At our first full-scale practice at Glendale Community College, everyone spontaneously claps and whistles. A circle slowly forms around Allen as the din increases. He lets it build, smiling in response. The outburst is in honor of the occasion, in the belief that this is, as the coach has so often stated, a great moment in sport, a great moment for everybody.
The novelty fades, though, to be replaced by the familiar rhythms of all training camps—wake-up calls, tapings, showers, meals, meetings. The two-a-day practices are bearable. We have read that other USFL teams in their Arizona and Florida training camps are already into heavy contact, but Allen keeps us in helmets and shorts. No pads. "We're professionals," he tells us, meaning the emphasis at this stage is on subtleties, not on head-knocking. The coaches are looking for quick feet, soft hands and the like. It's assumed that all 85 of us, even the kickers, will hit.
Very quickly leaders emerge, and in the secondary they are the veteran cornerbacks Virgil Livers and Holland Lawrence. Both are 5'9", stocky, talkative and frayed at the edges. Between them they have played in 186 NFL games. I like Lawrence particularly. I need the winks and nods he gives me, because I'm screwing up. In the recognition drills I'm sometimes unable to find the strong back in time to make my formation calls. In the footwork drills I feel unsteady, and my ankles hurt with every cut. In the tip drills, those critical exercises that teach you how to turn deflections and overthrows into interceptions, I miss balls that you don't have to catch, but "you damn well better," as Walker says.
My partner in the buddy drills is Cornerback Henry Williams, 5'11", 195 pounds, one NFL year with the Oakland Raiders. We face off for form tackling and pop each other firmly, but carefully. Henry, I know, has his own problems. In November he'd been washing dishes at home when a plate broke and sliced his right wrist, severing muscle, tendons, nerves, artery. Williams had about three minutes to save himself, and he did so by bending his hand so far forward his right palm nearly touched his forearm, stanching the blood. "I just didn't think it was my time to go," he tells me. But now his right hand is very weak and it distracts him. He'll be among the first defensive backs cut.
Before and after practices I work on my kicking with the other punters, Scott Turner and Fletcher. Thanks to the chip in my right ankle, the sweet spot on the bridge of my foot has been reduced to postage-stamp size. Without a perfect drop, I spray balls wildly.
"You're kicking well for just using your leg," says Fletcher one afternoon. "But you aren't getting your body into it, eh? Your left foot doesn't leave the ground."
We kick a few balls, and Fletcher looks pensive. "I don't mean to be telling you what to do," he says. "You tell me if you see I'm doing something wrong, eh?" We kick a few more. "I'll shut up if you want," he says.
But I don't want him to shut up. I don't want anybody to shut up. David Mays, D.D.S., a 33-year-old black quarterback from Texas Southern, comes over to punt with us. Mays left a successful dental practice in Los Angeles to try out with the Blitz. I go down to field his punts, which are quirky and hard to catch. This, I finally realize, is because he kicks left-footed. Oddly, he's a righty when he throws. "Which hand do you drill teeth with?" I yell from 40 yards away. Dr. Mays raises both arms.
The talk and the people are what make a pro camp. I even begin to look forward to Allen's lectures after dinner. With a blackboard and his boys instead of reporters and a skeptical public, the iron man grows human. He becomes somebody to trust, a player's friend. Indeed, every Blitz player I've talked with has cited the chance to play under Allen as his major reason for signing with the team.
For me, though, the bottom line right now is covering people. For a strong safety, that means tight ends. I line up on Marc May, out of Purdue, shading him to the outside. May runs straight at me, fakes left, then right, and is gone. He gathers in a 50-yarder with which he could have run to Mexico.