U football: Soaking it in during two-a-days practices

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2012 - 6:35 AM

Grueling two-a-day practices help the Gophers prepare for the season's grind, but a team within the team also gets a workout.

Jerry Kill isn't sure who invented two-a-days, but he's pretty certain it was an accident.

They were supposed to be much crueler.

"When I played football, we had three-a-day practices," the Gophers coach said of the tradition of stacking practice upon practice during training camp. "You got out in the sun and you just got to work and got through them."

That's his players' attitude today, too, even though it means devoting 14-16 hours a day to football.

"It's about mental toughness, and that's a huge part of football," said junior center Zach Mottla. "Two-a-days definitely brings that out in everybody, and you find out who can push through it."

And not just among the 105 students in cleats and helmets, either. The players are the focus, but two-a-days are a grind for coaches and staff, interns and assistants, cooks and cleaners, video-camera operators and trash-can emptiers.

By 2 a.m., John Schiltz is in his kitchen at Lake Elmo Inn, cooking breakfast for a football battalion. By 5:30, Andy Harris has unlocked the football complex, turned on the lights, restocked the coaches' offices and made sure every uniform is clean, sorted and distributed. He has to hurry, because by 6 a.m., the entire coaching staff has arrived and called a meeting to strategize that day's practices. By 6:30, Kyle Gergely has mapped out where every traffic cone and blocking dummy must be placed for that day's two dozen drills, and by 7 a.m., Ed Lochrie has scheduled more than 50 medical treatments for banged-up veterans.

"There's a whole team in place," Harris said, "before the actual team arrives."

• • •

More like an army, really, or so it seems when you stand in Minnesota's equipment room, a Wal-Mart-would-be-jealous warehouse of clothing, helmets and every football accessory imaginable. From here, Gergely, Harris and a dozen interns and work-study apprentices outfit the Gophers, from face guards to kicking tees, shoes to helmets.

As head equipment manager, Gergely sits in on practice-planning sessions, orchestrating where every practice tool and gadget will be needed. He orders uniforms for players, coaches, athletic trainers and staff members. He makes sure the logos on the helmets are straight -- the maroon-and-gold M's are affixed by hand each week -- and that every piece of equipment fits.

"It can be organized chaos in here," he said. "But 'organized' is the important part."

So is being ready for anything. Across the room, linebacker James Manuel walks into the workshop shortly before 8 a.m., complaining about his shoulder pads. Harris, for three seasons the Gophers assistant equipment manager, grabs a screwdriver to remove a lopsided bubble pad. Then tight end John Rabe arrives to have his chin strap replaced with one of the other seven varieties the Gophers stock; it's an urgent matter for the equipment bosses, because new NCAA rules require players to leave the field for a play if their helmets come off, and Kill has made it clear he expects that never to be a problem for the Gophers.

Two-a-days present a unique challenge for the equipment room, since all the uniforms must be washed, dried and sorted between practices, a roughly four-hour window that will keep the two washers, four dryers and half-dozen interns assigned to the task working at full capacity.

Emergencies have happened. A malfunctioning washer blasted too-hot water into the laundry the night after Minnesota's season opener at Middle Tennessee State in 2010, turning 35 white road jerseys pink. "Thank God we were at home the next week," Harris said.

Near the laundry room, interns review the practice plan and head toward the field, ready to haul 85 footballs and a mountain of other apparatus to the sidelines. They set up a punting machine on the 50 and try a few test punts, calibrating it so that each kick has a three-second hang time. They sort out what will be necessary that morning; kick-coverage members will wear yellow vests, plastic garbage cans will represent opposing linemen during skeleton drills, and an old, flat fire hose will mark the line of scrimmage.

"The last thing you want," Harris says as he directs his crew, "is to waste anybody's time waiting for equipment."

