passion of mine. It’s what I do.”



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