Tapping the snooze button on the alarm clock is an unthinkable option. Dawn slowly emerges to greet you, and an NFL practice awaits.
This is a day of practice. A day to prepare both mentally and physically for the monumental challenge of out-dueling both freakishly athletic specimens and crafty vets, all experts to a degree which most will never comprehend.
Winning an NFL football game is the outcome brought about by the culmination of not just a week of hard work, but rather an entire year of blood, sweat and tears—absolute dedication to the cause.
The only way to achieve success when facing the best in the business is to outwork and out-prepare the competition. You have to want it more than they do. Understanding this defines the environment of the NFL. Complacency quickly breeds failure.
In professional football, every team must find a sweet spot in the delicate balance of practicing to improve or maintain certain football skills, developing proper stamina, familiarizing the team with the opponent’s personnel and scheme, and correcting/preventing mistakes from the previous week.
Barring special-teams sessions, my role on the squad during practice was exclusively served with a scout-team mentality. This meant I was asked to replicate certain opponents in order to give our starters a good idea of what to expect.
In a practice leading up to a game against the Indianapolis Colts, I was asked by former New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini to mimic the pass-rushing style of Dwight Freeney.
Freeney’s distinct style as an undersized pass-rusher was fun to duplicate. In many ways, it had elements to it I also utilized. The goal was to get rookie first-round pick and starting left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson ready to go toe to toe with one of the most feared pass-rushers in the game at the time for a full 60 minutes.
Ferguson is a massively long specimen, standing 6’6” and weighing just over 300 pounds. His arms are disproportionately long, and his feet are freakishly quick. When standing face to face with the “Brick,” it’s blatantly obvious why he was the fourth overall selection in the NFL draft and is currently one of the best tackles in the game.
One of the things I enjoyed most about that particular day was being able to go back to my beloved defensive-end position, a position where prior success and unique expertise allowed for rare, momentary NFL confidence. I was asked to give Ferguson the most difficult time I possibly could for the entire day, which I viewed as a promising audition and opportunity to demonstrate my capabilities as a pass-rusher.
This type of competition level is very rare in a practice setting. It was only made possible because of a few key elements that all lined up perfectly.
The first was coach Mangini, who demanded a level of competition and intensity out of practice that was so high, it put anything I’d ever experienced to shame. The second factor was that D’Brickashaw was a rookie and still wet behind the ears. He hadn’t racked up enough years to pull rank and implement the standard “WrestleMania show,” utilized purely to simulate high effort. The final elements were my desire and need to prove I belonged not only on the team but also out on the field.
So with these components in place, Ferguson and I went to war at full speed for the better part of the week. I had the added difficulty of needing to replicate another player’s skill set and tendencies while still trying to be effective.
This was by far the hardest I’d ever practiced in a non-scrimmage environment, and it went on and on for hours.
I loved that I was able to win some battles against such a great athlete and talented football player. He and I were forcing each other to escalate our levels of play and intensity. Our focus was sharpened, and our energy and physical abilities were completely tapped.
By the end of practice, I felt as though an entire football game had been completed. I was unquestionably fatigued.
It was safe to say D’Brickashaw and I developed a mutual respect for each other as we both thoroughly assessed our skill levels that day.
Once you’ve completely emptied yourself on the football field in a full-on dogfight to prove you should have never been released by your former team, you then get to sit in a dark meeting room and spend hours upon hours stretching yourself to the absolute limit mentally.
As a new guy on the team trying to catch up on an unfamiliar scheme with an entirely different language that took the other guys an entire offseason and training camp to perfect, it’s safe to say this qualified as information overload.
A major struggle is trying to conceptualize every detail to a level of familiarity so you can remove all hesitation when executing on the field. Most fail at this task, especially when given little-to-no opportunities for reps.
Sitting there watching practice film with the team, I was forced to multitask by learning our playbook and base calls while also trying to absorb game-specific installations. The difficulty of this task is exacerbated by the level of physical exhaustion you’re forced to overcome in order to get your brain to function.
Not to mention the lingering, and at times paralyzing, fear in the back of your mind that you may not know a particular detail of an assignment. During team meetings or pop-quiz/call-out sessions, Coach Mangini would pick on certain guys to answer questions about things we were emphasizing that week or rules for specific plays.
Mangini truly had a complete understanding of both the offensive and defensive game plans. He expected every one of his players to put in the same amount of mental preparation as the coaches did, while simultaneously performing his duty as a hard-working athlete.
When the meetings finally conclude and the sun has long since set on a day you started before its rise, you are then expected to go on a computer and operate software to create your own scouting cut-ups of your opponent and then present your findings in front of the entire defensive unit.
This was something you never wanted be unprepared for.
Despite the long day of mental and physical exhaustion, there you were in a dark room fighting to keep your eyes open and dreading the idea that this day was going to start all over again tomorrow. Yet you sit there with clicker in hand, watching game after game of the opponents’ offensive tackles so you could give your teammates valuable insight and tips for the meeting the following day.
When these are the typical days of an in-season practice, Sundays can quite literally seem like a day off.
As for D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s matchup against Dwight Freeney, he did a superb job against the All-Pro. For four quarters, he refused to give up a single sack.
Perhaps his true test that week came against the guy no one remembers—some mysterious, Freeney-like hybrid equipped with a huge bag of tricks, hidden at the bottom of a roster. At the very least, it was nice to believe that on some level, the hard work put into that week had made a difference.