For the last two days the Redskin rookies, free agents and marginal veterans have had it relatively easy. One practice daily. Nothing more strenous than slamming up against a tackling dummy or a blocking sled. A paid vacation, almost.
But now with the beginning of two-a-days and live contact, training camp shifts gears from a canter to a gallop. Decisions on personnel, decisions the coaching staff will have to live with all season, are beginning to be made. The players in camp start to get a sense of where they are relative to their peers. Something like 50 men are battling for about 15 jobs, with the established veterans certain to claim the other 30 spots on the final roster. Everything that a player does from now on will get the finest scrutiny, thus creating a pervasive paranoia that will not lift until camp breaks.
Mike Matocha, the Redskins' 11th-round draft pick, a defensive end from the University of Texas -- Arlington, has been pointing toward this since the April draft. Everyone says he has a shot. But from now on, performance talks and anything else walks.
"I look for a willingness to work, concentrate. I don't like it when they quit thinking. Mental toughness covers a multitude of things." -- Jack Pardee
Day Three: 92 in the shade by 10 a.m. Bubba Tyer, the trainer, knew what to expect. "We'll have some guys drop today," he said. "You revive them, give them some salt, sit 'em out for a while. It's the first day of contact, so you know how tense these guys are, especially the rookies."
Mike Matocha hadn't slept well. For more than an hour he lay in his bed, totally alert, until sleep mercifully came little after midnight.
"I think he was scared," Greg Dubinetz said. "The night before contact most guys are. You think it's all come down to this. You feel like you have to do well."
They broke off into their groups in the morning, then came together for calisthenics, doing exercises in repetitions of seven, counting each out, ending with a Mormon Tabernacle Choir, "sevvvvvvvvvvvvhhhhh." Then, back into the small groups, the defensive linemen working with Doc Urich, the defensive coordinator, attacking the blocking sled, bouncing from one dummy to the next like kamikaze pinballs. Hit and scream. Hit and scream. Matocha's is a dull thud; he doesn't use the upper register As, Es or Is.
"The first thing you look for is quickness," said Urich.
"He showed that," said the general manager, Bobby Beathard, watching.
Four men dropped in the morning. None were named Matocha.
"You get used to this kind of heat coming from Texas," Matocha said. "It has to be a helluva heat to make it happen to me -- I never go down." But Matocha knew that the heat cost him something off his performance; it was simply too hot to be at his best. "When you're fighting the weather, it shows," he said.
The morning practice ran almost three hours. The coaching rationale for this torture is, "We might as well practice in it because we might have to play in it." Stretching logic to the lunatic fringe then, should Minnesota practice in the Arctic? Should Seattle practice in a shoe box?
The afternoon started out even hotter, bringing with it the fabled nutcracker drill. This is the main event of camp.A quarterback hands the ball off to a running back, who must make his move between two traffic cones, cutting either to the left or right off his offensive lineman's block. The contact between the offensive and defensive linemen is at least fierce, at most brutal. Coaches, players and press salivate during this drill. In some cultures the nutcracker has animals and is called a cockfight.
This is where Neal Olkewicz made his mark last year. In one memorable drill he stood Jeff Williams straight up, and people who were there swear that Pardee's eyes became flying saucers in appreciation of Olkewicz's effort.
The nutcracker can make you or break you.
By midseason, Olkewicz was a starting linebacker.
"I was a 6-foot free agent linebacker so I knew it was important to make an impression early," Olkewicz said. "It's like I came in here mad at everyone, ready to hit anyone who moved because my chances were so slim. If they were cgoing to cut me, at least I was going to make 'em remember me."
Matocha had two shots in the nutcracker. After the first, in which he beat the offensive lineman and stopped the back, Beathard said, "He did real well." After the second, in which Dan Nugent, a full-season starter two years ago, blew Matocha away like he was on roller skates, Beathard kept his own counsel.
There was nothing on Mathocha's face to indicate he had been embarrassed. As he had done for the first two days of camp, when one drill ended Matocha went quickly to the next, volunteering.
"Until they change it," he said, "I'm gonna be the first one to step up."
Throughout the nutcracker the winds were building, carrying with them a thunderstorm that would quickly bring the rain and hail to shut down the practice. Jack Pardee watched the lightning come closer and closer, but he knows this area and he knew how to melt nature's clock in a two-minute drill against a prohibitive favorite. Up on the tower, filming the practice, Nate Fine seemed to ignore the flashes against the sky. Fine, a bald veteran, kept his finger on the trigger of the camera.
("You gotta want it.")
When one bolt slashed the western sky white, Beathard yelled up at Fine, "Remember that the last guy who got hit by lightning suddenly started growing hair."
Pardee beat the rain by less than one minute, winning this season's Willard Scott meteorology medal.
And it poured.
And it hailed.
And it huffed and it puffed and it almost blew down the tower Nate Fine was perched on just moments before.
"I prayed for this the whole hour before practice," Ted Fritsch said, grateful that practice was shortened, smiling angelically.
"You didn't waste it, man," said Bobby Hammond, articulate in veteran-speak.
In the rookie locker room Matocha stood watching. "We have 'em like this in Texas," he said. "I wish it would've come this morning. I'd have sat out in it."
How do you spell relief?
Mike Matocha: "Today I found out that by all means I'm a rookie. I was physically down in the morning. Maybe a bit mentally too. I didn't think I did badly, but I have a lot to learn. I thought I was pretty good, you know, good speed, but time after time I was being hooked. Nugent, man, he is really good. And he's got experience. That really means something. At least I hung in there. I pursued to the ball and I kept going. Even against Nugent and Mike Gibbons, I hung in there. aIf I'm gonna get blocked, I'll get blocked by a starter. If he's gonna beat me, he's gonna have to be good."
