As the trend in the NFL continues to move toward high-tempo offenses, the fatigue factor for defenses in particular become much more palpable. With this theme in mind, it seems like a time to give you all a little taste of what it’s really like to be dog-tired during an NFL game.
Professional athletes train rigorously the entire offseason in preparation for game days. The expectation is to be in the best shape possible. But no matter how much they try and simulate the arduousness of a game, you simply cannot do it in a practice setting. As a result, the proverbial “hanging tongue” is always going to be a part of the game-day experience.
Football is an incredibly fun sport to play. The competition in this sport seems to tap every possible aspect of a person’s makeup. There is no better time as a football player than to let loose and go get it on game days. However, trying to play when you’re hurt, bruised and extraordinarily tired is definitely one way to zap the enjoyment right out of life itself, let alone the football game.
In order to comprehend what it’s like to be dead tired in an NFL game, you must first understand what being in an NFL game feels like. Please allow me to take you through a scenario to illustrate the entire process.
You have now been teleported into the body of a professional football player who is in the middle of a grueling battle.
As you squirt the back of your neck with cold water, you literally see the steam rising off the burning flesh under the shoulder pads.
The defensive coordinator is in your face telling you to keep "outside contain" if and when the quarterback breaks the pocket. “We can’t let this guy get outside of us. It’s 3rd-and-long!” he exclaims.
While the coach emphasizes his final demands, you’re already raising your helmet over your head and turning to join your defensive teammates in the middle of the field.
After relaying the coach’s message to the defensive end on the opposite side, you squeeze the rest of your head into the tight confines of an NFL helmet—this specific detail instantly alerts you to a special moment. Luckily the sweat from the day’s action has lubricated this often uncomfortable process of putting on your helmet. Firm ear pads pressed against the cheek reveal a clicking noise in your jaw from the hit you delivered just a few plays ago.
“Not important,” you assure yourself.
Through the foreground of the facemask, you see clumps of dirt and grass wedged between the spaces in your cage. Reaching up and removing the obstruction allows for an inspiring visual of your surroundings—one often overlooked while in these moments.
You soak up the awe-inspiring crowds as you turn slowly in a full circle, appreciating the panoramic view from center field.
The referee is signaling the two-minute warning which gives the guys a moment catch their breath and gear up for the final minute of a hard-fought game.
Looking down at your gloved hands you can feel the tendons between each finger overly stretched and throbbing. Blood is slowly dripping through the thick cloth of your dirt-covered glove as you give it a quick wipe on your pants. Making a fist here tapers the mild pain in your hands.
Your teammates among you are a mixed bag of observation—some psyching themselves up with a pep talk while others pace back and forth with angst. A few athletic trainers with water bottles are making their rounds from player to player before being asked to retreat back to the sidelines and out of harm’s way.
Looking across the ball at the opposing team you can see the wear and tear of the game on uniforms and in their body language. One lineman subtly flexes his elbow joint to check for proper function, a receiver gives one last stretch to that achy hamstring he’s been hiding all game, while the running back is testing his ankle by jumping up and down on it.
Suddenly, the referee comes to the spot of the ball and blows the whistle. You know the score is close but you forgot just how close, so you quickly glance up at the scoreboard—it reads 24-20 with just under two minutes to play. Your team is in the lead and needs one last defensive stand for the victory.
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“I can suck this up. I got this,” you tell yourself over and over in hopes to find the energy deep within.
The offense tightens their huddle as the opposing quarterback delivers the play in secret. You watch closely at the body language of each player, hoping to get a subtle signal of what’s to come. The receivers peel away from the huddle first and spread out wide.
Several 300-pound giants dressed in armor from head to toe jog toward you.
“I got this,” you say to yourself one last time.
Everyone on the offensive line drops into a three-point stance nearly simultaneously. You respond by doing the same.
Tilting your glance upward is slightly challenging at this stage. The helmet now feels like a 50-pound weight on your neck. Your eyes quickly catch the lineman in front of you as you both stare deep into each other’s motives. These few seconds play out like a poker game.
