Nothing Like Opening Day

Jarrod CooperCorrespondent ISeptember 9, 2010

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 5:  Safety Jarrod Cooper #40 of the Oakland Raiders prays before the start of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Network Associates Coliseum on December 5, 2004 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

                                                           OPENING DAY

          If you are worth anything in the game of football, you are playing in the NFL.  You have dominated all the way through high school, college, and now you just signed a lucrative contract with a NFL team.  There is only one thing on your mind right now, and that is Opening Day. I’d like to give you some kind of description to help you understand the feeling of opening day but I have bungee jumped, sky dived and landed a black marline on the open ocean and not one of these thrilling experiences comes close to the feeling of a NFL game day. 

Most people have no idea what a player goes through on game day, so I’d like to give you a behind the scenes sneak peak. A lot more goes on than just the finished product you see on Sundays. For a 1:00 pm kick off, all players and coaches have to be at the stadium 3 to 4 hours before game time.  Every player who is suiting up for the game has their own game day rituals or superstitions. I have played in over 130 NFL games and there is nothing players could do that would surprise me any more.  With that being said I feel comfortable letting everyone know about my game day ritual.  Four hours before every game I would grab my bic razor, go to the shower and shave from head to toe.  At first when the guys saw me doing this you can imagine the names I was being called.  But the whole idea of a ritual is “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.”  And trust me it wasn’t any where near the weirdest thing going on in that locker room. 

My first full body shaving experience was at Kansas State University, and even with all the concussions I have suffered through the years I remember it like it was yesterday.  Players often shave their ankles before wrapping them with tape for ankle protection, so when taking the tape off it doesn’t pull out all your hair.  On the day of my first NCAA college debut against the Cincinnati Bearcats, I went to the shower to shave my ankles and thing got a little out of control.  Next thing I knew I was completely shaved.  To make a long story short, I played well in my first college game and I credit it to the close shave before the game.  I continued this ritual until the day of my last NFL game. 

            Most guys on game day can be found with their IPods plugged into their ears with the volume full blast.  I have heard every single type of music on this earth, on game day. 

It’s not a time to goof around with your friends or to be surfing the internet.  Your mind slowly begins to switch into performance mode, always with the thought “this could be my last NFL game” in the back of your head.  Some guys sit in their lockers with play books in hand trying to get the last bit of information they can retain about the opponent.

Others are doing yoga like stretches to loosen up some new and some old injuries.  Many are hoping they can pull themselves together just one more time.  Some guys are out on the field running warm up drills and saying hi to old friends that are on the opposing team. Coaches’ pace up and down the locker room drinking coffee and energy drinks as if they were getting ready to play in the game.  The coaches’ uneasiness usually makes players nervous as they ask the same game plan questions over and over.  Some guys laugh as others pray, I have even seen some cry.  Every emotion good and bad come to the surface. Wide eyed rookies are so worked up; season veterans have to constantly remind them to settle down before they ware themselves out.  Guys make last minute phone calls to their families, as some family members will not be attending the game.  Every player has a different taping regiment.  Some tape their finger, toes, forearms, calves, you name it someone is taping it.  Some guys tape their ankles and other actually tapes their shoes to their feet, this is called a spat.  I find the spat to be my favorite and offer the best ankle protection, but if you have a Nike or Reebok contract they do not like when you spat.  The spat usually covers their logo on the shoe and Nike and Reebok care more about their logo being seen on TV. then the ankle protection of the players.  A trip to the training room is a must before kick off.  Every player needs something from the training room, some guys get IV fluids to super hydrate their bodies.  Some get injections of cortisone into joints or other areas that other wise wouldn’t make it through the game.

Vitamins, Gatorade, fruit, energy drinks, protein shakes the list goes on and on.  The key is to find what work for you and stick with it.  The locker room is buzzing with noise. Loud music, talking, singing – each man is preparing in his own way.  There is no right or wrong way to fire up for a game as long as you don’t disturb your teammates and you get the right mindset you need to perform.  As the team prepares to go out for a pre-game warm-up, everyone meets in the front of the locker room.  There is always a hand full of guys scrambling to finish getting dressed before the team goes out, but no one really pays them too much attention because running late is their ritual every week.

            When the team goes out for pre-game warm-ups fans get to watch the players running through the drills. But now you know that the guys have been preparing for hours even before they step out onto the field. After warm-ups the team comes back inside for about 30 minutes before kick off.  This is a time of Zen. The locker room is a lot more settled now then it was before, and it’s my favorite time before the game.  This is when every man on the team shows their intent.  You can look into the eyes of every man and know who is ready and who is not for the next 60 minutes.  I wish I could say every man in the locker room was ready every time, but that would be a lie.  The guys that aren’t focused stick out like a sore thumb.  The very sight of the players that aren’t ready makes you sick to your stomach but that is out of your control.  A rule in football is to control the things you can and not stress about the things that are out of your control.  I usually used the anger I felt toward players that were not ready to fuel my own fire.

            Ten minutes before kick off the team gathers around the head coach. The coach will usually make a speech. Every man in that locker room has been through hell to get where they stand today.  In that time, he has probably gained the ability to see straight through any bullshit that comes out of a coach’s mouth.  So the coach is very careful not to step out of line with his words.  Unfortunately, through out my career I have spent time with coaches that were two-faced or just not worthy of a head coaching job. I find it funny when a coach doesn’t have the ability to read his guys, especially when the other players can see someone is putting on an act. No matter how good or bad your coach is, when it comes to game day, the team has to pull together. Gathering around the coach every player locks hands and begins the Lords prayer (Psalms 23).  For some guys it is about religion, for others it shows the team’s unity.  But everyone knows once the last words of that prayer are done it is the point of no return.  With the prayer ending, the team gets up even closer for a team break.  Now only the players are doing the talking, the coaches have taken a back sit as they prepare for the ride.  Nothing a coach can do or say to help you now, it is game time.

Being a special teams captain it was always my job to start off every game.  With kick off or kick off return, captains would go to the middle of the field for the coin toss.  I loved calling the coin toss because I would win 9 out of 10 times. I started to get a reputation for my coin calling ability.  Pure emotion opens every game played in the NFL. Players have got to come out strong if the team wants any chance of winning.  The first play of the game sets the tone for everyone. Everyone wants a big return out to the 50 yard line or maybe you’ll see a smashing hit that jars lose the football for a fumble recovery. That first play has the power to crush the spirit of a team.  All 11 players on the field want to make the big opening play, and the competition quickly turns from the other team to your own teammates.  The time is here and the time is right now, you can feel every scream, chant, clap, stomp, hiss coming from the crowed.  You feel like everyone is just watching you. Life’s meter is maxed out.  Your eyes turn into eagles’ eye, you feel like you have the strength of a bear, and the speed of a cheetah chasing it’s pray.  You totally transform into something other than yourself, and you love the feeling.   Your body roars from within, usually coming out as a yell or a head smash to one of your teammates.  Like a wild pack of dogs howling and agitating each other all eyes are fixed on the football as the kicker approaches the ball.  Once that whistle blows the hand to hand combat begins, and there are no rules unless you get caught.  “It is game time”

Jarrod Cooper

8 year Veteran

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