Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Combine Grind

Autumn starts where the summer grinds to an end -- on a green turf field crisscrossed by white lines. Have you ever noticed the sideline boundaries are always thicker than those measuring progress down field in yards?  It’s too prosaic to contemplate -- or maybe not.
Summer of 2013 – the season of competition.  Two sons, four athletic camps, and six tournaments stretching from Boston to Virginia Beach and seven cities in between. Forty-six officiated lacrosse games, more than 51 football skill sessions, 23 7-on-7 games, and at every one, the ever-present figure of  good-natured Nellie, with free advice for all.    
For the eldest son, it’s a drive to be noticed and ultimately coveted by NCAA college coaches, no less in two sports. For the younger Boys’ Town grad, all fields are testing grounds of skill and athleticism to prevail over top talent in order to compete at the level where both of his older brothers now reside.  Eldest son, the steady Nellie Junior, triumphed in this fast-paced crucible and is now playing college athletics.
Sports, kids – what I’ve seen this summer in 2,700 miles of driving from New England to the Old South is most of all the American Dad: indefatigable, generous, hopeful, persistent and always folding up the chair at the end of the day – yes, on those prosaic sidelines -- thinking about tomorrow’s 8 a.m. session and how the heck their kid can improve his performance.
The football camps are the notorious “combines.”  A hundred select young men, 400 non-select kids -- all instantly organized, sorted by primary position, offense or defense, and then given identifying jersey numbers.  This is the wonderful mechanics of these camps.  There is little discussion or confusion, just a quick following of orders and hustling to get in line. 
Next comes the long and detailed regimen of workout drills watched by alert coaches with the Career Beginning and Ending Clipboards.  Your kid does closely watched drills with, for example, dozens of Outside Linebackers.  The coaches watch intently and dispassionately for hours, and what they write on the Clipboard means your kid may have a shot at their school, or it’s time to back home to Momma.
And they’re not asking for anything complex here. In fact, it’s simple and repetitive, just perfect for your correspondent.  Bulky, leather practice bags are laid out and kids high-step through them.  The bags are placed at oblique angles at various distances and kids high-step through them. Kids are thrown a ball as they run through the bags. They either catch it or keep high-stepping to the parking lot.
Four guys are placed in a square, a few yards apart from each other, and told to react to hand signals from a coach. Up, back, left, right.  Stopwatches are everywhere. 
Across three wide open fields these drills go on. Linemen push sleds, QBs and receivers and cornerbacks try to outwit each other.  For running backs, it’s running through pads carrying the ball: “Nose to the sky!” “Eyes up!” “Back straight!” Then passing drills with QBs and linebackers:  “Sharp routes!” “No cross overs!”  “Burst! Burst!”  The drills run for hours, yells floating across the fields like a long muted drone.
Every kid is trying their best, giving everything they have. They’re prepared.  Just to get here has required thousands of hours of practice, weight rooms, hot fields, cold mornings, pass routes long after dusk, countless collisions and snap counts.  What a remarkable set of circumstances has propelled them here. And it’s certainly not Real Life because there is not a single slacker to be seen.
And the parents.  Imagine the sheer production of getting Billie from Nashville or Pittsburgh or Seattle or Houston or Miami all the way to Boston or Annapolis. 
Having attended these camps and tourneys for years, I measure success by two critical elements:  Foot speed and size.  And you can’t teach size.  The eldest son, Nellie Junior, no behemoth, worked for years on agility – ladders, the parachute, shuttle runs, endless sprints -- and became one of the quickest kids on any field on which he plays (Yeah, I’ll brag a bit.  What are you going to do? Throw a clipboard at me?)  The value of foot speed is inestimable.  The coaches are entranced with it.
It takes about three reps of drills on day one, hour one, for someone to see where a kid stacks up. The competition is ferocious.  It doesn’t mean a darn thing that you were All League at Big Bad High in the Tri-County Conference.  Can you move out fast?  How tall are you? 
And last, and the coaches have a stock phrase when approached by a kid introducing himself:  “Howareyourgrades?” It’s one word.  It’s direct and hard, but hey, football is a direct and hard sport.
Little Nellie is 6’1”, 210 pounds, a linebacker who in addition, plays fullback and tight end.  To really seal the deal, about three years ago, I encouraged him to take up and get good at long-snapping because as former football great, Richie Petibon, once told me, “Snapping is THE tie-breaker.”  I.e. if a kid can do that, and play one, even two more positions, he’s going to make a team over someone else.
So my son and I practiced snapping, and I mean endlessly.  We’d have four footballs and he’d shoot them back to me, one after another, as I stood in punt formation.  Then then he’d shoot them back to me as I simulated a holder and Boys’ Town son kicked, all to get the tempo and rhythm down right. It no doubt looked comical to folks coming across us on a field. We read up on hand placement on the ball, how to use the legs to increase ball speed.  Over time, the snaps got faster, held a tighter spiral, and now Little Nellie is a machine.
And yes, if you really think hard about all this, you recognize instantly there’s a defining element of sheer madness. “Yes, I’m on annual leave from a serious job, driving 450 miles to watch my kid jump around bags and catch passes and push sleds all over a field – for eight hours.”  Once, a well-meaning Dad on the sideline affably asked me about my son.  I was distracted and said robotically, “Punt snap average zero point seven, zero point five on PATs.”
It was 10:15 p.m. at the Princeton Camp, and the hotly contestd 7-on-7 games had ended.  We’d arrived here about 20 hours ago from a lacrosse camp in Providence, RI. After 48 hours here, we’d split for a three-day Under Armour lacrosse tournament in Baltimore.
I was walking Little Nellie back to the dorm.  He’s beat. Heck, I’m even beat from sitting in a chair all day and spinning college intrigues in my head.
We’re passing darkened classrooms and buildings and big lonely quads.  “My man,” I say, “I know this a grind. But if you’re going to play college ball, this is where you gotta be.”  He was carrying his shoulder pads and helmet, his hair was matted to his scalp, his shirt soaked with sweat and his cleats clicked and echoed on the pavement.
“Yeah Dad,” he said and then added, asking and answering a question at the same time, “Where else would I be?”