Fit to Be King
Pat Croce built his career on a foundation of blood and sweat. Since then, an unwavering commitment to health and fitness has helped him cultivate a continually evolving empire.
by Bill Donahue

Pasquale “Pat” Croce has a tough time sitting still. He ascribes the condition—and, for that matter, his bafflingly high level of success—to a persistent case of attention deficit disorder.


Whether it’s ADD or some other brand of sickness, Croce’s state of perpetual motion from the moment he left the womb, it would seem, has not only sculpted his body but also turned him into a highly charismatic chameleon, of sorts, with a revolving door of almost too many job descriptions of which to keep track: personal trainer for the Flyers and Sixers, bestselling author, reality-TV star, consumer-products maven, chief executive, museum curator, etc. At 56, his frame still has more in common with a 6-foot, 165-pound length of steel cable than somebody’s grandfather—another title of his—honed from a lifetime of rigorous exercise.


Croce attributes his extensive résumé not only to his sky-scraping fitness level—his resting heart rate is 48 beats per minute, comparable to a well-conditioned athlete’s—but also to his ability to move quickly yet thoroughly from one project to the next. A recent pet project also represents one of Croce’s most ambitious: the relocation (and subsequent grand reopening in early December 2010) of his St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, to Florida’s northeastern coast from its original home in Key West.


A nearly two-hour conversation with Croce yielded an eruption of insights into the mind of our region’s most dynamic multitasker. Among the revelations: Croce, a fourth-degree black belt, still possesses a lethal mastery of the nunchucks, even though he hasn’t practiced with them regularly in more than 20 years. Also, the man famous for his boundless energy and sunny outlook has, in fact, had a bad day—days even, as in plural—with one notable caveat: “The bad days never start out that way. I’m always excited when I wake up.”


Suburban Life Magazine met with Croce at his suburban office, which adjoins his Main Line home, to learn about his lifestyle, his grueling workouts, the source of his vitality, and why pirates weren’t such bad guys after all.


Suburban Life Magazine: Unlike you, our culture struggles with fitness. You see so many people fighting obesity and other ailments related to poor health. What’s the hang-up?


Pat Croce: It takes discipline to get up and work out every day or even four days a week. You have to put in the schedule and adhere to it, and some people are just lazy. I’m not saying you can’t have a doughnut; I don’t say to anyone you can’t have anything. I’m all about what you can have. My mission was always moderation; that was the message. You don’t have to be a marathoner. You don’t have to be a triathlete. You don’t have to be a vegan. But you do have to commit some focus to your body: nutrition, fitness and sleep patterns. It’s all three, because if you’re only getting five hours a night, you’re not going to be fit. I know there are the rare people who can survive on five hours a night, but I’m not talking about surviving; I’m talking about thriving. Life’s too short to survive. You survive when you’re a POW; but you live in America, where you can thrive.


You give me cement cans and a broomstick and I’ll give you a workout, so I don’t want to hear the excuse, “I don’t belong to a gym” or “I don’t have time” Bullshit. Make time. Because you will be more productive if you commit four hours a week to fitness. It could be ballroom dancing. It could be anything.


I was a personal trainer when “personal trainer” wasn’t even a title. It’s amazing to me to think of those people I [trained] in the late ’70s, early ’80s. These were very smart, very wealthy individuals, but it wasn’t until they accumulated wealth that they realized, “Wait, I’d better start working on the most important treasure: my body.” Well, why didn’t you think about that 20 years ago?


SLM: How has your own approach to health and fitness changed over the years?


PC: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday are my cardiovascular days. But Sunday’s probably just a walk—a five-mile brisk walk, a calorie-burning day. Monday and Friday I lift for an hour, with very little rest in between sets, and I always do a lot of core exercises; probably every third or fourth activity throughout the hour is a core exercise. Wednesday is yoga, which kills me and I hate it, but it’s so good for me. I’ve done karate since I was 18 till I was 50, so I think I must have thrown a gazillion punches. Being a fourth-degree black belt, I’m pretty flexible, especially for a guy, but I’m used to kicking you in the head and then bringing my foot down, not kicking you in the head and keeping my foot in the air for 10 minutes. I watch my daughter and my wife do it, and it’s so easy for them, so I take it for the challenge.


SLM: You mentioned thriving over surviving, and obviously you’re doing a lot of things right. Have you always had this passion and energy inside you, or did you have to somehow cultivate it?


PC: The passion and energy have always been there, whether it’s ADD or just the excitement and enthusiasm for life. But I’m one who preaches you should take action on your passion. What people don’t know is this: I only do what I’m passionate about. I like fitness. I like being fit. I hate being injured, and I get injured because I do something too hard or train too excessive or do something crazy and blow out my elbow or get in a motorcycle accident. I really only do what I like, whether it’s public speaking or fitness or getting involved with pirates.


