ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Summertime in Kansas is something that must be experienced to be believed.
Where else can you have temperatures reach 110, high humidity-and have it continue for two or three months of the year?
But what makes it really special around Kansas is the transition from looking out the window at the sweltering heat to putting on a heavy pads and running in the sweltering heat.
Yes, I mean football practice.
Not many things in life can compare to what young athletes go through while preparing for an upcoming football season.
In truth, football has become a year-round sport. The truly dedicated athlete spends hours upon hours in the weight room throughout the year, not just during the school year.
Back in the “old days” when I played football, athletes didn’t do a lot of off-season conditioning. Most of us had jobs and didn’t really have time to train.
Which brings us to the matter of getting into shape.
Sure, there are stationary bikes, rowing machines and bicycles, but nothing compares to running in the oppressive heat of Kansas in August.
When I was in high school, August was the most dreaded time of the year. It was bad enough that my summer vacation was about over, but the reality of football practice was downright unpleasant.
Sure, football was fun, but couldn’t we just skip practice and play the games? Of course not!
We had practice twice a day, 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. The morning practice wasn’t all that bad, as far as the temperature. It was humid, but the heat was moderate.
But have you ever checked your thermometer at 6:30 in the evening? Not a good thing!
Living on a farm, I was used to getting up fairly early, but getting up early to go out and run gave a new perspective on the notion.
The first day didn’t seem too horrible. Sure, some people usually heaved their breakfast, but not all that many.
Then there was the matter of calisthenics, leg lifts and stretching exercises. They seemed innocent enough- until I woke up the next morning.
I don’t know what it feels like to get hit in the abdomen with a bowling ball, but I can only imagine it feels pleasant compared to the way my stomach felt the day after our first practice.
I strained just to lift my legs off the bed-and that was the easy part of the morning.
You then head to the practice field and try to do the same exercises as the day before-but this time with a knot of muscles in your stomach.
We were always fed salt tablets to counteract the loss of salt through perspiration. But it was at the water fountain that things took a turn for the worse.
After running for what seemed like an eternity, we were allowed a drink of water.
I don’t know why, but after doing strenuous physical exercise, you just can’t drink enough water to satisfy your thirst. So, you drink…and drink…and drink.
Then the whistle blew and we were back into drills and running. Usually it wasn’t long before all the water you just drank quickly made an unwanted reappearance.
Once the first week of two-a-days was concluded, the pads were brought out of the storage room. I played football for seven years, counting junior high, and I don’t know if I ever had a helmet that fit well and felt good.
But boy, did that nice cool helmet make running a lot more enjoyable.
Adding to the fun was that I wore glasses. There’s nothing like getting whacked in the side of the helmet, having a headache and then having the side of your nose bleed because you just got your glasses driven into the side of your face.
I guess it wouldn’t have been all that bad if I wasn’t one of the puniest kids on the field.
Usually the really big kids left me alone-I think because they felt sorry for me. But it was the mid-sized kids who had their radar locked on us runts.
It seemed they had to prove they were stronger and tougher than us little guys. I know it sure felt good to see the really big kids put a licking on them once in a while.
By the time school started, practice was down to once a day, and most of the people were actually getting into fair shape.
As the school year flew by, the weather eventually cooled, and then one day we’d have to wear gloves and extra shirts and socks because it was so cold.
Cold weather has another meaning for football players.
Getting your fingers caught between two helmets, or taking a shot in the middle of your back when your muscles were already tight, really didn’t good.
But for all my complaining, I still played for seven years.
I was never the star-or anything that resembled one. But I was still a part of the team.
Winning was always a bonus, but it wasn’t what determined whether we had fun.
Looking across the locker room after a tough game, whether you won or lost, you developed a camaraderie that people outside that locker room never felt.
Years later, you realize football was the game we were playing, but discipline was what the coaches were teaching-and that really isn’t a game.
It’s something you take with you the rest of your life and draw from in all facets of life.