College Football Preseason Camp. The Grind.
We all love to go to the games. But do you know what it takes to play? I caught up with a few players to talk to them about their camp experiences.
If you love football, you are starting to figure out which games are on what weekend. You plan your social life around big games–or in my case, you plan your WEDDING around them.
You think about the excitement the night before, what amazing foods you are bringing to your tailgate, and what days you will just have a bunch of friends over to watch games. You are not (nor should you be) thinking about how hard players work all year long to make the season happen.
If you are a player, this time of year signals something completely different: football camp. The two and a half weeks where you eat, sleep, talk, and think football. Your family knows they may only get a short text from you occasionally, letting them know that you are ok. Exhausted...but ok.
College football camp is an intense time where the players work 14 hours a day, fall into bed, get up and do it all again–over and over and over.
They run, lift weights, practice plays, have position meetings, and bond as a team.
The next season actually starts two weeks after the bowl game, if a team is good enough to get into one. Winter is about adding body mass, and lifting heavy. Then spring comes and it's right into spring ball, preparing for the spring game. The beginning of summer gives players a little more free time to see family and friends with the understanding that players keep up weight lifting, running, and studying plays on their own. A lot of veteran players (second years and up) stay on campus to keep up weights and conditioning together. They are also strongly encouraged to take at least one summer class.
For summer camp, some division one teams move everyone to a hotel. They live, work, and eat together for the most intense two and a half weeks of the year. Roommate decisions are typically made by position, and the team rooms are on the same hotel floors. In the little off time they have, they drift in and out of each other's rooms. They share funny social media posts and stories, laugh, and get to know each other better.
I spoke to several players (in division one and two) about their camp experience and I found that the basic schedule seems to be about the same.
6:30 am: Breakfast, get dressed and taped - and get any pre-practice treatment.
8:00 am: Meetings (Special teams, then position meetings)
9:15 am: Stretching and practice
11:45 am: lunch - then break for treatments and rest
2:30 pm: Practice special teams
3:30 pm: Defense lifts weights while Offense has meetings, then switch
4:30 pm: Practice
5:45 pm: Dinner and Culture Meeting
7:45 pm: Full team walk through
9:15 pm Finish
During the walk through, they brush up anything they worked on during the day and install new plays. "Walk through" means that they practice in t-shirt, shorts and helmet only, not full pads. It's a good time to install new plays, since learning before bed helps new information sink in. The concentration is on fundamentals and making sure each player knows his exact job on every play.
"You really have to look at the whole position," says Zak Herbstreit, sophomore tight end at Ohio State. "There is so much learning that goes on in meetings. Your goal is to not make the same mistakes and get better every day."
Practice times are divided into
individual position drills,
special teams work, and
Camp is tough. It's hard physically, of course, but it is very hard mentally and emotionally, as well.
"You're so tired," explains Zak. "You want to play SO bad, and you're trying to do everything perfect on every play. I mean, the only way to see time on the field is to know everything.
"Some coaches really like to yell and demoralize you. They are doing it to help but it's tough, and it's not always good for morale." says Zak. "As the day wears on, people get more and more moody, and sometimes the vibe gets negative. People can get really hot. Occasionally, there are cheap shots and fights. People are just so exhausted. They are pumped up and beaten down at the same time.
The only way to see time on the field is to know everything.
"It's all part of becoming a family, and we just want to win. Everyone wants to make the coaches, families, friends, and our loyal fans proud. None of the players want to let anyone down. So they work themselves to the breaking point."
According to Zak, having coaches and teammates to talk to really helps. They have each other's backs, and even if things were heated in practice, it's clear they are working toward the same goal.
"For me, the hardest thing is staying fresh and taking care of my body," says Will Heffner, a sophomore who plays linebacker at Hillsdale College. "When we do bench and squat 'maxing' before practice, it's brutal. You really have to stay hydrated. You also have to ice your muscles, do stim (E-stim therapy), or other treatments if you feel you need it. But all you really want to do is lay down."
"The two hours after lunch are like the best two hours of your whole life," laughs Zak. "It's a break, and you can do some treatment if you need it, or just relax. Most guys run to their beds. You are just thinking–NAP."
"Staying hydrated is so important," says Tye Herbstreit, senior wide-out at Clemson. "We weigh in and weigh out to see how much fluid we lose in a practice." Aside from staying hydrated, survival depends on rest. According to all the players I spoke to, they are bone-tired throughout the camp.