Pirates, I love—the history, geography and science of that Golden Age of Piracy, the democracy. That was a precursor to the American Revolution back then; people don’t know that. Mother England hated these pirates because they were democrats. There was a democracy there; they voted that captain into office. … I’m not good with authority. And I don’t believe that this class system, because you have money, that you should be put on a pedestal higher than me. And that’s how it was; you couldn’t get out of that class system, but a pirate could. You could be an ex-slave and be a captain, like Black Caesar.


SLM: Seeing you speak to a room full of people is pretty inspiring. Your message certainly resonates, but at some point people have to take action on your message.


PC: I believe people should be able to achieve whatever they dream. Now, it’s not just believing in it and dreaming it; you have to set a strategy, a game plan, get a mentor, bypass the mistakes and get that learning curve down so it’s pretty flat. I’m not saying anything that Norman Vincent Peale or Zig Ziglar or any of those guys haven’t said before me, but success leaves clues. I do know that one of the greatest secrets of success is doing what successful people do—not knowing what they know, but doing what they do. That’s the key.


I could give you an unbelievable prescribed program for fitness, but that doesn’t get you in shape unless you get off your ass and do it. It’s no different than creating a to-do list in business. You have your vision, whatever that vision might be, and you break that vision down into short-term, time-sensitive goals. You take each goal and break into down into strategies. You take each strategy and break it down into tasks, and that’s what goes on your to-do list. And then you get off your ass and check off those to-do-list items, and until you do that it just becomes a dream, not a vision.


Action is what you’re talking about; it’s fitness. I’m going to outperform most people because I have the endurance and the oxygen, not only going to my body but to my brain. It oxygenates everything—including your creativity. Fitness enhances your lifestyle—both business and personal.


SLM: Some people will look at you and say, “He’s wired differently” or “What’s wrong with that guy?”


PC: I’m not going to agree or disagree. I’m not saying everything I do is right. I make mistakes like everyone else. But I’m talking about enjoying the quality of life, taking action on your passion with a focused determination and an expectation of success. You’ll never hear me say, “I want something.” I expect it. There’s a big difference. People want to be fit, but they expect to be overweight. They want to be wealthy, but they expect to be in debt. They want to feel great, but they expect to feel OK. They want to be leaders, but they expect to be followers. I’m telling you, you have to expect it.


I expected the pirate museum to be open in November [2010]. I bought the building in January. I didn’t get the building permit till July 4, and I still expected to be open. Even my wife said—this was in January, when I bought it—“What are you thinking? How are you going to move a pirate museum that wasn’t meant to be moved, from Key West to St. Augustine?” I said, “That’s just a plan. There are more important things to worry about.”


SLM: It seems like it was probably a painful decision to make, to leave Key West where you started the pirate museum, but ultimately for a good reason.


PC: I’ve been there five years, and you realize the people who loved it really loved it. But when you go to Key West, you go to party, first and foremost; our bars down there are doing great—the Rum Barrel and Island Dogs. Secondly, you go for water activities, and third you’ll go to Hemingway’s or the Butterfly Museum or Pirate Soul [his museum’s former name]. But that wasn’t good enough. Families loved it, but there weren’t enough families. At the most we would get 20, maybe 30 school groups. In St. Augustine, I already have hundreds of school groups scheduled. It’s a totally different dynamic; the pedigree of St. Augustine is history. You go there, first and foremost, because of history. My museum is relevant there.


(Editor’s note: Relevant, indeed. During site renovations in St. Augustine, construction workers unearthed an artifact on the property: the hilt of a British soldier’s sword dating back to 1751. Because of the location of its discovery, however, there’s a chance it could have once belonged to a pirate. The artifact will be used in a museum exhibit called “Buried Beneath Your Feet.”)


SLM: You’ve got your hands in a lot of different things, including a producer’s credit on a film to be released in 2011, called “The Mighty Macs,” about a coach at Immaculata University. How do you determine which projects to pursue? Is it a matter of doing only the things you’re passionate about, recognizing a good opportunity when you see one, or both?


PC: All of the above. In college I was a phys-ed major who wanted to be physical therapist, when physical therapy was not in vogue. And at the same time, I saw during my internships that physical therapists and athletic trainers were like sheepherders and cattle farmers: They hated each other. So why not get the best of both? Then I came up with this concept that helped breed what you now know as sports medicine. I didn’t invent sports medicine, but I was the first to have a sports-medicine center in a hospital in the United States, at Haverford Community Hospital. From there I branched out only because the hospital got complacent. We were doing so well, but I just wanted more. I’ve always wanted more; when I left the Sixers it was because I wanted more. I’m not good at the status quo.


With the pirate brand, no one owns it. When you think of pirates you think of Disney. But that’s not real pirates. The essence of my business plan with pirates was, “I want to be the authentic pirate,” so the museum really grounded that authenticity. From there—whether it’s books or movies or merchandise or whatever else—you start with the authenticity of the museum. It’s all about branding and marketing.


