tampabay.com

Can't beat the heat like the Hawks

By JOEY KNIGHT
Published August 25, 2006


SEFFNER - Meteorologically speaking, they said I got lucky. Real lucky.

August was three days old. On this afternoon, heat and humidity surely would intertwine to create purgatorial swelter on Armwood's practice field. The Hawks' first three workouts, I was told, had been so infernal, even the blocking dummies cramped up.

This day would be no different. Or so I presumed.

As nature's fickleness would have it, the best coverage scheme of the day was the one the succession of clouds put on the otherwise merciless sun.

"You caught a break today," receivers coach Todd Gicker said. "On a direct-sun day, the dust (particles) are kicking up, oh man."

So from a perspiration perspective, I lucked out.

Journalistically, I may have been the only guy in pads hoping for more heat.

Then again, I may have been the only guy in pads wearing a wedding ring.

* * *

My objective was to experience for myself - and you, perhaps - just how broiling it can get under 5 to 7 pounds of pads during the course of an afternoon football practice. Experiencing it vicariously - by getting players and coaches to characterize the heat - wouldn't suffice.

I had to feel it for myself. To that end, I shrouded my 170-pound, 37-year-old married body in the gear - red helmet, pads ,cleats, white pants, white mesh jersey - I had borrowed from a coaching acquaintance, and reported to Armwood's first full-pads workout of 2006.

I wanted to expose the county's most recognized land mine: summer humidity.

Fortunately, Hawks coach Sean Callahan thought it a cool idea, at least figuratively.

For the entire practice, which lasted just shy of three hours, I would aspire to never take a knee and keep my helmet on. To reassure the school and county officials rightfully concerned with liability issues, I made it clear I had no desire nor intention of engaging in any type of contact - not even with a dummy.

Fact is, aside from running alongside the team for two post-practice wind sprints and attempting the "bag drill" - stepping over and shuffling through a row of bags laid horizontally on the ground - after a group of Hawks had completed it, I was nothing more than a conspicuous observer drawing snippets of audible speculation.

Is that a new player? ...Where's he from? ...He's a reporter? I thought that was someone's dad.

On this day, practice began at roughly 4 p.m., an hour later than normal due to a team portrait being taken on Lyle Flagg Field.

During the shoot, I noticed some random flashes in the eastern Hillsborough sky - and they weren't coming from the photographer's camera.

Modest rumblings of thunder emanating from the west followed. For a few minutes, I feared practice would become a casualty of the area's erratic summer weather pattern.

But before I knew it, the gray had dissipated, the players were trotting to the practice field, and coaches were barking instructions at various "pre-practice" individual drill stations.

Meantime, the temperature at nearby Vandenberg Airport - according to the Weather Channel's Web site - registered at 91 degrees with a feel-like temperature of 100. My forearms already glistened with perspiration.

"Nobody goes both ways on our team," offensive coordinator Chris Taylor noted as pre-practice continued. "Can a player effectively play both ways in a game? I'd say yes. But not out here. We believe you can't go both ways and make it through one of our practices."

The schedule was as crisp as the piercing octaves of the coaches' whistles, with nearly every drill lasting precisely 10 minutes before another commenced. Pre-practice was followed by a session of one-on-one hitting drills - aptly named "thud" - and some agility work.

By this time, I was marinating.

A coach's watch indicated it was 4:45. Before 5, the slightly undersized helmet, now digging painfully into the upper tier of my forehead, had come off.

"Hot enough yet?" Hawks senior Thurston Reeves inquired.

"Nah, it's not that bad," I responded with all the nonchalance I could conjure.

"That's because you ain't movin', baby," he retorted.

The remainder of practice was spent alternately observing from the sideline and visiting the resident oasis: a white, battery-powered water cooler, resting on what resembled a hotel luggage cart with seven small black hoses dangling from an overhead steel bar.

It was never unoccupied.

* * *

Seven-on-seven drills segued into 11-on-11 work as the bottom of my feet began aching and the helmet continued its vise-like grip on my temples. By around 6, cloud cover mercifully returned to stay. I succeeded in never taking a knee, but quickly realized the collective effect of the heat and humidity as I struggled through the two wind sprints.

Upon removing my shoulder pads as I walked to the locker room, I discovered the entire upper part of my gray undershirt darkened by perspiration.

"It wasn't that bad today," Callahan said moments later. "Tuesday was the worst. By the time I walked from (the locker room) to the field, I was sweating."

Indeed, the clouds had somewhat skewered this informal experiment, but not so much that I didn't acquire a fresh appreciation for prep football's physical demands. I pride myself on running 10-15 miles on a good week, normally at dusk.

But during this afternoon, I was forced to accept the fact that on a typically searing August day, I wouldn't have lasted an hour as a participant at Armwood's practice.

That belief was reinforced the following morning, when I slept until 7 a.m. - an hour later than normal - and noticed soreness in my calves as I slipped out of bed. In about eight hours, I realized, the Hawks would be practicing again.

Maybe I was the lucky one after all.