You can clearly see the fatigue in his eyes as you work to conceal your own in vain. You look up a bit higher and see the quarterback in a shotgun formation, no tight end to your side. The lone running back in the backfield is shaded on your side of the quarterback. This alerts you to a possible “chip block” by the back.
Your eyes move inside now at the center’s arm resting on the football. Beads of sweat are rolling down his arm in massive waves.
Wait a minute! What’s the play again?
You double-check your responsibility and remember that with this particular play the formation could force a line stunt with the 3-technique. You check the formation and confirm that the stunt should be run to avoid that chip block by the back. But just before you signal the call inside to the tackle you remember what the coordinator said on the sidelines; “Stay outside. Blah, blah, blah!”—or something to that effect.
“So wait, does that mean we call off the stunt?...There’s no time to be confused damn it! I just gotta listen to the coach and stay outside here.”
With your assignment now definitive, you prepare for the snap of the ball. The muscles throughout your entire body begin to tense up in preparation for the snap.
The QB gives the cadence as the energy and tension builds.
When ball is snapped you time it perfectly. With a single swipe of your outside arm you grab right underneath the shoulder pad of the offensive tackle. As he tries to punch your chest you use your free arm to slap his hand down while using the grip of his shoulder to propel around the corner on a clear path to the quarterback.
While quickly closing ground on the quarterback’s blindside, he looks over his shoulder and sees you coming. He takes off to the opposite sideline as you realize the defensive end isn’t in position to funnel the QB back in. The pursuit is on as the speedy quarterback continues to keep his eyes downfield, hoping to buy some time before you reach him.
Nearing the sideline, he can’t seem to find an open receiver as the gap between you and he decreases fast.
“I got him!”
But just as you lean in to deliver the blow, the fluid athlete that he is spins around you and retreats even deeper behind the line of scrimmage.
With the momentum of the sprint and the forward lean combined, you end up face-planting before sliding on your stomach a few yards. Once back on your feet, you make out the quarterback still has the ball in his hands and is now running toward the sideline you just vacated.
With every ounce of your energy you sprint at a 45-degree angle trying to cut off the scrambling quarterback’s path before he’s able to turn the corner for a first down. Meanwhile, the tackle you just made look foolish is now lining you up for the "kill shot.”
Without warning, the tackle launches directly into your exposed chest, causing your mouth piece to go flying in the air. The hit also puts you on your back as it pilfers every drop of oxygen from your lungs. Even though you can’t return the air to your oxygen-starved body, you still pop back up and quickly scan the field to assess what the opposing crowd was cheering about.
The quarterback had apparently slid just past the marker for a critical first down.
Now you can hear the coaches on the sidelines yelling to get your attention, but you already know you screwed up. Keeping your focus on the field as you sprint up to the new line of scrimmage is all you can think to do.
The offense is now running the hurry-up no-huddle offense with the clock still ticking away. Just as you get up to the line, the offense is already getting into their stance and set for the next play.
Meanwhile, you’re still struggling to breathe quasi-normally after having the wind knocked out of you.
You quickly drop to a three-point stance and realize you need to know what the play is on defense. Luckily you can still hear the middle linebacker frantically calling it out over and over as you attempt to focus just long enough to remember your assignment on the play he’s calling.
Within a matter of nano-seconds you think back to that Thursday walk-through when the coach talked about this play specifically and how he was changing the assignment here based on what the opponent tries to do. You can’t remember what the change was, so you revert back to the last thing the coach was yelling at you about when his spit was splattering on your cheeks because his proximity.
“Don’t let this guy get outside of me!”
Slowly the air in your lungs returns just enough, though your thighs are now on fire from the buildup of lactic acid over the course of the game and compounded by a lack of oxygen to the extremities.
None of this matters to you, though. You have to make a play here. You have to redeem yourself. You know what’s at stake as you’re instantly reminded of the stressful week leading up to this game when the team held workouts for defensive ends specifically to replace you.