It had been a long day, a learning experience. Matocha was not at all sure he had passed the first test. For sure there were things he'd have to correct.
Urich, of course, could have predicted it.
"I told you he was green," Urich said. "I told you he had a lot to learn.
He was tense out there. It's natural for rookies. I'll tell you again that it's too soon to tell on most of these guys -- all you can say is that he's a prospect."
Late that night Matocha sat in shorts and a T-shirt, his legs clean -- no operational scars -- telling someone as best he could about his personality. "I'm kind of moody," he said. "I don't show much. Like, just by looking at me, you'd never be able to know if I'm happy inside."
Then, walking back to his dorm, he said, "You know that Pepsi commercial where the kid hits a home run to win the baseball game and they show him on the train coming back to this hometown, and then he gets off the train and his mother and father hug him? They're hugging him because he's the hero and they're so glad to have him home. That makes me happy."
And one last bit more.
"I'd like to do that in real life," Matocha said. "I'd like to go back to LaGrange as a part of this team and have that happen to me." "Our rookies have got to be making an upward climb. If they make the same mistakes next Tuesday that they made today, that'll show us they're not absorbing anything." Fred O'Conner, assistant coach
Day Four: One of the initiations into pro football was out of the way; at dinner the night before the rookies had to stand on their chairs and sing their college fight song. Matocha hadn't known the UT-Arlington song and he was allowed to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," which he did quickly and poorly, according to the veterans.
Another initiation, a continual initiation, contact, was only in its second day.
Under an overcast morning sky, Matocha was unimpressive; coming off the ball slowly. In the afternoon, before and during the steady light rain, he was even worse. Matocha went 0-for-3 in the nutcracker, getting steamed and dry cleaned once by Gibbons like an old suit. There is nothing more humiliating than getting undressed like that publicly, especially when it's being filmed by Nate Fine for that evening's group meeting.
Doubt hits you like a hailstorm, 1,000 stings per minute. Standing by the weights after the afternoon practice, dark curls hanging over his forehead like tears, Matocha's insecurity finally stuck its head out of its tortoise shell. "I don't know if these guys I'm going up against are just super, or if I'm not nearly as good as I thought," he said. Then he fell silent, shaking his head slowly as the rain continued to fall.
"He's having some problems," said Greg Dubinetz (pronounced like the wine, silent T and silent Z). Dubinetz has become almost like an older brother to Matocha, counseling him, kidding him. Dubinetz is a Yale man. That almost automatically projects him at two positions -- offensive guard and therapist. "Mike wasn't good today at a few things he'd thought he was good at," said Dubinetz. "That's causing him to reevaluate where he stands relative to everyone else. That happens almost every day with a rookie. Your emotions are on a roller coaster, up or down depending how you performed in the previous practice."
Mike Matocha: "It was depressing. Inside I felt, God, I gotta get better -- I can't be any worse. That's just as bad as can be. The films were really embarassing. I couldn't believe how bad I was. I mean I was blown right out of the picture. It's possible they could've cut me. I thought about it, especially when Doc told us in the meeting how he liked each one of us but that not all of us are gonna be around. I took it like he was talking directly to me. I mean, look, we're rookies. We've got to impress our coaches or we're gone."
Matocha had to excuse himself from the meeting early. He had severe stomach cramps. He thought it was something he ate, not something he saw on film, not something psychological.
That night as he lay in bed, replaying the day, he found himself asking the silent question -- why can't I correct my mistakes? What did I do to deserve such a bad showing?
Then, just before he dropped off to sleep he made a vow.
"That," Mike Matocha said to himself, "was my last practice like that." "I never did dream in my life that my son would make the pros.Everyone here's just so proud of him. They tell me what a good boy I have." -- Josie Matocha
Day Five: The dorm where the Redskins live, the cafeteria where they eat, the field where they practice all border the same street.
What do you make of that, the Redskins on High Street?
In training camp, breakfast is compulsory. Not eating -- just attending. It's another rule designed to control your freedom, to rein it in, like the 11 p.m. curfew, the no alcohol and no visitors in the room. The demand is for personal sacrifice on and off the field, the theory being that the more you give of yourself to the team concept, the stronger the team will be. All for one; one for all. What this ultimately suggests is at positions exclusive of quarterback and wide receiver -- where individual expression is favored -- the perfect prospect is a clone. No ego. Totally programmable.
(Who the hell knows til you put the pads on?)
Matocha felt much better this morning. He performed much better too.
"Maybe I needed to get sick," he said, coming off the practice field. He was smiling, riding Dubinetz's roller coaster up.
The smile stayed on through lunch.
"I changed my stance a little," Matocha said. "I think it really helped. Like today I did better against Mike Gibbons and I asked him, 'Were you hurt or something? Tired?' And he said, 'No, you were just doing a lot better.'"
Matocha sat in the lounge outside the cafeteria, reviewing the morning with more animation than he had shown in two days when Dubinetz came by.
"The autobiography of Larry Matocha," Dubinetz said.
Larry is a nickname. It connotes wimpishness. As in, "That was a Larry thing to do." Matocha picked it up from Don Warren, the tight end who apparently initiated it. Matocha calls a lot of people Larry. So Dubinetz calls Matocha Larry.
"You weren't too Larryish out there today," Dubinetz said. "Couple of good moves. Made us offensive guys look a bit bad. So this afternoon, we're gonna start choppin' you. Just so you don't come on too strong, Laaaaarrrryyyy."
Matocha blushed beet.
The sun was coming out, finally. The established veterans were still 3 1/2 days away. Mike Matocha was taking every practice as if it might be his first. And there was another nutcracker coming up in an hour that he was suddenly eager for.