With “The Mighty Macs,” it looks like it’s coming out in March or April, in only a limited number of movie houses. Sony’s behind it, and we think it’s going to be one of those ripples that hopefully becomes a tsunami. It’s “The Hoosiers” meets “Sister Act.” It’s a great, enterprising, inspiring story—a woman-empowerment story about Cathy Rush, the first one to go from rags to riches and win the first-ever NCAA women’s basketball championship. It’s just an amazing story, and it’s here. It’s local.


SLM: You’ve also invested in consumer products, like Skinny Water, and the vehicle-transportation business with Carmoza. I imagine some projects haven’t always worked out as well as you hoped, but you haven’t been afraid to try new things. 


PC: Some investments work and some don’t. You just have to hope the ones that do outweigh the ones that don’t. … I’m not afraid of failing at all. What’s failing? People need to remove that word from their vocabulary. There’s no such thing as failing. Some people are so overweight they don’t want to take the first step. … Give me six weeks and I’m going to get you addicted [to fitness] because you’re going to see change. But if you look for it overnight, it’s not going to happen.


One thing about me might surprise you: If it’s difficult, I’m not going to do it. It wasn’t difficult to leave the Sixers. It wasn’t difficult for me to sell [Sports Physical Therapists, his chain of sports-medicine centers] to NovaCare. I’m driving a car in this journey in life, and I have a real little rearview mirror that I look at to learn from and to enjoy the memories. But I’ve got this giant windshield where I see a horizon and that rainbow, and one day I’m going to hit that pot of gold. I’m not one to have regrets. Like I say in my speeches, don’t smell like “should.” Wipe the “should” off yourself. Forget “should.” If you should do it, then do it.


There was a time several weeks ago when this museum might not have opened till March [2011]. Because if I couldn’t get this easement through state lands—I’m surrounded by the Spanish Quarter [in St. Augustine], which is their Williamsburg—and that’s where the transformer is; I’ve got to get to that transformer to put in a bigger transformer. … They were telling me I have to be in Tallahassee on Dec. 9 to get this and that, and then if they said yes—if—then I’d have to wait another eight weeks for Florida Power and Light to order a transformer. And I have a staff—artists, general contractors, architects, artisans—in a bunker down there. … What am I going to do, keep paying rent for all these people for the next three more months? It’s going to kill me. You’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and it would start percolating in my mind. … I don’t like when I’m not in control. I had no control here, because it’s a process. That’s what they kept saying. I’m thinking: [Forget] the process! We’ve got to get this done!


SLM: You’ve also been a prolific author (see sidebar). Where do you find the time?


PC: Sundays are my creative time. Saturdays, too, but I’ve always been a fanatic about working on Saturday mornings. Anyone who reports to me has to have a 5-15 in to me by midnight on Friday night—a report that takes 15 minutes to write, five minutes for me to read—it’s a weekly update for what they’ve accomplished and major goals for the following week. When I wake up Saturday morning early, I’m going to have a lot of 5-15s to read, and I go over every one of them.


Saturdays are the only day I don’t work out first; I’ll get up, I’ll work—whether it’s 5:30 to 7:30 or 8 o’clock. Then I’ll go run or do something and come back and finish up. So by lunchtime I can go play with the grandkids or do what I need to do. … If you want to keep up with me, just ask me to do something at night with you. That’s why running the Sixers and working the Sixers and Flyers all those nights were so hard. By 9 o’clock or 9:30, I’m in bed reading. People know that you won’t find me doing anything at nighttime.


SLM: Your many careers have taken you across the country and around the world. Why have you chosen to stay local?


PC: I love Philly. I love the people, and it’s close to the Jersey Shore. I was out in Hollywood when I was doing “Pat Croce: Moving In” [a reality-TV show in which he starred]—I lived out there for six months—and I have a home in Key West, and I’m building an apartment in St. Augustine above the museum, but Philly’s my home. This is where I was born and bred, and I just feel comfortable here. I like wearing leathers and boots. I like the four seasons. I like flip-flops, too, but—again, it might be the ADD—I need a change; I can’t wear shorts and flip-flops all the time.


SLM: Name something you’ve tried that you’ve failed at—or if not failed, then something you found you weren’t very good at.


PC: I believe we’re blessed with a certain skill set, but I’m not happy that I can’t write music like Bruce Springsteen. I just happened to be a good fighter—a street fighter—even though I was a babyface. Being a black belt, you learn something when you watch everyone become a white belt. When I started karate, a lot of these white belts didn’t know how to make a fist. But some of them who became black belts, if they made it through that three or four years, their variance from where they started may have been better than mine. That transfers to everything in life; it’s all how people use the skill sets they’ve been blessed with.


I’m still trying to make sure I’m utilizing the talents I’ve been given. I’ll try anything; I tried yoga, and I just started that a year ago. … Actually, yeah, there’s one thing I would say I’ve failed at: I can’t meditate, even when they meditate at the end of yoga. I love the working-out part, but the chilling-out part at the end—that’s not for me.