College football players are the only human beings who aren't allowed to have spring fever." -- College football player, 1980
You think of tulips and the Lovin' Spoonful.You think of closing your eyes and lying in the sun.
At the University of Maryland, they close their eyes and think of the "big stick."
It, too, is a rite of spring, the most coveted award of spring football practice, far better than most improved player. It goes to the man who makes the biggest hit, the best lick of the spring.
"It's just a big stick with the words 'big stick' painted on it," said defensive back Sam Johnson, who is out for the spring, injured. "It's what it stands for that makes it so nice.
"Last year, Brian Matera and Sam Medile got it," he said wistfully, watching a drill they call "Blood Alley."
"Brian won his on a goal-line scrimmage. It was third and two. The quarterback handed off to Jan Carinci. He carried upfield. There was a pileup. Jan jumped up; Brian hit him flush. Jan went one way, the ball went the other."
And so far this season?
"I ain't seen nothing yet," said Johnson. And he's seen all the films.
Oh well, the season's young.
April is the cruelest month for football players, mixing the memory of a season past with the desire for a better one in 20 NCAA-sanctioned spring practices.
It is a month of chins and dips and weights and lifts; goosesteps and fast steps and single buckers. But mostly, it is a month of hitting. "Going live," they call it, somtimes every day.
"It's hell," said Navy fullback Eddie Meyers.
"It's hell," said Howard quarterback Ron Wilson.
It's essential, say their coaches; absolutely essential.
For the coaches, the spring is a chance to try out new techniques and polish old ones, to try old players at new positions. It is a chance to teach football.
For the players on the "meat squad," spring is a chance to show that they are better than ground chuck. For others, it's a chance to win a starting position. And for everyone, it is a chance to get injured.
Last week, halfway through the spring practice schedule, Navy had 15 people hurt, including the equipment manager. Maryland had lost five players to knee injuries (three in one scrimmage), and one may be out for the entire 1980 season.
"It's not uncommon," said Maryland's trainer, J. J. Bush. "Any trainer will tell you that a lot of guys get hurt . . . That's the nature of the game. It's a necessary evil."
"I wouldn't say it's necessary," said Navy defensive back, Jon Ross.
But the coaches at Maryland, Navy, Virginia and Howard do. Their practices, which range from two to three hours, are broken into periods. Everyone starts with calisthenics, performed with the proper ardor (coaches call it "hum"). Then there are speciality periods -- individual instruction by position -- fundamental periods and polish periods.
There are agility drills (stepping through ropes), contact drills, and blocking drills (where a player dives into a sled called a single bucker, like a bull on a charge, to practice firing of the ball).
There are pass-rush scrimmages, "thud" scrimmages (no tackling below the waist), goal-line scrimmages (usually saved for the end of the day), and scrimmage scrimmages (Friday and Saturday).
"If you want to get well," said Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne, "You have to take castor oil."
Coaches on the rites of Spring:
Claiborne, Maryland -- "It's a little like a marathon runner. He can't break the pain barrier until he reaches it, and he won't win if he doesn't reach it. You've got to work hard in the spring, so that when you're in a game, you've been in that position where you know you've got to give that little extra to win . . . You're going to have injuries but the value is such that we have to take that chance. The rule book doesn't say we have to have spring ball."
George Welsh, Navy -- "I don't think it's any more physical than preseason practice in the fall. It's tough physically but a lot of it is psychological. You have to go and beat each other to death without a game to look forward to on Saturday. If you think it's meaningless, it is meanngless. If you can overcome the psychological part of it, you can be better."
Dick Bestwick, University of Virginia -- "It's no great thrill to be giving up time with your buddies and girlfriends on a nice spring day. It makes it even harder that the immediate results are tough to see and not as meaningful as you'd like. I'd imagine the basic attitude on the team is to get as much out of it (as possible) and get it over with."
Floyd Keith, Howard University -- "I think our kids enjoy it. You don't see them complaining do you? There's no way of being a successful team without spring practice. Absolutely no way of getting by without it."
Joe Restic, Harvard University, where there is no spring practice -- "If everyone in the country decided they weren't going to have it, it wouldn't make any difference and the young man ould get the benefit. In some places, it's almost a sacrilege to say that. But it's a fallacy; you can have it or not have it depending on what the others you are playing do . . . The players are against it. The only ones that justify it are the coaches. What they're saying is true: they get things done. But we can get it done in the fall."
"Football is a contact sport, the only one left," said Charlie Hall, the pro scout with the Seattle Seahawks insignia tatooed all over his person. "They hit a little more in the spring. It's like pro camp. You've got to find out who the real aggressive-type kids are."
Hall had come to the University of Maryland to scout several players, including senior defensive back Llyod Burruss, who missed last season with a broken leg. "How's Burruss," he asked the trainer, Bush.
"Doc says he's got a little arthritis in his knee. But he's sucking it up," Bush replied.
Burruss was doing his best to ignore the scout.
"You know he's there," he said. "But you don't look around to see if he saw you mess up."
Burruss once hit running back Charlie Wysocki so hard in practice that, Wysocki says, "I still have the bruise."
Now it's 6:30 p.m., time for a goal-line scrimmage. With fourth down and goal to go, Wysocki carries the ball around the right side. The linebacker pursues. Wysocki goes one way, his facemask goes the other.
