It all starts with the official football of the National Football League. The hand-crafted leather ball made in Ada, Ohio, just came back in production and is called the “Duke” after Wellington “Duke” Mara, former owner of the New York Giants. This exclusive pattern is made just for the NFL. It is constructed of hand-picked Wilson leather and has double laces for added texture and control. All Duke footballs are inspected by hand and must pass inspection in order to meet the NFL specifications. The shape is elongated and when dropped, the direction of the bounce is unpredictable.
The men that coach at the professional level of the NFL come well qualified, with most having background as a player or college coach. They have all worked their way up the coaching ranks. They are instructors and tutors of the game, applying discipline on the field with a lot of yelling and screaming with motivation and encouragement. In the classroom, coaches are strict teachers, as those in an all-boys private boarding school. They oversee the development of a team, a group that learns how to function as a unit, working together using verbal communication, anticipation and timing.
My favorite time of the year other than game day is training camp. That is where players are driven to the brink of exhaustion in two-a-day practice sessions. The temperature along with the overall heat, compounded with high humidity that sends the heat index into triple digits makes your skin feel as if it is being peeled away from your bones. Your body sweats profusely trying to cool itself. I can’t wait for all of that.
All players regardless of position, from quarterback to kickers, wear 30 pounds of equipment. The laughter during stretching starts the bonding and togetherness that lasts the season. Once the drill work starts the competitive nature kicks in. The banging of pads and the thud of 300-pound bodies being slammed on the ground from the collisions with blocking and tackling can be heard throughout the field. Watching receivers making catches and big plays down the field and across the middle gets cheers from the thousands of spectators in attendance. Despite the body fighting to push through the comfort zone, a 10-minute break with popsicles, water and all flavors of Gatorade being served is welcomed by all, and it helps them with on-field fatigue.
With teamwork being the goal, multiple fights break out when combat escalates. Rookies must earn their way by doing chores for all veterans, like carrying helmets and shoulder pads off the practice field to the locker room after each practice. Others are tied to the goal post from head to toe with athletic tape while elderly statesmen pour buckets of water over their head, leaving them there until the assistant trainer or equipment man comes back later to cut them free.
While the game of football is extremely physical, a large part is mental as well. It is always interesting to watch the players perform while evaluating performance and looking for mental busts in assignments. There is a heavy workload in the classroom with playbook memorization, in some cases 10-20 page assignments nightly, and it is easy to see those that lack the proper study skills.
On a daily basis it is very exciting to watch the fan interaction. Men, women and kids wearing the colors in the way of hats and jerseys. The young kids waiting for the players to come off the field with excitement, screams, chants and cheers for autographs and photo sessions. Next to the game itself, honestly this is the best part.