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I once interviewed a boxing manager who said that nervousness is the adult version of crying. If that's the case, then right now I'm bawling my eyes out. Think Dick Vermeil watching "Beaches."
In a matter of minutes, I'll be hurling myself against real professional football players -- guys who are bigger, faster and stronger than I am. They are milling around now in that time honored tradition of looking tough and sizing each other up before a first practice. Sidelong glances are exchanged, T-shirts are read. Mental notes are made. There are plenty of the usual shaven head and goatee, toughest-guy-at-the-bar-looking guys, plus one wide receiver that brought a posse -- two girls with video cameras to film his exploits. This guy immediately scores points in my book -- I hope he makes the team on that alone, but the fact of the matter is that whatever the gimmick is, at this point it's all just a coping mechanism because everybody is on edge.
The plan for today is to go in with helmets and shoulder pads, which as everyone who has played any organized football (especially on a first practice day) knows means full speed, full contact. At this point, there are still nearly 30 players present who won't be here when final cuts are made in a couple of weeks -- which means that everyone is trying to make a name by tattooing someone else.
Twenty minutes before practice, I am worried for a number of reasons: Namely, the intern (I never get a name, only, "The Intern") who is supposed to bring my gear hasn't shown up yet. I pass the time talking to Brian Dolph, one of the two Battle Creek Crunch players already signed to an actual contract. Dolph, I learned, played at Saginaw Valley State and played a couple of years in the AFL with the Indiana Firebirds. Dolph is a tall kid (think, Joe Jurevicius) with good hands. He's a friendly face who, interestingly, is one of the few players willing to make meaningful small talk, probably since he is also one of the few who doesn't have to prove himself today.
Fast forward 30 minutes. Dolph is loping downfield under spirals and I am about to square off with a 275-pound fullback/linebacker from Grand Rapids Community College named Antwuan Allen. I immediately regret my position choice and think about how intelligent George Plimpton was for choosing quarterback -- leave it to a Harvard guy to know what he's doing. That said, I still am jacked on adrenaline -- i.e., the physiological response that allows young people to do things they shouldn't do.
We're working on a flow drill, which means that there are two linebackers taking pursuit angles against one running back -- in this case, the author. I already have fumbled once, so my biggest priority is securing the football and turning upfield. There will be no moves made, as these advanced maneuvers are better left to professionals. After taking the pitch out and charging up field, I "Fade to Black," as Metallica so eloquently wrote.
As quickly as I am crushed under the weight of Allen and Dewayne Thompson (veteran of the collegiate and semipro ranks, as well as a couple of CFL tryouts), I am up and walking along the boards, attempting to get my bearings. It's important to try not to show how hurt you actually are: Everyone is looking, and most of them don't know I'm a writer moonlighting as a football player.
A note on collisions: Whatever NFL players are making, they deserve it. This stuff hurts. If you get a chance, stand on the field for a college or pro practice to get a feel for the noise generated by these hits. It's disarming. We're training at a suburban indoor soccer facility and drawing a lot of confused looks from platinum blonde soccer moms and floppy-haired kids in Umbros. We're seen as the hordes who have descended to plunder their city.
After several more collisions in the linebacker drills, I am fortunate to make the acquaintance of Crunch kicker Chuck Selinger, the other of the contracted players. Like all good kickers, Selinger already has figured out the angles: He knows how low his trajectory will have to be to clear the scoreboard at Kellogg Arena, how many points he'll get for drop kicking a field goal (it's legal in this league and you get 4 points) and gives me the relative merits of Field Turf vs. the old AstroTurf that we'll be playing on when games start. Selinger (a four-year starter at Central Michigan University) is a pharmaceutical sales rep by day. He explains the nuances of the kicking game much like I would imagine he explains the advantages of the latest cure for hypertension or a swollen prostate. I appreciate his normalcy -- he's one of the few players here who looks like he wasn't weaned on a steady diet of Creatine and death metal. After I fire a few long snaps in his direction, the three-hour practice ends.
Post-practice, my body is a bas-relief road map of pain. I am purple from shoulder to elbow and my arms sport an interesting array of little polka-dot welts (from the mesh practice jersey) and Field Turf abrasions. There is a nice, purplish bruise around the outer portion of my right eye (thank you, Antwuan Allen) and if my wife harbored any excitement about sleeping with a professional athlete, then it is for naught. My plan is to not be touched by anyone for any reason, for several days. Sexy.
Later that night, while having dinner with some friends, a college girl sums it up best. She's the kind of girl who probably plays volleyball and dates 6-foot-8 power forwards named Sven. She is interested in the project and wants to know where the team will be playing and what position I play.
"Running back and linebacker," I tell her.
"Really?" she says, incredulous. "You're so tiny."
Ted Kluck is a frequent contributor to Page 2 who will be playing a full season as a member of the Battle Creek Crunch (www.battlecreekcrunch.com) in the Great Lakes Indoor Football League (www.glifl.com). He will chronicle the experience in a series of columns and a forthcoming book. His first book, "Facing Tyson," will be released in the fall by the Lyons Press. Sound off to Page 2 here.