Monday, August 22, 2011

Toiling in Obscurity

As Duck fans contemplate the loss of two scholarship players over the last two days, there is a great reminder of a different equalizer in college athletics. Injury.

Often as fans file into a stadium, the glamor, passion and glory that is the incredible sport of college football masks an underside rarely seen by many fans. With the promise and excitement of a new season on the horizon, eager to understand how all of the pieces will fit together, reporters and fans alike gather at practices to catch a glimpse. As they focus a great deal of attention on the starters, there are those that toil in obscurity.

If you think about the numbers on a college football team, there is a numbers crunch very few consider. Each year, college football teams are permitted to sign up to 25 new players. Each season, the roster can contain only 85 total scholarship players. Lost in the excitement of the starters and major contributors on a football team, are these very numbers. In a four year period, a university may have given out 100 scholarships, yet they can only have 85 on the roster. This means that there is a built in 15 man “bubble” for attrition.

On Saturday, I drove down to Eugene to catch a Duck practice. I typically only do this one time each season as it gives me an excuse to gather outside with friends, enjoy the Oregon sunshine and begin looking forward to the first game of the season.

This time, though, as the rest of the team was working hard in different drills, I took a look to my left and noticed a single player. He was working with an assistant strength coach, running, but with an obvious hitch in his step.

Those are the moments, the players, that truly define college football. All alone, in full pads, on a hot summer day, working his way back from a lower body injury. And, with the built in attrition of 15 players in a four year cycle, there are more of them than get written about. Sure, fans hear about the kids who have to give up football like Brandon Williams, or even Mark Belisle years before him, but frequently do not hear about these players toiling under the hot sun in obscurity.

Even last season, a very high profile quarterback finished the season injured and unable to play. Nate Costa's journey at Oregon has been well chronicled. There are others, however, who are the backbone of all college football teams. Some came in heralded and left with little fanfare; some came in with no hype and simply plugged in their spot and never quit.

A perfect example of the consummate team player for the 2010 season is defensive back Chad Peppars. Chad arrived in 2006. He was rated as a 2* player by both Rivals and Scout. While I am not going to break that down, this essentially means that he is projected to be nothing more than a role player. The Duck football team has had plenty of recent success turning unheralded defensive backs in to NFL draft picks. Players like Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung and T.J. Ward have all come to Oregon with little to no fanfare, only to move on to incredibly successful college careers followed by NFL success.

Chad Peppars, though, was at Oregon for 5 years including his red-shirt year and saw game action in three of those years. During his time at Oregon, Chad played in 25 total games and made 16 total tackles. He was the quintessential “team player.” He worked just as hard in every practice, in every weight lifting session, in every film session, every positional meeting and every class as every other player. He left, though, blended in to a great team; a background player that every team is built upon.

For a time, I worked as an Assistant Strength Coach at the University of South Dakota. It was a rewarding experience and one I will treasure not only for the work itself, but for the young men and women with whom I worked. Oftentimes, it is the players not as talented who seem to work harder. Of course, this is not a rule, there are quite a few talented athletes who work harder than anyone else which explains their success.

In particular, there was a women's soccer team member that was a non-scholarship athlete. She was a freshman and really wanted to become a better athlete. I swear she asked a hundred questions every weight lifting session trying to understand the concepts. She had never really lifted weights before, but she had a natural strength untapped at the time. She worked extremely hard in the weight room. She never became a great soccer player, though. And she was the example of the hard-working backbone every team needs. As a coach, I could tell the star “look over at Shannon, see how hard she's working? I need you to put in her effort. If you do, there will be no stopping you.” Sometimes the tactic works, sometimes it doesn't work. Nonetheless, every athletic team needs that extra person; the person that works hard no matter what; the person that works hard not for glory on game day, but for the satisfaction of effort.

And, as I looked over Saturday, I reflected back on these athletes I mention. Athletes who worked hard regardless of where they were on a rotation or depth chart. They worked hard because they have dignity. There I sat, watching current red-shirt freshman Tony Washington struggling through running drills with an assistant strength coach. Though he was not with his team doing drills, he was still helping his team. Teams are built around men of character and integrity. The best teams are not always the biggest, strongest, fastest or most talented. Sometimes, a team is great because the whole of the team is greater than the sum of it's parts. Tony Washington exemplifies this attitude. While he may not have been crashing helmets with his team mates, he certainly won the day.

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