A Day in the Athletic Life

by Dave Hanks

All my early life I wanted to be a college football player. Every Saturday afternoon, when parents allowed it, I would sit glued to the radio listening to the games and scores. I knew every team and all the trivia about each. I wanted to play so bad that it was a constant argument with Mom and Dad, who were very much opposed. Each day through high school was aimed toward staying out for football for just one more night. For four years I managed to stay out for one more night. No assistance was given to an activity that was felt to be a detriment. This forced me to walk the three miles home from practice every afternoon. I had to hustle too, there were cows to milk and a great deal depended upon not upsetting things by a failure to get the chores done.

High school behind me, I was therefore fortunate(or unfortunate, depending on your point of view)to receive a full-ride scholarship to a major university. High school football had been rewarding but done at a much lower intensity level. Little was I prepared for the excessive amount of work and mental pressure of big-time college football. So there I was, a full-fledged scholar/athlete. An experience that was very valuable and unforgetable but one that was far from the fun that I had expected.

A typical day during pre-season went something like this. Six-thirty and the alarm goes off. "Where did the night disappear to?" My body is so stiff that it feels as if the slightest movement might break something. But the alarm must be silenced and I must get up to eat. That is if I want anything - it waits for no one. However, food of late has lost much of it's appeal. The tremendous physical exertions we go through have shrunk the stomach to "walnut size". I need the calories however, or I will shrink away to a shadow. So it's up the hill to the building that houses the training table and the regal amounts of food that it provides. It must be eaten quickly because the locker room and pre-practice ritual demand it.

Rod, the old sage of a trainer, is there already. He is taping bodies at a fast clip, chewing on the excess tape and spitting it into the Garbage. Inbetween he makes sage comments about us and our mental abilities. It is all done in good humor because he is a happy, kind man. The best man on the whole football staff. We unload our emotional difficulties on him and he responds in a fatherly way. You see, conditioning is as much a mental sharpening process as a physical one.

Well ankles are taped, heat rubbed on delinquent muscles, and then on with the equipment. Every item that is made of cloth must be washed after every practice. Clothing is so full of sweat that fresh items are a must for every session. We check-out fresh T-shirts, jocks, socks, shirts, and pants. Lower body items like pants and shoes go on first. Shoulder pads and helmet are somewhat uncomfortable to relax in, so they are left until last. They go on just before the last roll of tape - which is applied to hands and wrists. Running backs worry about their knees but a lineman's nemesis is his hands. They are what take the most abuse. After all the adhesive is added, they look like clubs.

Practices are quite routine: stretching, agility drills, and then into small groups according to position for technique work, and finally with the whole team to work on offense and defense. This is always followed by generous doses of conditioning work.

The head coach is a "bird-colonel" in the infantry reserve. He has been imported from the east and has coached at such places as the United States Army Academy at West Point. He is rock-hard and a sourpuss. His assistants are all in awe of him. The line coach (Owen) is a short, squat guy. He is not as imposing as the head coach but does have his moments when he deviates from the human race. He believes firmly in doing all drills at full intensity at all times. Nothing is held back. He screams at us in an attempt to promote perfection. We teammates pound on each other without mercy.

During one practice, a promising sophomore is across the line from me. He has been picked to start at right tackle along with me on the left. The team is going through a "dummy" scrimmage - mostly to review mental assignments. Coach Owen quietly informs the interior linemen that it is not "dummy" for us but full speed. The sophomore (Paul Eckle, a brilliant prospect from Medford, Oregon)and I are hitting each other pretty good. On one play I catch him quite hard. He is instantly on the ground holding his head. The head coach is there immediately screeching at me. "Get him out of here, he's too dumb to play any other way but at full speed!" It turns out that Paul's jaw is broken and he is lost for the season.

Coach Owen is quiet. I look at him. He's scared of the Colonel and won't confess that the intensity was his idea. Not wishing to implicate him, I keep the truth to myself as do the other linemen. The rest of the team are all over me. They call me stupid - so stupid that I would break a teammate's jaw in a walk through scrimmage. The stigma last through my college career. I vow that if I ever coach, that I will be coach Owen's opposite.

Morning practice finally ends at 11:00 A.M. It's into the showers, turn them on cold, and let the water run down your throat. My thirst seems unquenchable. Back to the dorm and into bed for an hours sleep before lunch. My body is still sore. "Will the soreness ever disappear?" Stiffly I go up to lunch. With appetite gone, the huge steaks and piles of potatoes and vegetables are not appealing. I observe regular students drooling and coveting our meals. A piece of watermelon and about 12 glasses of fruit juice are all I can manage.

After lunch it's to the fieldhouse to watch film and listen to "chalk-talks" on the blackboard. These sessions are laborious. As hard as practice is, these are worse as they are unbearably tedious. The film is run and re-run until you can't stand any more. Coach Owen is screaming again. The film is going in slow motion and a player's every movement is criticized. It seems that he is giving me special attention - "will he ever stop?" I've grown to despise films.

Now the V's and O's on the chalk board, over and over. He has to stop. Time demands that we get ready for afternoon practice. The same rituals are repeated and practice follows the same general pattern. However it's hotter and seems more intense. The head coach has a "mad-on". We try not to attract his attention.

Two activities usually end practice sessions. One is driving the 7-man sled. It's very heavy. We hit and push it up and down the field. I hate it. Your legs get "jelly-like" from constant churning. My calves are getting quite large and muscle-bound.They tend to cramp at the slightest provocation. The other activity is wind-sprints. The quantity and distances depending upon the coach's mood.

Earlier in the year (the second day of practice) we were doing 100 yard sprints over and over. The temperature was over 90 degrees and I was sweating profusely and was becoming dizzy. On the scales afterwards, it was discovered that I had lost 25 pounds of water. It required me spending the night in the hospital drinking water and taking electrolytes.

But back to the present. The sprints end and we head indoors. We have devised a drink. One that tastes very special after an afternoon session. The training room has a dispenser full of alka-seltzer. A glob of it in water is delicious and the body seems to crave it. The training room also has a large, cement whirl pool in a small room at one end. It will hold up to 8 people and the competition is keen to obtain a spot in it. The warm, swirling water is "heavenly" upon exhausted bodies. It is easy to fall asleep in the water.

After dinner it's film time again. Our season opens with the University of Arizona and they are the evening's subject. We watch the film of their last game from last year. Many of their personal are returning. Over and over we study them. I am supposed to become very familiar with the body that will be facing me across the line of scrimmage plus their offensive and defensive tendency’s. The meeting drags on - if I ever see another football film, it will be too soon.

Nine o’clock and back to the dorm. Lights are to be out by ten but that's no problem. Most of us are so tired that bed-time is extremely welcome. Another day is behind us. Maybe tomorrow some of this stiffness and soreness will go away!