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 fun--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
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
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
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
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."
Anyway, the boys of summer police themselves. "If a certain guy
starts missing summer workouts," says Texas Tech guard Jason May,
"it'll be a player who will tell the coaches. We're here together
in the summer, a family. As with any family, we've got to take
care of things internally."
There's even a nonfootball benefit to summer workouts: Almost all
players take at least one class. "It's difficult for football
players to stay even or catch up during the regular school year,"
says Illinois senior quarterback Kurt Kittner, "so the summer is
a time to get a few hard classes out of the way."
Then, too, some summer activities are exactly what they're
supposed to be: voluntary and player-organized. Illinois's
six-team Wednesday-night softball league, made up exclusively of
football players, was Kittner's brainchild. Oregon's linemen have
squeezed into big inner tubes and bobbed along the lazy current
of the Willamette River, trips planned by a group of players. A
contingent of Virginia Tech players made the 450-mile drive from
Blacksburg to Pocono Raceway to watch the July 29 Pennsylvania
500, their sixth NASCAR race this year. They pitched a tent,
stayed two nights, and--who knows?--maybe spent part of the time
goofing on their coaches.
It would be nice if we still lived in an era in which athletes
squeezed in football around chemistry lab, student government
duties and a summer job at the drugstore. But coaches have come
to believe that "summer is the most crucial part of the
development of a football team," as Miami coach Larry Coker puts
it. Even the old-timers have come around to the year-round
philosophy. "I always wanted my kids to go home for the summer
and get away from football," says Florida State coach Bobby
Bowden. "But the game has changed so much that you need players
lifting and running all summer so they're ready to go when
practice starts. Everybody has teams together over the summer,
and you damn well better do it or you'll fall way behind."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK TUBILATION The team that plays together stays together, but few squads had such a splashing good time as Oregon players did, floating down the Willamette.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES BASIC TRAINING With Grant (far left) barking encouragement, the Bulldogs got mud in their eyes and one credit apiece for a weekly scramble through The Compound.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO KARATE KIDS Black belts they weren't, and probably never will be, but LSU players (in purple shorts) still found it unifying to learn how to put their best defense forward.
COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE BASH BROTHERS The Illini love the long ball, and it was their idea to build cohesiveness with a football-players-only softball league on Wednesday nights.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE ROAD SCHOLARS Pitching tents at stops along the NASCAR circuit, Virginia Tech players (here at Pocono Raceway) bonded over campfires and carburetors.