At camp, everyone is taking notes constantly," laughs Tye. "You have no sense of what day it is. They own you. It's definitely the hardest time of the year. There is absolutely no time for yourself, it's hard but set up to help you get through. The best part is being with the guys, building relationships, and bringing in the younger guys.
"Camp is about mindset and getting reps. If you do enough, it's like second nature, so when you are on the field you don't even think, you just react. Camp is where you learn what you are made of. You first come in thinking you know what you're doing and then camp hits. Camp exposes you.
"Then you feel like you watch other guys succeeding, and you feel like you never will. Then you learn to control only what you can control. Just like life. Worry about yourself and what you are doing, and stop watching everyone else."
"As a defensive back on the scout team for Clemson, there weren't back-ups. I ran every play, all day long," added Jake Herbstreit, who played for Clemson for three years. "During the season, you look back at camp and you are proud you got through it."
Learn to control only what you can control. Worry about yourself and stop watching everyone else.
It's not just college. Most high school teams have two or three-a-days, starting at the crack of dawn, a break around lunch time, and done sometime in the afternoon. They too, go through weight training, new play installs, meetings, special teams work, walk-throughs, and full-pad practice in the heat and humidity of summer.
"When I was at Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA), we practiced at a very crappy field," says Jake. "We stayed in dorms with no air-conditioning, and there was a legendary surprise midnight run. It was all horrible on purpose, but I have great memories of camp. The bonds made with teammates were made stronger than ever. When you go through something so hard together, you leave it feeling unbeatable. You build trust in each other and a pride that you carry with you forever."
One high point is the all-team meeting. At Ohio State, it's all about culture, and what it means to be a Buckeye. Players tell personal stories about their journey in the program, but also their personal journeys. Recent speakers include Cris Carter, Inky Johnson, and author Jon Gordon.
"We also heard a speech by a man we called 'Coffee Guy,'"says Zak. "He spent some time in jail. He said that you can take a tough experience and have it change you for good. He said that in hot water, a carrot gets soft, an egg gets hard, but coffee beans change into a wonderful drink. Decide what you're going to be. He changed his life while in prison.
"The all-team meetings are really cool. People are very honest and vulnerable," explains Zak. "It helps people get closer, and lets you know that it's ok to share, be open and vulnerable yourself."
"At Hillsdale we do something called Drivers," says Will. "A guy will get up and use 6 things from his life that represents people or things that drive him to succeed. They are usually pictures of parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, college buddies, but can also be quotes or other things. Guys get extremely emotional, and people are really respectful."
Coaches also talk a lot. According to Tye, playing under Dabo is like getting a PhD in life.
"One of Coach Swinney's favorite things to say is 'I will do what I can while I can, so that when I cannot I will not wished that I would have when I could have'. he has a million of gems like that," laughs Tye. I know I will take his wisdom with me throughout my life.
Will Heffner agrees about his head coach.
"My head coach, Keith Otterbein, is always saying the football is the ultimate team sport," Will explains. If 10 guys do their jobs, but one doesn’t, you won’t win. He also tells us all the time that he has the best job in college football."
"Camp is such a GRIND, he says, echoing what all the players said. We come in already pretty bonded, but the camp brings us even closer, and gets the new guys right into the mix. Going through this with people who are like brothers makes it all worth it,” Will says. “You can’t recreate it. I’m so fortunate to be able to play at this level. I love it here."
You build trust in each other, and a pride you carry with you forever.
"It's about long days, and long weeks. It's also where the new guys also get acclimated," Zak says. "It's hard for new players. You might have been THE guy in high school, and now you are usually bottom of the pack. We all do our best to help make them comfortable. I'm a second year, so I know exactly what they are feeling. Emotionally, It's so great to have teammates. You know you aren't alone."
I really want to play," says Zak."I mean everyone wants to play, but the reality is that it takes a few years for most of us. "Not everyone can be a Jaxon Smith-Njigba overnight. Some of these guys are freaks. You just have to keep your head down and work hard.
Zak said that the journey from the beginning to the end of camp is like wake surfing. At first you try and try to get up and can't. Eventually you get up, but you still have to hold the rope, AND you still fall. Then little by little you are able to let go of the rope and stay up. All of a sudden it feels natural and not as hard as it was before."
"I probably won't play this year," He explains. "I'm probably not ready yet. I just need to keep learning, keep working, and stay positive. I believe that I will eventually get a chance."
Here's hoping that chance comes for all of them. Cowabunga, dude.