As an NFL player, once the season starts, almost every part of your life is tightly scripted. As a seven-year veteran (defensive end with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets from 1996-02), I know this firsthand.
Game day is no different. The experience varies between players and teams, but some things remain constant.
When I played for the Buccaneers and the Jets, the players had to stay in a hotel the night before the game, whether we were at home or away. Sometimes you also had to have a roommate, especially the younger guys.
The roommate thing matters in any discussion about game day because some guys snore, others stay up all night on the phone, and still some have poor hygiene. Any of those situations, or many others not listed, could contribute to you not having a good night's sleep—something that is usually vital to performing well the next day.
Most teams schedule a time to break bread together the next morning. The team meal is vitally important because aside from water and Gatorade, that will likely be the last thing you take into your body until after the game. If your body doesn't have the proper amount of fuel to run on, you may end up getting embarrassed during the game.
Next comes the arrival at the stadium. We normally had to be there several hours before the game. When we were at away games, one of my greatest enduring fears was missing the bus to get to the game and having to get there on my own before it started. That's why I always wanted to be on the early bus so there wouldn't be any problems.
Don't laugh, because it's actually happened several times before, and it can affect whether you have a job the next week.
After arrival, everyone has their own routine. For me, I always wanted to make sure all of my equipment was in the locker and ready to go.
Here's another thing about pregame that a lot of people don't know about game day: When you're a backup, many times you don't know if you're going to be active until you actually get to the stadium.
Guys may be hurt at another position, which changes the coaches' plans about who needs to dress and who doesn't. There's also the possibility that another guy at your position just did better in practice than you that week.
Either way, the major clue is whether your equipment has been laid out in a locker or not. That was another reason to get there early—to avoid most of your teammates seeing your disappointment if you weren't playing that day.
Having determined that you were in fact active for that week, most guys would then start getting their ankles taped. How they got them taped always varied, but I never saw many guys who didn't get them taped at all.
For my personal routine, I would put on some workout clothes and go out to the field early to stretch and warm up. It's always kind of hard to get a good stretch in full pads anyway, and I was never a big fan of exerting too much energy in pregame. Going out early allowed me to do both and still have plenty of time to recover before the opening kickoff.
Some guys like to work out early together in groups, but I was always a loner by nature. I would put on my headphones and go to "our" end zone and start visualizing what I was going to do that game as I started to get loose.
This is also generally a good time to go and greet friends of yours playing on the other team. You want to get all of the pleasantries out of the way before you try to beat each other to a pulp.
If you were injured and needed an injection of any kind, the time to do it was after your warmup. These injections always sucked, but if you wanted them to last for the whole game, you couldn't get them too early.
After that, it's usually time to get dressed for the game. One thing about game day is hardly anyone wants to have a lot of loose clothing for their opponent to grab. This goes for almost every position, both on offense and defense.
To that point, many of us would have very tight game jerseys that were really hard to put over our shoulder pads before we tried to put the shoulder pads on our bodies. That's why, for some of us, actually getting dressed would make for some of the funniest moments of the day.
You never wanted to be that guy who was too prideful to ask for help, either. You might get stuck with the shoulder pads only half on and have to fight for air so that you don't pass out in front of everybody. I have personally seen plenty of guys' complexions change color just trying to get their shoulder pads on without embarrassing themselves.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that after the game starts, there aren't many opportunities to go to the bathroom. Even if there were a Porta-Potty on the field, you have to remember that it's hard to get all that equipment off and back on if you have to do anything more than pee. Therefore, it's always a good idea to make sure you have taken care of that business before you start getting dressed.
Once everyone is dressed, most teams send players out by position groups on a staggered time schedule. Generally, the offensive lines and defensive lines go out last after the skill positions have had time to do pat and go.
Now that the whole team is on the field, it's usually time for everyone to stretch. After stretching, the position groups break off and do individual drills. Once those drills are done, we would have the offensive linemen and defensive linemen compete against each other in a quick pass-rush drill just to get our timing right for the game and to get the feeling of that first hit out of the way.
When the individual drills were finished, we would have the full offense go against the full defense for a few plays with the starters going first and any backups eventually rotating in. Afterward, players would come together for a huddle breakdown and then jog back into the locker room.
After a few minutes back in the locker room, the chatter starts to die down. Guys start zoning in and tend to retreat to their own space to get their minds right for what's to come. There is still generally quite a bit of time before they need to go out to the field, and the anticipation can be very draining.
I always tried to stay calm, keep my emotions in check and let the tension build up slowly as the kickoff approached. Some guys would be almost bouncing off the walls going nuts before the game, however.
In the last 30 minutes before showtime, the head coach comes in and gives everyone final instructions. Sometimes it's calm, sometimes it's boisterous, but it's always meant to get everyone mentally prepared to go out and give everything they have.
There is also usually a time for those who want to go pray together before the game.
A few minutes later, the signal will finally come that it's time for everyone to walk out to the field. All the preparation and talking is over—now it's time to hit your opponents in the mouth and make the plays that will help your team win the game.
After the game, win or lose, there is usually another team prayer and sometimes members of both teams join in together on the field. Then it's time for the postgame talk from your head coach about what went right, what went wrong and the schedule for the upcoming week.
I have found that the best coaches give postgame speeches that subtly give guidelines to the players on what they should say when they speak with the media. Tony Dungy was great at that, in fact.
Whether you are up or down after the game, doing interviews is a part of the job. It's not always easy to speak on something that just happened, but you have to be a professional and give the best answers that you can.
Finally, after the media is gone, it's time to get ready to go home. Get undressed, take a shower, pack all your stuff up and then you're gone.
Hopefully, you have family and friends there to greet you after the game to either help you celebrate or help console you.
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