Monday, August 10, 2009, was my birthday. I am 67 years old. And while, about half the time, I cannot remember where I put my car keys, I can fully, clearly, and distinctly remember the practice tool called the hull drill implemented during our contact practices in the early 60's at The University of Texas under Darrell Royal. Unlike today in any of the Division 1's current fall practices, during our two-a-day war games in August, all our practices were full pad, full contact practices, with no water breaks. Forty-six years afterwards, with a blessed marriage, two wonderful sons, four delightful grandsons, one precious precious granddaughter, several jobs, and eight dogs (four of which are buried under our fig tree) all competing for disk space in my memory bank, I still regularly think about the hull drill. When I do, I still perceive a faint, almost imperceptible, yet delicate twinge of anxiety somewhere deep in my soul.
To this day, I still remember, while waiting for my turn to step up between the two blocking dummies, the fatigue, the pain, the pressure, the tension and the stress to perform well in front of my teammates and coaches. For me the over powering fear of failure was like a vulture waiting for me to die in front of my teammates. That same fear was also my most significant motivator.
For some reason, I also remember little things like the small round cleat holes that were punched so precisely into the packed soil, the sweat ring around my thigh pad drying and the tiny salt crystals faintly sparkling in the sun light, and a small tear in the heavy canvas blocking dummy that was lying on its side in front of my fellow linebackers and me. The large oblong blocking pad was set there to provide boundaries for the brave, a measuring stick for the unskilled, and a defined escape route for the cowards. I can still remember looking across the length of the blocking dummies, noting my place in line, and then counting those in line on the other side to determine who, in the next minute or two, I was going to be expected to try to kill and who would be trying to kill me. Without a hint of shame, I will freely admit that I was tremendously relieved when it was not Scott Appleton.
Coach Royal had a clever little saying for the newspapers, "Football is not a contact sport. Dancing is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport." We had several guys on my team that must have had a mutated chromosome somewhere coursing through their bodies because they loved to collide, ram, and crash into other human beings. George Brucks and Tommy Nobis were two of several who lived to hit someone. Most of us, though, realized that the love of hitting was an acquired taste. Something like broccoli or asparagus.
The hull drill was specifically designed to acquaint us with and help us to acquire the taste for the animalistic aptitudes required to render into submission another human being. The degree of submission, if developed into a true art form, should encompass all the senses - physical, emotional, and spiritual. It was also a device that stripped away any form of protective or superficial "manly" mantle from anyone who either did not want to hit or could not learn to hit. The hull drill was a sifter, a strainer, a sieve of men. It separated the wheat from the chaff - the men from the boys - the "haves" from the "have nots" - the hitters from the quitters. It was equivalent to the Biblical reference to the refining fire that purified gold and silver into its purest form. As I mentioned in my letter to Coach, we started out with 93 and four years later ended up with something like fifteen fourth year seniors. We who stayed the course, we must have learned something from the hull drill - in the three years the NCAA allowed our class to participate on the varsity level, we lost only one regular season game.
The hull drill consisted of four heavy canvas blocking dummies which were stained with dirt, mud, and some blood splatters. These were laid on their sides in a configuration that created two corridors or paths that all participants were required to follow. It was somewhat like coloring in kindergarten - keep inside the lines or go sit in the corner. Except you did not sit in the corner if you went outside the lines (corridors) - your courage, manhood, and how you handled your gut check were questioned in length, in depth, and in full view and audio range of your classmates. If you attempted to avoid full body contact by not staying in the channel, you, at best, were labeled unskilled, or a coward. Or even worse - it was strongly suggested to those within hearing distance that you were missing the glands that produced testosterone.
There were two offensive linemen - really big offensive linemen from either the first or second team on one side of the dummies. There was a scout team running back on that same side. Then there were the first and second team linebackers who faced them across an imaginary battle line ready to accept and then defeat the charge of those who would attempt to decapitate and demolish we the enemy.
Here's the purpose of the drill. The back would head either left or right entering into either the left or right corridor between the dummies. The two linebackers were to tackle him. That was the easy part. A re-occurring and nagging problem was that before this could be accomplished, a 195-pound linebacker had to engage, and then negate the fierce charge of a 225-pound raging tackle who was advancing down that corridor at the speed of a gazelle. We were to learn that if the tackle took two steps forward toward the linebacker; the tackle's sole intent in his life at that moment was to overrun the linebacker and crush him like tractor trailer coming in contact with an armadillo in the express lane on Interstate 35. If those two size 14's started toward you, you also went forward, and your sole job was to "stuff" him back into the hole. You were to stop him dead in his tracks. You then proceeded to crumple and push that eighth of a ton slab of meat rearward into the charging back that was also now charging down your particular pathway toward the mass of immovable meat. If you know anything about physics, the only way to do that was to get your 195 pounds under the centerline of his 225 pounds and drive his energy upward. While none of our tackles held a PhD in physics, they did know something about the science of the movement of mass. They would blast down that chute really low to the ground, really vigorously, and without remorse. Their immediate short term goal in life was to deny you the opportunity to get below them. I wish I had a nickel for every time I did not get under one of them and my forearm only hit the top of the tackle's helmet instead of under his chest.
If you had any desire to leave practice with a majority of your body parts still intact and undamaged, you better have developed the mother of all "sledge hammer" forearm shivers.