This moment is not just about winning the game—your entire life’s work in football now hangs in the balance with less than a minute left to play.
The ball is snapped. Fatigue has caused you to ignore every pre-snap read, but you somehow recover enough to react quickly to the ball.
You watch as the quarterback mishandles the snap and lets it slip past him. Your eyes widen with excitement. Suddenly all the noise from the stadium drowns out and the world goes mute.
The fumble deepens your approach angle, which throws the offensive tackle off. You race toward the football unmolested, though still trying to predict its wild bouncing. In your peripherals you can see teammates racing for the ball alongside you.
The first guy to the ball dives for it but his massive body weight forces the ball to slip out from under him and back even further. The quarterback tries one last time to pick it up but can’t get a grip on it. He falls to the ground without the ball as several guys pile on top of him. Through the dog pile you happen to catch a glimpse of the ball still on the ground and quickly scoop it up.
With the ball tucked away between your body and forearm, you take off full speed toward the end zone. You can see yourself running as you glance up at the Jumbotron in front of you, which also reveals there are two guys on your tail.
You try shifting into that next gear, but it’s no longer there. Regardless, you keep on pushing. As you cross midfield it hits you that all you need to do is fall down and the game is over. With the biggest sigh of relief you put both hands on the ball and fall to the turf while curling into the fetal position.
As you lay there basking in the glory of a victory and a much-needed opportunity to rest, you can hear multiple whistles being blown...this is usually the sign of a penalty. In severe pain and intensely nauseous, you rise to the terrible sound of the referee saying that the play was blown dead due to a false start.
Your eyes close and your body language slumps in obvious defeat. Fainting in the middle of the football field seems like a reasonable alternative to playing another snap of this game. However, you find just enough self-preservation to wobble all the way back to the huddle.
If you were tired before this play, you are now enervated beyond rational thinking. As the refs sort out the spot of the ball and mark off the penalty, you use that brief moment to find some degree of coherency.
Most of your thought process is consumed by a battle from within. There’s a dominating part of you that wants to be subbed out of this game. But you also know that would be signing your death sentence with this organization.
The battle must rage on.
In times like these you resort to the teachings of your strength-and-conditioning coach, who told you never to put your hands on your knees because it constricts lung capacity. Instead, put your hands on your head and stick out your chest.
This technique doesn’t seem to be cutting it, as you forgo all concern of hiding the fatigue in your body language.
You’re also just now beginning to feel the pain in your chest and shoulder area from the hit you took a play ago. However, none of the aches and pains on your body even begin to compare to the cardiovascular agony you’re faced with at the moment.
Without warning, the offense approaches the line once again as you nearly collapse into the three-point stance. While down here you legitimately wonder if you’ll be able to get up when the ball is snapped. You feel more like a noodle than a football player.
"Is the quarterback in shotgun or under the center?" You don’t even lift your head high enough to check.
“I gotta make a play!” you say to yourself internally, but externally it comes out in the form of an inaudible grunting noise.
You don’t know how much time is left, or what down it is. You just want to get off the field as quickly as possible. At this point, that’s your only motivation for wanting to make a play.
The ball is snapped and you manage to pop straight up. You want to run after the quarterback or put a move on the lineman, but all that you can do is grab him and lean, hoping to drive him back into the pocket. You realized that futility in this strategy as the quarterback is still hanging in the pocket.
You see the QB setting up to throw, so you take a step back and jump up just as the ball is released from his hands.
Without looking you throw your hands upward hoping for a miracle. Within an instant you can feel the ball ricochet off your bloody glove and into the air. Now both you and the ball are airborne. The linemen in front of you give you a push which sends you flying backward and onto your back for another painful landing.
While on the ground you can hear the crowd moan in disappointment. You don’t even look up to see what happened because you can already see by the reaction of teammates around you that the ball was intercepted and the game is finally over.
Knowing the ordeal is now finally behind you, your body completely gives up as you remain sprawled out on the ground throughout the entire celebration of the big play you somehow created.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.