Is there anything better than being a football player at The University of Texas? You’re the talk of the town, the envy of millions. You have access to the finest athletic facilities money can buy, trainers and specialists at the ready 24/7, a training table that most Olympians can only hunger for, and some free duds from Nike.
It’s a pretty sweet gig if you can swing it, even for a non-scholarship player like me. And for three glorious years (‘94 - ‘96), I lived every young Longhorns fan’s dream of running onto the field at Royal Memorial Stadium in front of 84,000 screaming fans and not being able to feel the ground beneath my cleats.
Even though it’s been more than a decade since I used my head like a battering ram, I can still remember those magical moments as if they happened yesterday...
Of course that also means I won’t soon be forgetting what it took to earn the right to wear the burnt orange and white either, especially the anxiety-ridden days and nights during training camp when relaxing and sleep were not an option because my body wouldn’t stop screaming in pain.
For college football die-hards, the first of August is a welcomed flip of the calendar page after an insufferably long off-season awaiting the return of another highly anticipated campaign. But for college football players, August 1st is a prelude to hell. For in the weeks leading up to the start of the season, they will be subjected to an endless physical and emotional grind often referred to simply as: Two-A-Days.
And with the Longhorns reporting to training camp shortly, I thought you might like to know what a typical two-a-day is like...
5:59 am – Lying in bed wide awake staring at one of three alarm clocks only seconds from erupting like an air-raid siren because only a masochist would chance oversleeping knowing hell hath no fury like a football coach berating a player who has dared to be even a second late for any football mandated event including checking in just to show the coach he’s still alive.
6:00 am – Talking yourself into rolling gingerly out of bed and taking your first step like you’re dipping your toe in a swimming pool because your muscles are so sore you know with every step, you’re about to relive every punishing hit, pop, and contusion incurred the day before. Some call it "deja bruise."
6:30 am – Limping into the dining hall in the same wrinkled t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops you’ve been wearing all week because nobody cares what they look like when you already feel like something the cat puked up...breakfast is only "breakfast" in the sense that it happens early in the day and food is technically available. Usually you just show up to get your name checked off a mandatory attendance list and maybe eat a banana provided you can even keep that down during the extreme physical exertion that will soon be turning your stomach into a washing machine on spin cycle.
7:00 am – Checking with the GA’s (Graduate Assistants – lowest rung on the coaching totem pole, they’re the good cops) outside the locker room in the unlikely event the coaches have decided to show mercy and practice in helmets and shorts instead of "full-pads." Rarely happens, but when it does, it’s like Christmas in August.
7:15 am – Getting treatment for bumps and bruises as well as weighing in (you weigh in before and out after every practice and record it to monitor your water-weight loss. On a particularly hot day, it wasn’t unheard of for the bigger guys to lose up to 10 pounds in one session).
Treatment – "Are you hurt or are you injured" is actually a trick question used by trainers to determine whether you can practice or not and believe me, there is no right answer. First off, there isn’t a player at training camp who isn’t playing hurt. You can’t run this kind of gauntlet for 3 weeks without getting dinged (and that includes the kickers too). Secondly, if a player says he’s injured, he better be bleeding out of at least three orifices (including his eyes) if he expects to be excused from practice. Regardless, most coaches believe the majority of maladies (even the severe ones) can be healed by applying one of or all of the following to the injured area: ice, heat, tape, ace bandage, shame, and if those don’t work, they’ll recommend "pissing on it."
Note: Being injured and sitting a practice out is actually worse because you’re sent to the corner of the field where the Strength Coaches are instructed to work all the parts of your body that aren’t injured until they fall off.
7:45 am – Getting your ankles taped because sprained ankles render football players about as useful as a single-bar facemask. It’s welcomed support, unless the tape is wrapped too tight causing you to lose circulation in your toes, or too loose, thus making your ankle as formidable as a paper mache balloon. And when you’ve got over 200 ankles to tape in less than 30 minutes, art happens.
