Long football seasons are made longer by the recent advent of aluminum benches for the once traditional pine.
Something about the way the sun beats down on the long steely rows only highlights the agony of the game's anonymous, those unfortunates who languish on their hind ends while their teammates play hero. Only the lonely understand the state of ennui a bench warmer is made to suffer by his lack of contribution to what coaches universally call "the team effort."
"I played only one play last year," said Keith Newsome, a strong safety at Howard University. "All week before the games, my friends would tease me. They'd say, 'You think you're gonna get in the game today?' If I didn't just shrug, I'd tell them the truth. I'd say, 'I doubt it.' "
A season can become one huge, impossible gut check for the "depth people," a shallow term athletes consider more deprecating than kind. It means you're not good enough to start and, thus, relegated to the stoop between the Quick-Kick Igloo and the manager handing out orange peels and Popsicles to the lucky 22 who do.
"You always feel like you have to prove yourself," said Jimmy Joyce, a senior tackle who played behind Mark Duda at Maryland for three years but will start this season. "You don't play football to sit on the bench. You play to play. Starting off means everything. It's rough watching from the sidelines all the time."
And rough when the shadow cast by the starter in front of you is as opaque as an all-America's. At Navy, linebacker Todd Hastings not only played behind Andy Ponseigo, one of the best linebackers ever to play for the Midshipmen, but he played behind the guy who played behind Ponseigo. His struggle to the top of the lineup was much like that of Sisyphus rolling his stone to the mountain's summit, only to have it roll down again. It was constant, though constantly ineffective.
"I mean, what can I say?" said Hastings, a senior who will start at weak side linebacker next to Ponseigo this year. "Ponsie's a great ballplayer. Sitting the bench was to be expected, even though I didn't like it much."
Many college programs do not cut players, no matter how weak or absurd their efforts, because coaches need bodies to fill scout squads and to hold dummies for the starting charge that may treat such fresh meat with absolute disregard. Being a "team guy" does not necessarily mean your name is on the varsity or the junior varsity team rosters.
Generally, in the case of walk-ons and scholarship players lacking the talent to play even on junior varsity specialty teams, it means you're a little more self-sacrificing than a masochist and a little less promising than a mule running anchor in a thoroughbred relay. You might write home claiming you "made" the team, but certainly such a pretension does not allow you claim of ever making it off the bench.
Newsome started two seasons at defensive end before moving to strong safety and falling into Howard's ignominious cadre of bench warmers. He was recruited out of Phoebus High School in Hampton, Va., to play cornerback but, during preseason practice his freshman year, the starting defensive end went down with a bad knee and nobody else had played there.
Although he was all-America at defensive end in high school, he weighed only 165 pounds, light for even the secondary. He sucked it up and considered the distinction: he may well have been the smallest defensive lineman in America.
"People laughed when they lined up against me," Newsome said. "After I hit 'em a few times, though, they quit laughing."
For two long years, he played a position designed for a guy with the stuffings of a country club couch. Even though he had a good forearm shiver, he knew his legs were about as threatening as two scruffy weeds poking out of a sidewalk crack. Not until he developed tendinitis in his shoulders did he ask for mercy. He wanted to play cornerback.
"So they moved me," he said, "but I never played. I sat the bench. Jim Emery, the secondary coach, would go days without talking to me. We had our differences. I had never been a quitter, but I think the whole coaching staff was surprised when I didn't quit."
Somewhere in his transition from defensive end to strong safety, Newsome believes "the coaches figured I was a bad-attitude guy. So they put me on the bench. I played only one down against North Carolina A&T on homecoming day. I don't even remember what I did on the play. The whole year I watched the games from the sidelines, looking over the shoulders of my teammates."
When the jock ego finally revolts against such obscurity, some athletes pack their bags and take a Greyhound home without explaining why. Home is where folks remember and appreciate the good years, when you started every game and sat down only for a clean knock on the oxygen machine. Newsome didn't quit; he "took to the books" and waited for a second chance.
"When you sit the bench, all you ever think about is getting the opportunity to prove yourself. You feel set apart from your teammates who start. You feel outcast, like you're not part of the machine. I can't tell you how different I feel about this season. I'm starting. That's all the reason in the world to be out there now. Before, it was like going through the motions."
The lowest Joyce ever felt was when he contracted mononucleosis as a freshman and dropped down to 180 pounds. He was a defensive lineman and there were quarterbacks and wide receivers on the squad who weighed more than he did.
When he put the shot for his father's track team at Gaithersburg High School, everybody said he should have signed to do the same in college. Fred Joyce had played football at Maryland in the early 1960s. The thought of screaming through the goal posts at Byrd Stadium, lost in a swimming cloud of bright red jerseys, blew holes in the son's heart. He would never regret giving up track and concentrating only on football, even if he did sit on the bench a large part of his career.
"I lettered two years," he said, "but it was mostly for playing on specialty teams. It was pretty rough, especially with the publicity I got for winning the state championship in the shot in high school. Sometimes it seemed like there was nothing there for me if I didn't start. But then again, all I really cared about was how my opponents and teammates thought about me. That seemed to count most."
Over the winter, Hastings contemplated not coming back for Navy football. It seemed pointless. On one hand, there was the game he loved and had played since he was a kid. But oceanography, his curriculum at the academy, sometimes required him to carry 20 hours a semester. At universities with less rigid academic requirements, he could have gotten by with 12 and probably would have played more.
As a junior, he didn't letter. It was the same ride anyway, regardless of his participation on the football team: he still had a five-year obligation to the Navy when he graduated. "It bummed me out when I didn't letter," he said. "It really bummed me out."
He decided to stick it out through spring training and, now, after impressing the Navy staff playing beside Ponseigo, Coach Gary Tranquill calls Hastings "one of the key guys for us on defense. There's no question--he has to perform exceptionally for us to win."
Hastings said, "I sat the bench for so long, I'm really not sure what to expect of myself this season. I'd like to have a great, all-around year, though. You know, maybe 150 tackles or so. A dozen interceptions. Something really minor league."