As the smell of tailgating fills the air and fans adorn their favorite NFL players' jerseys while waiting for the action to start, most players should just be arriving at the stadium.
As to be expected, preparing for an NFL football game is a personal matter for which everyone has their own routines or traditions. In this article, I take an inside look at what goes on in the hours leading up to game time.
If kickoff is scheduled for 1:15 p.m., then typically the latest players are allowed to arrive at the stadium is around 11 a.m. That gives players roughly two hours before the start of the game, which may not seem like a long time now, but for the players, it tends to feel like an eternity.
Finding Your Sanctuary
One of the first things a player does upon walking into the locker room may be obvious: He finds his locker and pulls up a seat. Typically, all of the basic necessities are laid out in a neat arrangement or hanging up before you. The feeling you get when seeing that fresh clean jersey hanging on the locker is hard to articulate.
It must be what Batman would feel, if he were real, just before he puts on his Batsuit. Seeing your last name printed on the back of that customized NFL jersey serves as confirmation that this is reality. For those guys like myself who often find themselves on the bottom of the 53-man roster, seeing your jersey hanging there is often the first indication of being active for the game.
Early on in the preparation process, most guys try to relax and settle in, rather than jump right into their long list of things to do. A tool often utilized for enhancing their calm is reading the game-day program, which is something every player finds greeting him neatly placed on his locker room stool, one of the many wonderful and luxurious perks of being an NFL football player.
At some point during that two-hour window, there is one specific pregame ritual every single player will partake in. Before taking the field that day, rookies and veterans alike will all take part in this most necessary tradition, paying a visit to the bathroom for a nice, long meditation session (often with the game-day program), which effectively serves to lighten their playing weight.
Many guys find either value or comfort in showering before they suit up for the game. I suppose to some, it’s a good idea to feel nice and clean before getting sweaty and dirty. Actually, I can see the advantage as a nice way to wake up the body and get invigorated with energy.
Preparation and Healing
The hub of interaction and preparation for any locker room tends to be the training room area. This is where guys get their last-minute pregame treatments, from stem therapy to massages and everything in between.
In here, guys fight for the right to their favorite and most trusted training staff member looking to give them their very own customized tape job, taking into account that player’s medical history and personal preference on how he likes to be taped. In addition, most organizations even offer up a trained team of acupuncturists.
Heading into one of the last games of my rookie season against the Denver Broncos, I was dealing with a badly pulled hamstring. In the locker room before the game, I was advised to try acupuncture.
This was something I had never tried before and frankly never understood, but reluctantly I agreed. The pain was instantly gone, and I was able to run full speed without any issue. Miraculously, the acupuncture treatment turned out to be the most effective treatment I ever received throughout my football career.
At some point during the pregame process, usually after you get your ankles taped and manage to put your game pants and shoes on, it’s advisable for each player to find his way out onto the field to survey the terrain and familiarize himself with the stadium and playing surface.
This time also serves as a great way for guys to release some of that nervous energy by getting a light pregame workout in. This may include things such as jogging around the track or making gentle cuts on the turf in order to test traction and make sure the cleats are equipped with the proper size spikes for the surface and weather conditions.
The stretching and loosening-up process tends to be an ongoing activity scattered on the floor throughout the entire area. Players are often assisted in this event by the strength and conditioning coaches, which usually consist of two guys.
The limited availability for access to the strength coaches means that players of lesser value are subtly encouraged to stretch at their own leisure rather than make a well-known veteran wait longer for his turn to get stretched.
One pretty cool element worth mentioning is the limitless selection of equipment accessories and chewing gum laid out in neat piles on a table in the center of the locker room. This table is loaded with goodies. This is where you pick various styles of arm sleeves, wristbands, game socks, gloves and a wide assortment of flavored chewing gum.
Looking back on it now, I should have taken more advantage of the table full of free goodies.
For the most part, the energy of the entire room is focused and relatively quiet. Most of the guys are lost in their own worlds, trying to visualize themselves making a big play. Some could be found lying on the ground in a meditative state, often with a towel over their eyes, while other guys like Warren Sapp could be heard from across the room, sitting around laughing and chatting it up with anyone willing to listen. Sapp was clearly not the type who was nervous before games.
Every team seems to have a music man, a guy who is in charge of providing the music for the entire locker room. I was never quite sure how this process happened or how one assumed a valuable role such as this, but nonetheless, his personal iPod becomes the playlist for all, setting a very important mood for the team. Headphones are a common sight for those interested in their own select brand of music.
One of the all-time favorite locker room prep songs that seemed to pump guys up the most was “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. Who would have thought Phil Collins would be pumping up NFL locker rooms around the nation? But there is something special about the build-up of the song, which climaxes into an infectious explosion of emotion when the drums kick in.
I believe a tradition that carries itself out in every NFL locker room before a game is the team prayer just before heading out onto the field. Typically, the head coach brings everybody in around him as the entire team, including the head coach, takes a knee, holds hands and bows their heads. Then right on cue, the entire team recites "The Lord’s Prayer."
Whether you are religious or not, the process of the entire team holding hands and saying a prayer is a very effective tool for unifying a group of people. Most guys are pumped and ready for action following the prayer, which is why it’s the last thing before exiting the locker room.
Pregame Rituals from Around the League
John Henderson felt the need to be slapped in the face hard by a member of the Jacksonville training staff. This supposedly woke him up and got the pregame butterflies out of his stomach.
Brain Urlacher eats exactly two chocolate chip cookies before every game. This superstition is one of the odder rituals around the league. Apparently, prior to each competition, he has to eat exactly two cookies. Eating one or three is absolutely not going to cut it for this Cookie Monster of the Midway.
Another curious oddity involving food and exact numbers comes from Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams. Apparently, he has a superstition involving the need to group his foods in threes. When eating his pregame meal he will only eat three sets of anything, whether that is cantaloupe, pineapple or anything else.
One of the more effeminate pregame routines might come out of Green Bay, with Jermichael Finley and his desire to get a pedicure hours before a Monday Night Football game.
Finally, this one comes from a former Raiders teammate and is less superstition and more a ritual born of vanity.
Special teams ace and backup safety Jared Cooper had a pretty interesting preparation ritual: He would grease his arms up in Vaseline so that his muscles were shiny and glistening under the stadium lights. To add to the effect, Cooper would also put rubber bands around the upper parts of both his biceps; apparently this made them look bigger.
Perhaps the saying is true: “When you look good, you play good.”