Thirteen days ago, Aaron Wormley and Andrew Smith began their commitments to the University of Maryland football program. And the program began its investment in them and 29 other freshman recruits and walk-ons. The arrangement could last less than a year for anyone who gets discouraged and quits. It could last six years for someone willing to persevere through a redshirt season and the misfortune of losing another season to injury.
Wormley, a tackle from Yeadon, Pa., and Smith, a safety from Fort Meade, were thinking only about the amount of time between their first day on campus and their first day as a starter for the Terrapins. During the ensuing week and a half, their thoughts changed--and then changed again. At times, they didn't even know what to think. For the first time in their lives, their entire existences revolved around football. No classes, no girlfriends, nothing but time on the field, in the film room and with the four-inch-thick playbook.
Things were done for them. Things were done to them. By the end of this past Monday--their first day of practice in full pads with all of the returning players--their bodies were sore, their minds were overwhelmed, and not just by football.
"Man," Wormley said while walking on campus one evening, "did you see that woman?"
That was one of the few highlights. Their days began at 6:45 a.m., and although lights were supposed to be out at 11, many of the newcomers fell asleep around midnight, still reading their playbooks in the dim glow of a lamp. In between, there were two practices, two film-study sessions and three massive meals.
"You live day-to-day here," Smith said. "You're out of touch with the real world. We're trying to get through each day. When you're freshmen, you just go."
The Check In
Maryland's new players were introduced to major college football gently. On Aug. 6, a Friday, the players moved half of their belongings into the dorm they will occupy during the school year and half into their dorm for training camp, Dorchester Hall. The players had dinner with their families and then said goodbye.
"It was tough on my mom," Wormley said. "She was like, 'What's happened to my little boy?' But she did pretty well. My dad knew it was time. He knows that I have to learn to be a man."
Saturday night, after the players had been tested in the 40-yard dash, bench press and vertical jump, they started to meet the people with whom they will try to develop as a new family. At a meeting, every player told a story about himself. Wormley's went like this: After he went to his first football practice in eighth grade, he saw the players banging into each other, saw the injuries, and came home disbelieving. "I told my mom, 'Man, I'm not doing that,' " Wormley said.
But five years later, here he is. "I can't believe it's me," he said. "Being here, Division I football, all this, I can't believe it's me. It was something I always saw on television. I never thought I'd be going through it."
Sunday, the players toured downtown Washington and had dinner and a movie at a coach's house. The first day of practice awaited. "Naw, I'm not nervous," Smith said. "It's going to be faster, and more intense, but it's still just football."
Monday morning's practice was in helmet and shoulder pads only. For two hours, Smith and the other defensive backs practiced fundamentals as elementary as backpedaling and choreography as complex as Maryland's defensive rotations.
After practice, lunch and a nap, Smith and two other defensive backs settled into a half-lit meeting room. Secondary coach Doug Mallory hustled in, carrying five videotapes, all edited position-by-position, from the morning's practice. Mallory went right into his instruction of defensive alignments, rotations and reactions. He spoke in a foreign language deciphered in the playbooks, but the players have to learn it as it's said to them.
Remote control in hand, Mallory talked as a play unfolded on the screen.
"It's a deep route here," he said. "What are we calling?"
"Birdie! Birdie! Birdie!" replied all of the players.
"Good. Andrew, the coverage check is what?"
"Good. For as much as we threw at you today, you guys lined up pretty well," Mallory said. "Now you just need to know what the hell you're doing."
Mallory then looked at his watch. It was 4:33, 12 minutes before the start of practice. "Now hustle up."
Smith was one of the first players out the door, making it to the field minutes after leaving the meeting. "Two-a-days are not so bad because there are only 30 guys, and we're getting all of the reps," he said. "It's good, because the fact is, we don't know a lot."
Wormley was fully aware he didn't know a lot. Walking from the dining hall to his 7:45 p.m. offensive line film meeting, he said: "To tell you the truth, I didn't even look at the playbook last night because I knew it would be all Greek."
At the meeting, tackles and tight ends coach Bob Heffner played, paused and rewound Wormley's performance from the day's practices. Wormley's intensity earned Heffner's praise, but his techniques are unpolished. Wormley was slightly in awe, seeing every step of every player broken down and critiqued.
"It's just a bunch of people on a screen," he said later. "At regular speed, I can't tell what's going on. Coach is like, 'What happened here?' I don't know."
He decided he had better learn. After the two-hour meeting, Wormley went back his dorm room and studied his playbook until 1 a.m.
