It is hardly newsworthy that the nation's major-college football players are doing some hitting over the summer. What they're hitting, though, may be a bit of a surprise. Illinois's guys are hitting softballs, Virginia Tech's are hitting the NASCAR circuit, Mississippi State's are hitting the dirt, Oregon's are hitting the water, LSU's are hitting the air, East Carolina's are hitting the pavement, and Texas Tech's, bless their traditional hearts, are hitting one another. Furthermore, many of them, to one degree or another, are hitting the books. Without these summertime activities and/or a full schedule of so-called voluntary workouts, coaches and players say, their teams would hit the skids come autumn.
"There is no way we could contend for a national championship if we weren't together in the summer," says Oregon center Ryan Schmid. "The trust we'll have in one another during the season will have been built in the summer, and there's no way you can overvalue trust on a football team." Says Indiana wide receiver-quarterback Antwaan Randle El, "In the summer you find out which players are really dedicated and which ones aren't—and you have to get the undedicated ones off your team."
Yes, major-college football has become a 12-month commitment, particularly intense in the summer, when the battle cry is, Bond in the heat and we can't be beat. These fun-in-the-sun activities—well, Texas Tech lineman Cody Campbell, who was knocked cold during the Red Raiders' weekly boxing matches, might quibble with the word fan—are designed to draw players together, get them thinking like a team, help them find their leaders and "lay a foundation that players can build upon during the season," says Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. Teams that don't have something special on their summer schedule still meet for strength and conditioning workouts ("feeling each other's pain," says Michigan defensive lineman Jake Frysinger) and seven-on-seven drills (quarterbacks, running backs and receivers versus linebackers and defensive backs). Call it summer camp with a purpose.
Or call it preseason football. "We feel in many cases that the spirit of the law is violated in the summer," says NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro. NCAA guidelines govern "voluntary athletically related activities," which those in the summer are supposed to be. The prevailing stipulation is that participation must be voluntary, not mandatory. Also, according to the NCAA, activities "must be initiated and requested solely by the student-athlete," and players cannot report to coaches. "The idea," says Renfro, "is to keep things from becoming too organized, too much like football practice."
Are voluntary summer workouts too much like mandatory practice? With all the training going on at most campuses, and such a high percentage of players involved, it sure looks that way, which raises a troubling issue. Although conditioning coaches and team trainers are frequently around, medical personnel are not on duty. Why would they be for activities that are by definition unofficial? In February, following a voluntary predawn indoor workout at Florida State, sophomore linebacker Devaughn Darling collapsed and died. According to the autopsy report, the combination of an intense workout, irregular heartbeat and the sickle-cell trait may have contributed to his death. On July 25, Florida running back Eraste Autin, a freshman, died six days after being felled by heatstroke following a voluntary workout. Then last Friday, Northwestern starting safety Rashidi Wheeler, an asthmatic, suffered a severe attack during voluntary sprint workouts and died an hour later. In none of the cases was a doctor present, though for mandatory workouts at these schools a doctor is usually available or makes regular stops during the week.
The main reason practices can be as organized as they are is a provision in the NCAA guidelines that allows "staff members to provide information to student-athletes related to available opportunities for participating in voluntary activities." Translation: A coach can "provide information" for conditioning workouts. Ergo, the most important figure in the summer life of a college football team is clearly the strength and conditioning coach.
Once a week at Mississippi State, strength coach Mike Grant puts his charges through an obstacle course that resembles military basic training. In fact, Grant has posted a huge sign at the entrance of the course that reads THE COMPOUND: WHERE BOYS WILL BECOME MEN. Players crawl on their bellies under ropes, pull a 130-pound tire through a sandpit, climb a 35-foot rope to scale a wall, and, in teams of five, race up a 60-yard hill holding a 12-foot-long, 400-pound telephone pole. (Slowpoke teams get to do 50 sit-ups while holding the pole across their chests.) "Our guys are kind of crazy, and they have the right coach for it," says Grant. The training is actually offered as a one-credit phys-ed course, open to any student. Not surprisingly, almost all of Mississippi State's football players take it.
At Texas Tech, coach Mike Leach, who boxed in his younger days, suggested that the Red Raiders linemen hit the heavy bag—and hit each other in the ring. Strength and conditioning coach Kelvin Clark organizes the twice-a-week sparring and works with a Lubbock boxer, Gilbert Castillo, to keep the lads bobbing and weaving. The boxing matches serve as a bonding tool for the skill position players, too. Taking a break from their own weightlifting workouts, they gather a safe distance away to watch the heavy breathing, "glad it's not us in there," as quarterback Kliff Kingsbury puts it.
Once a week at LSU, the players, organized by strength and conditioning coordinator Tommy Moffitt, go through their karate chops, turning the Tigers' indoor complex, in Moffitt's words, "into a dojo." Fittingly, they practice shotokan, a form of karate whose traditional symbol is the tiger. At East Carolina, first-year strength coach Jim Whitten holds a strongman competition (this year's was won by wide receiver Marcus White) that involves all sorts of physical challenges, such as running up a stadium ramp while wearing a 20-pound vest, pushing a truck up an incline and carrying a 220-pound sandbag the length of a football field.
The physical training is, of course, a means to an end, and that end is not developing Olympic athletes. It's developing stronger and quicker football players, and, further, giving a coach conditioned athletes who can get right to football specifics when official practice begins. Does this seem like a system in which the players are calling the shots? Hardly. At Missouri, first-year coach Gary Pinkel made it clear he wanted his charges to stay in Columbia over the summer, something that previous Mizzou coaches had not made as much of a priority. Did Missouri athletes feel they had a choice about staying on campus? "Nowadays, I don't think players do have a choice," says sophomore center A.J. Ricker. "It is voluntary, but the coach also has the power to not sign your scholarship again. I'm not saying he'd do it, I'm just saying it's in his power."