That was what happened to Ray Poage on that foggy day in the spring during my high school visit. The hole had been correctly "stuffed" by a tough linebacker who had delivered a bone rattling forearm shiver to the solar plexus of the Goliath who a millisecond before had been hurtling toward the lone figure at the other end of the dual dirty canvas cylinders. Because there was nowhere to go, Ray churned up and over the crumpled mass of humanity. He was blessed that the other linebacker had gotten hung up, was not there to meet him, and had not creamed him as he crested the top of the carnage. I was so shocked at the intensity of this new experience, that I never heard the linebacker coach totally dismember the second linebacker and rip him a new one for getting hung up and not being there. As Royal was fond of saying, "Make his (the runner's) TT pink!" But I know the ass chewing happened then - just as it happened to me so many times.
If the behemoth you were facing, took one step toward you and the next step was just slightly to the side, you instantly and instinctively knew that the offensive back was going away from you to the other side of the drill and down the other corridor. The tackle was trying to cut you off so you could not move sideways down the line of scrimmage and support your partner who was, at that very instant, in a life or death struggle attempting to "stuff" his offensive tackle because his tackle had taken the two infamous steps toward him.
If you look in the Webster's Dictionary for the definition for the words violent, brutal, sadistic, and vicious, there will be a picture of five guys going through a hull drill at The University of Texas. It is just not natural for five guys to line up three yards apart and attempt with every fiber in their body to kill the others. It may not even be allowed by the Geneva convention. But as intense as the drill was - the coaching was even more intense.
In combat, it is said that men do not die for their branch of service, their country, or even for medals - they die for their buddies who are fighting shoulder to shoulder with them. To a degree that is true in football - especially in the old Southwest Conference. In a game, you do everything you can to support and help the guy next to you. If the real truth was known, your effort may not really be for the coaches, the school, or the crowd - the truth is that you fight because you do not want to fail the guy next to you. The guy you were desperately trying to kill last Tuesday, you will "fall on your sword" for on Saturday afternoon. The coaches know this and know that a reprimand, a correction, an ass chewing in front of your peers is humiliating, embarrassing, and mortifying. The coaches have honed their ability to get the most out of the players and also the most out of the time they have on the practice field.
I will finish up this piece with a true story that will support this observation. To make sure I was remembering correctly, I mentioned this story to Tommy Wade and he corroborated my recollection of the event:
In the late 50's and early 60's some coaches around the state of Texas felt that, to get everything done, practices needed to be 3 to 4 hours long. Coach Royal was ahead of his time. He knew that after a period of time, mental and physical fatigue would negate what the coaches were trying to teach. He developed a plan whereby each practice was broken down into roughly 20 minute segments. For that one day, a coach had exactly 20 minutes to work with one particular group of players and teach whatever he had to teach for that specific day in that particular time frame. After 20 minutes, one of the trainers blew a loud air horn and a different group of skill sets would join the coach. He had a finite time to get everything done that needed to be done on that day and in that time period for that new group. Everything that needed to be done, including wind sprints, could be accomplished in approximately three hours.
We were in a hull drill and the coach had 20 minutes to work with us. There was a lot of work to be done. At some point, the left linebacker stuffed his tackle. The right linebacker slipped his tackle and as the back was trying get over the stuffed hole, the back side linebacker, with a rush of adrenaline, blindsided, crushed, and annihilated the scout team running back. As we un-piled, the running back was in great distress. He has sustained an injury that was causing him to go into what looked like convulsions.
Medina was quickly called and he and his staff of white uniformed medical technicians feverously worked to stabilize the injured player. The assistant coach, who will remain anonymous, kept looking at his watch knowing that each minute that passed was a lost minute in the race to prepare us for Saturday's upcoming game. This was a wasted minute - like a day wasted in your life, it could never be recaptured. Finally out of desperation, the coach blurted out, "Medina, are you going to move that body, or am I going to have to move my group?" Medina indicated that the condition of the injury did not lend itself to any movement. Our group promptly moved, dragging our blocking dummies 10 yards to the north of the injured player and we finished our drill while the medical crew attended to the fallen warrior. The injured player only had a "neck stinger" and was back at practice in a couple of days and we won on Saturday.
Coach Royal was quoted, "Football doesn't build character. It eliminates the weak ones" and Coach Holtz was quoted, "Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated."
The hull drill at the University of Texas at Austin was designed to accomplish several things. Its primary purpose was to teach a bunch of raw kids how to stuff tackles, watch feet, react, explode violently on a ball carrier and to kill our prey. Four and a half decades later as a man deep in the fourth quarter of my life, I can see the real value was that an extremely difficult challenge - in the form of a very vehement and intense collision focused drill - was presented to a group of guys and some of us were determined that we would not let this demanding challenge eliminate us from reaching our goal. Out in the real world, this lesson in perseverance, endurance, and survival has served us well.
This year, as you watch the beautiful acrobatics of the wide receivers, the grace and speed of the running backs, and the precision of our quarterback, always remember, approximately two and a half seconds previously, very large men with very ugly and vile dispositions were brutally and aggressively applying what they had learned from the current version of their hull drill.
You see, no matter what the decade, football at Texas is an extremely serious, demanding, and violent vocation.