By the second day of two-a-day practices, players are feeling the toll. Smith iced his groin after every practice, and Wormley wore a brace under his pads for his sore shoulder. "We're all plenty hurt," Wormley said after the morning practice. "Everybody's got something screwed up."
But for the first time in many of these players' young lives, there are people paid to aid them. Team aides wash their gear after every practice. Meals are cooked for them, and food service workers even take the players' dishes. At one dinner, Wormley didn't like the main course--pork--so he loaded his plate with side dishes. Within 10 minutes of finding out that Wormley didn't like pork, a cook prepared roast beef for him. When she brought it to him, she said: "I'm sorry. It'll never happen again."
Wormley was shocked. "Can you believe that?" he said. "It's great, but I feel bad. I feel like a star, but I'm human, just like everyone else. I'm just not used to this."
Wednesday, 70 journalists and photographers showed up at Byrd Stadium to meet Maryland's players and coaches, but most of the freshmen were spectators, not participants. Only one reporter talked to Smith, none to Wormley.
The media time is a break from the nine hours of academic and athlete-conduct orientation the new players must attend. Before one of the academic meetings, Coach Ron Vanderlinden told them: "The lights turn off in the stadium for everyone. That's why the number one priority for you to be at the University of Maryland is to get a degree. . . . If you don't want to get a degree, I'm going to make life very hard on you."
Life is getting harder for the freshmen, not only because more plays and concepts are being thrown at them, but because the returning players have checked in. When it was just the freshmen, lunch was a time they could study football or relax. Not now. Every few minutes, some of the older players start to heckle a freshman into singing. Today, it was Smith's turn.
His older teammates started pounding the tables to rouse him. Moments pass. "Time is money, baby!" one player shouted. "Time is money!"
Smith gave in. "I won't sing," he said, "but I'll rap."
His teammates approved, dancing with him, laughing and singing along all at once. "He's one of the better ones so far," one of the older players said.
After lunch, Smith and Wormley walked back to Dorchester Hall, which was pretty empty. "Man, where is everybody?" Wormley said, looking out his third-floor window. "I'll tell you where. There are women out there on this campus. That's why no one is here."
Wormley's room is like most other students'. Concrete walls that have been painted blue, a tile floor and a twin bed. The bed is the rub. It may fit fine for most freshman, but one of Wormley's more agonizing daily tasks is maneuvering his 6-foot-4, 261-pound body onto it. It's tough, but, as he says, "after two practices a day it gets pretty comfortable."
Unlike Smith and most of the other freshman, Wormley isn't a big football fan. He wants to get a mechanical engineering degree and design his own line of sports cars. Football is first on his schedule, but not in his heart. "Every day of my junior and senior year of high school, I'd leave practice telling myself, 'Tomorrow morning, you're going to tell coach to screw himself,' " he recalls. "But I never did. And here, it's a responsibility that I've made the decision to have. I'm in it for five years."
Meeting the Big Boys
The learning came fast and furious this past Monday, the first full-contact practice against the returning players. The pressure weighed equally on Smith and Wormley, but in opposite ways.
Since the defensive backs weren't allowed to tackle ballcarriers, Smith's burden was mental. As a safety, he is in charge of many of the secondary's coverage calls, all in that new language. He had to tell everyone where they needed to be, and at the same time was still figuring out where he was supposed to be. His unit was beaten four times by deep passes over the middle, twice by freshman wide receiver Scooter Monroe.
But Smith is trying. He knows Vanderlinden wants him to be able to play this season. "He's been working really hard," Mallory said. "Every night when I go into his room, he's sitting there, laying on his bed, with his playbook open."
Full-contact practice had an entirely different meaning for Wormley. He had to try to block returning linemen, a task that became a quick tutorial in why Division I-A coaches redshirt virtually all of their freshman offensive linemen. The older players were stronger, craftier and, in some cases, bigger than Wormley. "It's like trying to move an ox that doesn't want to move," he said. "There were times when I was saying, 'I could really use a Mack truck about now.' "
"Worm's a year away," Heffner said after practice. "But most freshman are, or should be."
It's all part of a process. Wormley and Smith used to check in with their families every night; now they don't even notice when days go by without contact. They're becoming independent without even realizing it. And while the football information is piling up, it's also becoming clearer.
"I'm sharper than when I first got here," Wormley said. "It's not grasping new concepts, it's learning a new language."
Has it been fun?
"No," Wormley said. "Playing football is not fun. The film meetings are not fun. Practice is not fun. Hanging out with the guys is fun. The environment is fun."
Then a young woman, wearing the shortest of shorts, walked by.
"And when more of them show up, it'll really get fun."