Going undercover as an aspiring college quarterback prospect
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Shortly after 9 on a misty, May morning I had a sinking feeling.
Shuffling sideways during a footwork drill at a two-day, invitation-only camp to train elite-level players and identify potential talent for the U.S. Army All-American game, I alternately planted my right foot into the FieldTurf at Rutgers Stadium and then my left. Back and forth I went, finding rhythm while the NFL Films theme song blared over the loudspeakers. With an eye on those around me, I grew painfully aware of the quickness with which my partner and benchmark -- Rutgers recruit Tom Savage -- swayed. Upon reaching the final step, straightening my stance and balancing between my life as a journalist and, now, an aspiring college quarterback, I quickly realized that Savage's alacrity was Riverdance to my quicksand.
"Jesus!" said former Cornell coach Tim Pendergast as he surveyed my missteps. "Ugh. Look at those feet. ... Keep your eyes up, up, up. You're here to improve, not impress!"
Two weeks earlier I had been invited by the organizers of Football University to attend the camp to get a feel for what the athletes were going through. Only a select few would be told my true identity, a 24-year-old editor and writer for SI.com. And since I had been given the green light to pick any position, I didn't hesitate at choosing the glamour role of quarterback, even though I had never played a down of organized football in my life. No running post and cross patterns for me, or being tucked away in the secondary. I wanted to learn what it felt like to be a quarterback, to gain the vantage point of being under center and in the pocket.
While former All-Pro Andre Rison worked with receivers, retired Giants halfback Rodney Hampton helped running backs and Super Bowl starter Perry Williams assisted defensive backs, I had a cup of coffee with two of the best minds in quarterbacking.
Greg Briner, tutor to Chad Pennington, among others -- was charged with dissecting my throwing motion and didn't take long to suggest I had stubborn hip movement akin to a 65-year-old golfer. Larry Kennan, trainer to former No. 1 picks Eli Manning, Tim Couch and Alex Smith, picked apart my drops, yet promised 5-15 percent improvement over the camp's duration. He's also the one who would later surmise, "Well, I guess you had to rise. There was nowhere to go but up."
From my toes to my index finger, my mechanics needed oiling. Dressed in black mesh shorts and a gray, dry-fit shirt with No. 96 on the front and back, I was uniform among my peers and in my mistakes. When a coach asked me to tell him how many fingers he was holding up while searching for a receiver, I yelled, "One!" just to get him off my back. I hadn't actually looked at his fingers, and my visual skirting was undressed. "That's two fingers in the air, No. 96!" shouted former Houston Oilers quarterback Todd Krueger. "Get down and give me one push up, Armstrong!"
In all, I was forced to do 10 push-ups over the two days and there were plenty of other blows to my pride. Balls went high and others fell short in the artificial turf. There were short-armed releases and too-long strides. My skill set was utilitarian at best. If a ball needed to reach a target, I found myself willing it in that direction -- no matter the mechanical dysfunction.