The penalty is not called.
The defense holds. And gloats. And gets to go in. The offense must stay out and go against the second team.
"Defense talks too much crap, man" quarterback Mike Tice says when it's over. "What do they think? We're out here taking a vacation?"
"It's not that anyone talks too much," Burruss said later. "It's just that when you lose you get kind of mad. There are fights sometimes. People push and shove and a few punches are thrown. You get beat on a block, you get frustrated."
Burruss is determined to win the big stick award this spring. Running back Kevin Taylor, a walk-on transfer student ("They're called POWs, for pay their own way," Hall said) is determined to stick with the team but not to get stuck. "They won't get that one on me," he said. "Somebody sticking you that hard and getting an award, I don't like that."
But the coaches do
Spring had not arrived yet at Howard University. There was no sod on the practice field, just mud. Floyd Keith was down on his hands and knees in the muck, screaming, "Here's the goal line. Get yourselves on the damned goal line."
Keith has no qualms about deprving his players of the joys of spring. "Never," he said. "Not for an hour and forty-five minutes of practice a day with us paying for their tuition."
Defensive back Doug Jones agreed.
"Sure, it's hard to be out here in beautiful spring weather," he said. "But the program owns you. As long as they keep paying my tuition, they got a piece of me."
This spring, football got a piece of Ricky Triplett. Triplett, a cornerback who dislocated his left shoulder a few weeks ago, stood on the sideline, disconsolate.
The first axiom of spring ball is this: When you're in you want to be out, when you're out you want to be in.
"We were working on something called a 'knife', which is something to knock out the interference, when I got hurt," Triplett said. "The coaches said I did a hellified knife. But they got me to the hospital fast and made sure I was taken care of.
"I came out today to show that I'm still interested. But I got smart and came out in street clothes. Let me tell you, if I came out in shorts they'd have me running or doing situps. The always find something for you to do."
Spring practice at the Univeristy of Virginia is like playing football at a country club. The lawns are lush and sprawling, the lines finely drawn.
But the players ae not playing canasta. They're fighting for jobs and every dropped pass or missed tackle or overthrown snap from center draws emphatic groans from the culprit.
Sophomore linebacker Jim Hayson, out with a sprained shoulder, lost his spot "to a guy I had beaten out last year and was starting ahead of this spring," he said glumly. "So this injury is a real pain."
And so is spring ball.
"It's hard because you come back from class and your friend says, 'Let's go throw a frisbee' and you can't because you have to play football," Hyson said. It's a bummer."
Even Bestwick agrees.
"I'm not as hard-nosed in the spring," he said. "To me, this is more a chore."
This spring, Bestwick gave his starting seniors the first four days off, so that he could spend more time with younger players. He gave another starter two days off to study for an exam. Bestwick tries to vary the schedule and condensed the usual five week schedule into four; anything to lessen the monotony.
Navy's colors are usually blue and gold. This spring, they are blue and gold and red, as in redshirt. There were 100 players on the field and eight in red had been deemed untouchable by trainer Red Romo.
"We have no injuries," Romo said. "Those guys have a sunburn."
One of them, freshman Travis Wallington, said, "I came in with some preconceived notions. Everone said, It's tough, a real drag.' I hate to disappoint you, but it's not as bad as I thought it would be."
Of course not. He isn't getting hit.
This has been a particularly busy spring for Romo (15 starters and second-teamers are hurt). He dispenses asprin, ace bandages, and the annual "NEI" award.
"It's for the most nonexistent injury," he said. "We only give it out in the spring."
Middle guard Terry Huxel, recovering from surgery, said, "When Red says, 'where does it hurt? . . ."
"The answer is, 'All over'," replied Jim Degree. Degree, a former defensive end, now works in the athletic department. He has had four operations since he hurt his knee for the first time during spring practice in 1977.
"During my sophomore year, I couldn't wait for spring," he recalled. "I knew I could play and I wanted the coaches to know it too. By the time I was a senior, I kind of dreaded it."
"Yea," Huxel added, "but in the fall you forget all about the spring."
What if everyone agreed to forget all about spring practice?
"It'll never happen," Huxel said. "Football's a game for us. But it's a business for bigger people. They want a winner and this is one way of getting better."
Down on the field, the team was broken up by positions. The defensive backs were diving through a big, blue bag on the 50-ard line. The linemen were defending the goal line. a
Three day-glo orange cones defined the terms of the struggle. Two linemen faced off, one on one, determined not to allow the other across the imaginary line of scrimmage. Grunts and groans provided the syncopation: music to a coach's ears. then everything was pianissimo.
"Uh-oh," said Huxel, the team captain. "Greg Thomas just went down."
The linemen were motionless: Thomas' shoulder was motionless, separated.
Ten minutes later, there was an encore.
"Uh-oh," Huxel said, "Troy Mitchell just went down."
Later, running back Meyers was asked how the injuries made him feel.
"You see two guys go down and you say, "The hell with this. Let's take it in before someone else gets hurt,'" Meyers said. "You say, 'What the hell, are you guys crazy, we just lost so and so, and so and so, with knees and shoulders and elbows, Let's take it in.'"