Perseverance taught with heat, dust, pain

Goal: Two-a-day summer practices are a rite of passage for teen-age football players trying to prove themselves.

August 26, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Mike Hood slaps the snooze button, and the inner voices start their debate.

Go back to sleep, one voice tells him. You're a teen-ager on summer break. Why rise early to sweat the day away on a football field -- on a sun-broiled steppe of dust and grit, really -- when you can sleep late and then hit the pool?

Sounds good. But another voice has the final say: "You just can't do that."

"I made the commitment," says Mike, a 14-year-old sophomore on the junior varsity football team at Baltimore County's Hereford High School. "If I didn't come out here, I'd be letting my teammates down, letting my coaches down and letting myself down."

Mike is taking part in "two-a-day" summer football practice, the junior boot camp that is many a high school boy's first and toughest taste of adversity. It is a rite of August, arriving annually with the certainty of backyard tomatoes and back-to-school sales.

The alarm is, for many youngsters, a watershed moment. They are children, on their way to becoming young men.

Every year, some boys will listen to the voice that tells them to ignore the clock, to quit. But more will find the courage to keep going -- and learn a lasting lesson in stick-to-it-ness.

"This is one of the toughest things they'll do in their life," says Augie Waibel, a former coach who became something of a legend during his three decades leading highly ranked football teams at Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute. "I had kids who went to Vietnam and said they survived Vietnam because of double-session football. The only difference was, in Vietnam they were shooting at them."

A stretch, comparing football practice to war. But the old coach makes his point: Summer football can help prepare a boy for even greater physical and mental rigors.

How tough are these practice sessions? John Walter, an assistant coach at Hereford High, puts it this way: From the first seven-hour day, many youngsters wish they were somewhere else.

"You know what they're all thinking," Walter says. "They want to be home playing that PlayStation."

Every day for a week, Mike comes back for more. After one morning session, he breaks for a lunch of two granola bars and lots of water. He's achy, and he's tired. He's soaked with perspiration.

And the day's second practice starts in less than an hour -- in full pads, under the midday sun.

Mother impressed

That afternoon, his mother, Debbie Hood, drives to the Hereford practice field, bringing her son a cold bottle of Gatorade. She's amazed by what she sees.

"I could not endure this," she says. "I could not stand the heat."

But she's underselling her own history of taking chances and facing physical challenges -- dragging heavy hoses and heaving ladders onto roofs while training to become a volunteer firefighter, for instance. Her experience helps her to realize that two-a-day football practice sessions are, for her son, a valuable exercise.

"Sometimes you have to take a little risk. He's stiff, he's sore, but that doesn't hold him back," she says. "That shows me something about Michael."

Dust in their teeth

It's barely 8 a.m. on a muggy morning when Mike is dropped off at Hereford High School. His red Igloo, a quart-size water jug, dangles from a cord. The freckle-faced redhead joins his jayvee teammates in the locker room to suit up for their 9 a.m. practice. He's got a jammed finger, and his back and one knee are sore.

The varsity team is already on the field, loosening up for the hour-long "conditioning" session that will precede that squad's two, two-hour practices.

"Three yards and a cloud of dust" is an old football saying about a grind-'em-out style of play. On the Hereford practice field, nearly every movement stirs dirt into the air. As the players stretch their legs by walking an exaggerated goose step -- they call them "Frankensteins" -- billowing dirt shrouds them. When they run the first of many wind sprints, same thing.

Players complain that the dust gets up their noses, into their sinuses, makes them miserable. "You can feel it in your teeth," says Travis Upton, a sophomore on the jayvee team.

Pros recall the agony

The drought has left the practice field at Hereford even more desert-like than usual. Many players wear sneakers; the ground is too hard for cleats.

Then again, this isn't the National Football League. Many high school teams' practice fields aren't well-groomed.

"We practiced on a field where there was gravel and all kinds of sticker bushes," says Priest Holmes, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens who grew up in Texas.

Even pros recall high school football camp with something approaching a shudder.

"Two-a-days back then were the worst thing I ever went through," says Brandon Stokley, a Ravens rookie who grew up in Louisiana. "It was just hot and tiring."

Tiring, to say the least. As the Hereford varsity wraps up its early-morning conditioning session with another round of wind sprints, some players are bent over, gasping. They will return in pads for two full practices.

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