I had the distinct impression that if I could physically survive the first day of summer football practice, I could make it through anything.
It’s the first day of two-a-days in early August 2001 and it’s as hot as… well, you pick the noun.
The heat wave has been so bad in the Midwest that Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer died earlier in the week of complications from heat stroke. All of our coaches are quick to remind us of that fact and, in light of it, encourage us to take frequent water breaks. No one needs to be a hero, no one is going to be shamed for asking for a breather. The staff knows that it’s as hot as… well, you pick the noun.
It’s my first season of high school football and I’m the new kid in town. Technically, that doesn’t make a difference because it’s a private school and few of us come from Troy anyway. Still, that doesn’t particularly make it easy to make any new friends, since being the new boy as a junior is not like being the new boy in fifth grade. Cliques have already been formed, and there are few times in life when cliques are as impenetrable as when you’re seventeen.
It’s only the third year for the program, and I’ve chosen to bus twenty minutes from West Milton because I think I’ll get more playing time on a new squad. I’ll soon discover that the team is pretty strong and the only playing time I’ll see is mostly special teams and a few junior varsity scrimmages. It doesn’t matter… I’ve wanted to be a football player as long as I could remember, and today I’m determined to hit like a freight train, even if my teammates only feel the sting of a mosquito bite.
I’ve got a lot of heart, but only half as much muscle. I’m 132 pounds sopping wet, and because the heat is so oppressive, it doesn’t take long to find out how much you weigh when you’re soaked through. Later, I’ll go home and weigh myself and discover that I’ve lost almost seven pounds in one day. I didn’t know that that was physically possible for someone my size.
The practice field is behind the elementary school, and the fact that it has goalposts is an improvement from the year before, when the football team had to practice in a large field adjacent to a factory two blocks from the high school. Now we have our own field, but the summer sun has turned it into one large patch of parched grass. You feel like you’re getting tackled on a giant piece of toast.
There is no field house, and won’t be for two more years. In the meantime, we have to change for practice in portable construction offices lined with ugly faux-wood paneling that are parked thirty yards from the field. These are not air conditioned and are so hot that the air looks distorted when you peer inside, like when you check on the roast in the oven.
After dressing in what amounts to a steaming sardine tin, we walk through the gravelly playground gym on our way to practice. Some of the boys put down their helmets to swing on the monkey bars for a few seconds. They won’t be so excited at the end of the day.
After the initial team huddle, in which we’re basically told not to die, our coaches instruct us to pick which unit we want to train with. Though I’d determined before arriving that I wanted to be a receiver, for some impulsive reason I decide to go with the running backs. I immediately regret this.
While the receivers run fifteen yard slants, then trot back and queue in line for a few moments while the other receivers run their routes, the running backs, on the other hand, fly through agility drills with our knees high, one sprinting drill after another that makes my lungs scream. Plus, there are fewer of us, which means less time to catch your breath in between drills. It’s as hot as… well, it doesn’t really matter. We’re all seeing spots, I’m pretty sure.
We break around noon and cram our way into the elementary school gym, where they are pumping us full of Gatorade and passing around bananas like we’re on a cargo ship making from Costa Rica. It’s cramped and the air is still, but at least it’s shady, and this gives the gym the welcoming feel of a jail cell when you know you’ll have a bed and meal. Thirty minutes of rest in the school, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, another banana, and we’re back outside on the surface of Mercury.
Less drilling and more scrimmaging, which means stewing in your sweat rather than boiling in it. During a sweep play, our star linebacker, who has a hundred pounds on me, hits me square and knocks me down like a bowling pin. I bounce back up, wheezing, and scream, “C’mon, is that all you got!?” He grins. “Dude, you don’t want me to really hit you.” I overhear one assistant coach say to another, “He’s got a lotta’ heart.”
We run plays for two hours, broken up by water breaks in front of a multiple-spout watering fountain made from PVC pipe. This jury-rigged contraption will break later in the month, causing us all to suck water from the same garden hose, which I’m certain is how I’ll get mono and miss the entire season after the second game. Today, however, it’s the only thing keeping me from being stretchered to an ambulance ride.
The breeze is a nice welcome. Except there isn’t a breeze. It’s just the heat waves, passing over your body so strongly you sense that you could surf on them if you could find the right kind of board. At a Christian school, this is a teachable experience for describing to horny teenage boys what the fires of hell must feel like.
At the end of practice, it’s time to run The Hill, which is really just the incline to a highway overpass that runs past the elementary school. But it’s more than that: it’s also a rite of passage.
Running The Hill is an end-of-practice tradition — and also a punishment for both the individual and the entire team after a false start or lazy play. Make a mistake, the whistle blows, Coach screams, “Hit The Hill!”, and we go running for our lives. It’s designed to toughen our skin, to separate the boys from the men, and it succeeds in its purpose.
How many yards long The Hill actually is, or how steep its incline, I don’t really know. I just know that today being above the death zone on Mt. Everest seems preferable to huffing our way up and down it’s brown dirt in the late afternoon sun. I don’t know how many times we run The Hill, but somehow we all make it back down, some of us dry heaving, some of us puking, and most of us collapsed on the Scotch-brite surface of the field.
I’ve tossed bales of hay all afternoon in the broiling stillness of a hay mow. I’ve roofed all day in 100-degree Iowa heat. I’ve moved house in central Florida where the lizards sleep in the storage pods to escape the sun. But I’ve never been so relieved to make it through a hot day as this first day of two-a-days, August 2001. I have the distinct impression that if I could physically survive this day, I could make it through anything.
Years from now, I’ll drive past this field and The Hill on the Interstate, and point it out to my wife.
“That’s the place,” I’ll say, “Where I became a man.”