8:00 am – Sitting in a meeting putting your pads in your pants listening to your position coach run down the agenda for practice stopping short of telling you what the "conditioning du jour" will be at the conclusion of practice. Coaches like to keep that a surprise and leave it up to players’ imaginations.
8:30 am – Making the walk up the hill to the practice fields across Red River street...I know, how appropriately poetic is that? And it would have to be up a hill would it. The march is about as exciting as a funeral precession...very little talking, you’re just concentrating on what you need to do and where you need to be for the next two hours because when the whistle blows and the fun begins, you better have your mind right with ball or you’re going to get your ass kicked, chewed out, and then kicked again.
First Half-Hour: After calisthenics you break up by position to work on technique and do endless puke inducing drills at full speed. Even if you’re doing a drill completely wrong or headed in the wrong direction, you can bet you’re still going full speed. Practices are equal parts physical and mental and though you can’t replicate exact game conditions at practice, that never stopped the coaches from trying and making sure they were in your head, literally.
In fact, I’m pretty sure the ear holes in the helmets were designed to magnify a coaches voice 10x and reverberate in your helmet like an echo in the Grand Canyon. And if you really screw up, you get the added bonus of a bitch slap upside the helmet for added reverb.
The first 30 minutes is also reserved for special teams drills and let me just tell you, all those years playing smear the "unfortunate kid caught holding the red rubber ball" on the grade school sandlot does not prepare you for the unbridled carnage that is "Special Teams – Full-Go." My personal favorite was being a blocking dummy for the kick-off team...if you’d like to try it, just get a pillow and step in front of 200+ pound man running full speed from about 30 yards away. It’s good times even if you don’t always remember what happened.
Second Half-Hour: Now you get to take all that technique you just worked on and apply it to the position player who lines up across the line of scrimmage from you in a battle with pride on the line. So the QBs/RBs/WRs face off against the DBs/LBs in a passing competition commonly referred to as 7 on 7’s while the O-Linemen and D-Linemen go mano y mano in pass rushing and run blocking contests often referred to as "Inside Hull."
It’s probably football in it’s purest form...just you against him, 1 on 1. On every snap, you either beat the guy across from you or you get beat. There are no ties and there is no place to hide. Before the ball is snapped, your mind races faster and faster thinking of 100 possibilities and then the ball is snapped and everything goes blank as if your brain switched off like a light and your body simply carries out a preconditioned assignment with a series of actions and reactions as if programmed like a drone. And then you line up and collide again...and again...and again. Few things in this life feel better than beating the man across from you on a football field. Then again, you’ll rarely feel lonelier or more dejected than when you don’t.
Third Half-Hour: Now it’s time to put it all together, 11 on 11, offense vs. defense recreating all types of game situations...passing downs, running downs, 3rd and long, 2-minute drill, goal line, etc. During the season, first and second team players typically practice against squad players ("scrubs" as they’re affectionately referred to) who are mimicking the offense or defense of the upcoming opponent. But during Two-A-Days, it’s big on big, 1’s against 1’s or 2’s because players are fighting for starting positions. It’s very intense and you can never afford to take a play off because even if a coach misses it during practice, you better believe the "eye in the sky" (cameras filming practice) won’t.
Remaining Half-Hour: Coaches typically use this time to go back and perfect something that wasn’t perfected earlier in practice and enjoy reminding everyone that "so help me God, we will be here all day and night until we get this right." Then, largely dependent on how practice went, it’s time for conditioning and this can take on many forms from wind sprints to gassers (sprinting longer distances) to simply, "start running and run until I tell you you can stop." All of them will make you wish you were dead and feel tantamount to giving birth to your spleen while dry heaving. For uninitiated, let’s just say there’s running and then there’s running in full pads in August in Texas.
11:30 am – Eating lunch like it’s going out of style because you know unlike breakfast, you’ve now got time to digest it all before the next practice. And it’s not uncommon for players to consume an ungodly amount of calories in one meal, especially the linemen, because they’re burning so many on the field. A typical lunch might consist of three or four chicken breasts, pasta, fruits, veggies, rolls, anything with carbs. Put another way, it makes the Big Country Boy plate at the Cracker Barrel look like the Luann Platter at Luby’s.