• • •

Time is an important commodity in the athletic trainers' room, too. Roughly half of the Gophers want their ankles wrapped in tape before practice (the rest prefer ankle braces), and the crush of players gives the clinic the feel of a barber shop waiting room. Players sign up for Lochrie's table -- as the Gophers' head football trainer for a decade, he's the fastest and most-trusted ankle-wrapper -- or wait until one of his six trainers-in-training is free.

Each ankle requires a half-roll of non-adhesive protection, then a full roll of tape -- or more. As Lochrie executes the well-practiced stirrup, heel-ankle and figure-eight patterns around tailback Donnell Kirkwood's right ankle, he needs a second roll to finish. "Fat ankles," he jokes with the sophomore.

MarQueis Gray sits on an adjacent table, carefully sticking gel caps to his toes to prevent blisters. James Gillum is stretched out nearby, instructing the trainer on how he wants individual toes taped. Across the way, Keanon Cooper lies on another table, doing special stretching exercises on his neck.

The rush for tape comes and goes in a half-hour. As the players head to position meetings, the training staff sets up for practice, carrying water bottles, coolers and medical equipment to the field.

They also fill ice baths in large horse-trough tubs, so players can cool down quickly after practice. "We go through 1,500 pounds of ice a week," Lochrie said, as well as 180 cases of Powerade and 100 cases of bottled water. "You can't eliminate injuries, but we put a lot of work into preventing as many as we can."

• • •

As the first practice ends, Schiltz is ready in the makeshift dining room: a basketball court.

One of three caterers the Gophers contract with each fall, the chef has prepared a lunch of rosemary chicken breasts, chili dogs and tortellini alfredo, with a huge salad and fruit bar. "We try to mix it up, have a lot of variety but make sure it's food that the players like," Schiltz said. "This year, it's changed a lot because the coaching staff is emphasizing eating the right foods."

An assistant from the strength and conditioning department puts color-coded stickers on each dish; players who are trying to lose weight know to avoid red stickers, while players who are trying to gain weight look for the green.

The caterer prepares three meals fresh each day, plus a sandwich or other snack that players can take with them when they leave. Schiltz had already cooked, dished up and cleaned up a breakfast of eggs, waffles, hash browns and oatmeal. "Coach Kill likes oatmeal, so a lot more players eat it now, too," he said.

For dinner, he will whip up pork chops, London broil and tilapia, with baked ziti, broccoli and potatoes as sides. "It always surprises me how much fruit they eat," Schiltz said, including six cases of strawberries every day, plus a case or two of bananas, "a ton" of cherries and peaches, and 24 fresh-cut pineapples.

• • •

Lunch finished, players have almost two hours of time to themselves, and they are strongly encouraged to rest. Some watch TV, a few play video games or surf the Internet.

Many find a quiet corner and nap. Bodies are stretched out in meeting rooms, study halls, recreation areas and the locker room -- "anywhere you can find a couch or pull two chairs together," said defensive end Ben Perry. "Anything to get off your legs."

As the players nap, the facilities crew removes trash and brushes the FieldTurf surface to restore its uniformity. "If you get players working repeatedly in one area, they'll wear some depressions into the turf," said Jarrett Yehlen, the football complex manager. "A field-goal kicker using the same spot for a solid 30 minutes can put a nice little dent" in the tiny rubber particles that make the turf bouncy.

By 3, the players are getting taped again. At 3:30, they meet with coaches in position groups. At 4:15, they're stretching, and at 4:30, Kill calls them over for a moment of silence in memory of Gary Tinsley, a daily ritual. Then the hitting begins anew.

After practice, it's dinner, more meetings and a reset for the next day. Harris, Gergely and Lochrie hope to leave by 8 or 9 p.m., finishing a telethon-length day. The players grab a snack and get home by 9.

"It's a long day, but it's good for you. You learn to control your time, your body. Your legs start burning, no lie, but it teaches you the importance of saving your energy for when you're on the field," Perry said. "I mean, get some sleep at night. It helps not to stay up talking to girls, you know."

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