Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Season - Part II

Part II - The Practice

He was at the practice field early. The Golfview physical training area was a large sandy expanse covered with sand spurs and bounded on three sides by palmetto, cabbage palms, and other scrub plants. The guys from Golfview subdivision were all wearing matching shorts and tee shirts. Some of the group from South Gate drifted into the brush on the other side of the fence for one last cigarette. Roy and his friends stood in between them. They watched and waited for instructions. The coaches held a clinic on how to properly put on the uniform. They told the players where to buy their cleats and other gear not provided by the school.
The practice started with fifty and one hundred yard time trials. Roy ran as fast as he could, but when the players were assigned, he was told to report to the offensive line coach. . He didn’t know the difference between offense and defense. He was just happy to be there. The rest of the afternoon was spent running. He had never run so much in his life. His lungs hurt, his legs shook, and his gym clothes were soaked and sticking to his body. Over the next few days they ran until they collapsed. The loose white sand made footing difficult. Roy hoped he wouldn’t give out. Some guys threw up across the fence at the edge of the practice field. The heavier smokers gave up on football altogether. Roy stayed. His mother was disappointed.

After a week of running, push-ups, jumping jacks, squat thrusts, and agility drills the coach told them to report to the field in pads. Roy saw the world for the first time from inside a football helmet. The curved nylon face mask looked like a small ladder just below the level of his eyes. The pads and other gear made him look like quite a physical specimen. On the other hand it made the really big guys look like giants. Roy lumbered from the field house with the rest of the team. The metal tipped nylon cleats made an awful racket as they ran down the concrete runway. The coaches and some of the football dads made a wooden seven-man blocking sled. It was a behemoth. Seven players lined up in a three point stance in front of the blocking pads attached to its front. On the coach’s whistle they lunged at the great wooden beast slamming their shoulders into the pads and driving their legs with short choppy steps. Because the field was sand, and because the blocking sled was homemade, it rarely slid. The runners of the sled tipped forward and dug into the loose turf. The linemen continued to drive with their legs until the coaches’ second whistle. A large deep hole formed beneath their cleated shoes as they strained against the immovable object. Roy’s calves cramped and his thighs burned but he continued. He wasn’t going to quit. His pads got heavy as the cotton backing soaked up the sweat.
The offensive line coach showed them how to make a proper block on a running play. He showed them how plays were diagramed with X’s and O’s, and where they were to block based on the play called. After that, they learned pass blocking, keeping their butts low and getting under their opponent. They practiced these moves over and over again. Then the coaches called the entire team back together for fumble drills and tackling practice. Roy thought he was going to die. Every time he thought it was time for practice to end they would start something else. In the early stages, they practiced everything at half speed concentrating on their form. The coaches taught them to tackle with their heads on the same side of the ball carrier as the ball. The wet pads picked up the grit from the sandy field and rubbed them raw. Just when Roy thought he could go on no more, the coach blew his whistle and lined them up at one end of the field. They were five or six abreast and on the coach’s whistle they ran one hundred yard wind sprints. At the end of the field they got back in line and repeated the drill. Before practice was over, players were stumbling and falling down. Roy drug his spent body to the showers and stood under the soothing blast. He left his equipment in the compartment with his name on it and headed home. He went to bed early that night.
The following days passed with the same intensity. The strong stench of ammonia and body odor filled the locker room and increased with each passing day. Roy thought they could probably win if the other team had to smell their pads before the game.
During the second week, the coaches picked up the speed. They added tackling drills at full speed. Bull in the ring and head on tackling introduced Roy to the physics of two large objects meeting helmet to helmet. He dreaded tackling their big fullback, Mike Rains. Mike weighed 180 pounds and had a beard as heavy as that of any man. Roy got up after some tackles looking out the ear hole of his helmet. If the offensive linemen missed a block, the coach would make them run the ball with no blockers. Several times the coaches pulled up on the belt of Roy’s football pants as he lay sprawled on the ground trying to regain his breath after a collision. He was playing football. Roy was put into the lineup at Guard. He was the smallest man on the line. He often pulled away from the line on an end run called to his side and led the running back around. Most of the players on the offensive and defensive interior line were over two hundred pounds. Roy had to try and hold them out on pass plays and block them on running plays. His battered and bruised body was evidence of his tenacity. He had been run over, stepped on, cleated, kneed, poked, jabbed, and flattened, and this at the hands of his own teammates. He wondered what playing against other players might be like. The players from South Gate were the toughest. They played dirty, and they enjoyed a good fight. Some had earned nicknames; Benny the biter, Knees Orton, Walrus, Scat. Benny would bite the nearest leg or arm in the pile after a tackle. Once, in the tangle of the pile, he bit himself, and spent the rest of the game trying to figure out who did it.
You don't stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing. - Michael Pritchard