Between 12:30 & 1:30pm – Nap Time...though the young bucks usually spend it playing video games.
2:00 pm – Back at the field house for treatment, taping, weigh-in, and dress out just like in the morning. Only this time you’re even less enthused to be there.
2:30 pm – Position meetings to watch film from the morning’s practice...every snap is meticulously critiqued and watched over and over again. Think Simon Cowell on American Idol, only the coaches aren’t quite as nice and don’t have to worry about the network censoring four letter metaphors. The only good thing about it is coaches are typically equal opportunity critics and everyone gets ripped. And since you’re doing this twice a day, the coaches are always finding new and more creative way to tell you how bad you screwed up. The best one I ever heard and (I heard this on many occasions) was, "son, right now I need you about as much as I need another hole in my ass." I’m not even sure what that means, I just know it’s not good.
3:30 pm - Offensive, Defense and Special Team meetings to review the playbook and talk about what new formations and plays will be implemented in the afternoon session. When you have playbooks the size of Webster’s Unabridged, it can be incredibly hard to learn and remember everything you’re supposed to do on every play, especially when you’re so tired you can hardly stay awake. And if by chance you should fall asleep in one of these meetings, prepare to get a visit from the Sandman...but instead of wishing you sweet dreams and tucking you in, he breaks his foot off in your ass.
4:00 pm – Begin walk of woe number two, only it’s twice as hot as it was before the morning session and just getting to the practice fields is a workout on its own.
Basically, it’s another two hours at the sweat factory and it’s organized much like the first practice except there’s less time allocated to fundamentals and more put towards implementing the playbook. But don’t worry, they always save plenty of time for more conditioning and it’s usually even harder than in the morning because after all, you have all night to recharge. And for those players that showed up to camp out of shape, there’s extra conditioning while the rest of the team watches with morbid curiosity to see which fat guy yells mercy first.
7:00 pm – Dinner is basically just like lunch is only you eat even more and throw in a couple of desserts just for good measure because your body craves sugar too. Even the speed merchants will eat two trays full of food and if you dare reach across another player at the table to grab the salt and pepper, your hand will probably come back missing a finger. Food is fuel and without it, you will bonk on the field.
8:00 pm – Back in position meetings to watch film from the second session. The coaches can be just as critical as they always are but they tend to try to focus on the things you did well more so than what you did wrong. Everybody is pretty beaten down by this point in the day and finding anything to smile or laugh about is sorely needed and appreciated. It’s a never ending dance of knocking guys down and building their confidence back up. Some people call it "molding." But they might as well call it shape-shifting because during two-a-days, you’ll be hard pressed to recognize that thing staring back at you in the mirror.
9:00 pm – Team Meeting. The entire team gathers in one room for any number of reasons. It’s typically less about X and O’s and more about overall team building. There might be a motivational speaker or someone from the S.I.D.’s office mentoring players about talking to the media, or even skit night where the Freshman have to get up and perform some comical act in front of the team. Bottom line, no matter what happened during practice in the heat of battle when everyone was trying to kill each other, all is forgiven and reconciled at the end of the day and you leave the room as one team. The importance of this can not be over emphasized.
10:00 pm – Snack time and I don’t mean a cookie and some warm milk...some players will inhale an entire pizza and wash it down with a 32 oz milkshake. You think I’m kidding, but like I said, you burn a lot of calories at camp.
11:00 pm – Lights out...5:59.59am will be here in a blink.
For those of you who’ve never played organized football, hopefully that gives you an appreciation for what Two-A-Days are like. Training Camp under Mack Brown and at other schools may not be exactly as I describe above, but you can bet it’s close and the mental and physical grind just as tough.
Lastly, please don’t mistake this synopsis as some plea for sympathy. Playing football for an institution such as The University of Texas is an amazing privilege and every Longhorns player I know considers themselves supremely blessed to have been a part of the tradition and history of The Texas Longhorns.
But it ain’t all wine and Rose Bowls either, you know.