Walker Brittain Defensive Back

“Sometimes, you just have to do it for the story.”  If there is anything I have learned in Journalism from Coach Grates, this is it.  In this case, I did do it for the story.

In 1966, George Plimpton, a sports writer for Sports Illustrated, tried out for the Detroit Lions as part of an assignment to learn what it was really like to be on a professional football team.

“I have never been convinced there’s anything inherently wrong in having fun,” Plimpton wrote in Paper Lion, a book about his exploits with the Lions.  I wanted to have fun, but I also wanted the story.

On Wednesday, November 6, I left my last class of the day, but instead of going to soccer practice or to my truck to leave for the day,  I had a different destination. I went to the weight room to get ready for my first and last football practice.

This was my first stop in tackling a story that would give me a glimpse into a fraternity most high school students don’t get a chance to see.  It is a question that I have often asked as I watched the games on Friday night from the stands or the press box. What is it like to be a member of the football team?

The first step in becoming a football player was to dress like one. I had to find a helmet that fit. It was difficult, as I do have a freakishly large head. I never realized how many different sizes and brands of helmets are out there or how uncomfortable they can get after a three hour practice. It makes one understand why Antonio Brown almost quit football for his helmet.  Once a player finds one a good one, he holds onto it.

“Have you ever worn football pads before?” Coach Grates asked, and I told him yes.  It was when I was five and my parents bought me a UNC Football uniform for Christmas. The real things are a lot bigger than the little plastic ones I got when I was five.

Number 99 on the field and number 1 in your heart

When I went to go get my practice jersey, there were plenty of good football numbers available like 5, 14, and 17. Even Joe Montana’s 16 and Payton Manning’s 18 were available. Coach Grates skipped all those and handed me the XXL jersey with number 99.  He knew not to spoil a good number on me.

I used to think putting on soccer socks and shin guards before practice was tough, but after struggling to get my football girdle, pants, pads, jersey, helmet and cleats on, I made my way to practice.

Coach Thomas beat me to practice, so I had to run a lap. I was told later that I ran four times more than I had to.

The coaches decided to make me a defensive back despite my suggestions that as a soccer player, I should be a kicker.  “I thought you wanted to be a football player,” they joked. No offense to our kickers.

I jumped right in with running drills. However, I hadn’t fully understood what we were supposed to be doing when we switched to stretching.

I think I fell down after this.

Everyone on the team stretches different. They all know what works and do what they need to do.  I didn’t. This only furthered my confusion.

Next, more drills.

I did three different drills in five minutes. This was a change of pace from soccer where we do one drill for 30 minutes. Again, everyone had their own style of doing things. Their own way of tackling, their own way of stripping the football, even their own way of holding the football.

I quickly learned that pads and a helmet make simple things like running, catching and even just picking things up significantly more difficult. It also makes seeing, hearing, and speaking harder.  How do these guys do this?

We then split up into position groups and started … yes, more drills.

I decided just to go head first.

In my first rep, I was marking (covering) senior Lamon Lock, a first string cornerback. Lock beat me with a quick juke move, but I completed my goal of not falling down.

Coach Grates asked me how I think it went.  “Just about how I thought it was going to go,” I replied, embarrassed, but not deterred in my quest.

After practice with only the defensive backs, we merged our group with the wide receivers. I was up first against sophomore Isaiah Lee, a first string wide receiver.

I kept up better than most anticipated, but then I turned my head to find the ball.  This was all the time Lee needed to make a quick in-step and the ball found its way into his hands for the touchdown.

I did not know what to do with the ball after my first rep.

Senior Mason Smith, kicker and soccer teammate, came over and tried to call me out, wanting to go one-on-one, but Coach Hall and Coach Grates dismissed him.  They were probably doing me a favor.

Then, contact drills began with offense against defense. I started preparing for Friday night by standing on the sidelines. My new teammates tried to convince the coaches to put me in for a rep, but the coaches kept telling them that I was “non contact.”

They definitely did me a favor.

We then left the practice field and headed toward the locker room.  I thought practice was over, but we were just changing fields for some “Wednesday Night Lights.”

After more offense vs defense and getting the scout team involved, practice started to wind down.

Throughout practice, the coaches keep score between offense and defense, and it was a tie. The tiebreaker–catching punts. 

Both offense and defense picked a member of the opposing side to catch punts. They both picked lineman who caught their punts.

To break the tie, they could pick the newbie.  I never knew so many people knew my name. “Walker, Walker, we choose Walker.”

The other newcomer was a freshman just pulled up from the JV squad.  Of course, he surprised everyone by catching his punt.

I was up next. Backup punter and wide receiver Justin Lambert, a senior, was about to kick, but in a moment of arrogance, I called out the best punter in the conference and my friend, Mason Smith, to punt the ball.

The only catch I made all day.

“This is not going to end well,” I muttered under my breath.

I tracked the ball. I closed my eyes.  I felt the ball in my hands. I heard the sound of cheers.  I thought I caught it, but it was the offense celebrating, not my defensive teammates. The ball went right through my hands.  This was a lot harder than it looked.

I caught a lot of questions that day at practice, like “What position do you play?”  “Where did you come from?” “Are you a transfer?” 

I also caught a lot of laughs like when I struggled with my pads and tripped over my own feet.  Or when the coaches shook their heads and laughed as I went through the line to get my pregame meal.

The one thing I did not catch a lot of was footballs.

Football Friday started around 3:30 when I was released a little early. I did not get to wear my number 99 jersey to school as I had not yet earned that honor. It was probably a good thing, as it would have come down to my knees.

I felt at home in the locker room as I listened to the banter among the players as they stowed their stuff and began preparing for what was to come. This lightheartedness quickly ended when the coaches entered the room, and my team began to get ready with a military-like focus for the battle to come.

The silence during the pregame meal was the quietest I had ever heard the Cape Fear Cafeteria since my AP Lang test during Sophomore year.

The ritual following the pre-game meal consisted of meetings, then walk-throughs, then speeches from coaches with the cycle to begin again until each player knew his role and what was expected of him.

Heading to the field for the game, the team marched single file past the Colt statute in the courtyard briefly touching it for good luck while silently going over their roles and reciting the Colt Creed to themselves, “I am a Colt and proud to be….”

The whole experience during those few days was like I being in a foreign country. It was just a few steps from where I practiced soccer every day, but it was like another world. I competed against people I have known since elementary school and coaches who have been teaching me since my freshman year, yet the experience was completely foreign.

The one thing I did recognize was the bond among the players as they worked together toward a common goal.  A goal to be the best they could be and bring pride as well as victory to their school. They may play different positions that require totally different skills, but inside they are all Colts. I also recognized the friendships that had been formed over the years of playing side-by-side and fighting together on the field to bring victory home.

As Kenny Chesney sings in The Boys of Fall, “you mess with one man, you got us all.”  I could see that same camaraderie on the field at practice and during the pre-game meal as the team ate together in silence on Friday afternoon, getting themselves mentally prepared for the challenge ahead.

During this assignment, I went from a sport with one coach to one with nine coaches just for varsity. From a sport where we have three plays to one where there are more than a dozen. From a sport whose spectators number in dozens of people and hundreds on rare occasions to a sport where attendance can regularly be in the thousands.

There were thousands in the stands as I gathered with my teammates in the end zone on Friday night.  Listening to the national anthem and singing softly to myself with my hand over my heart, I felt the faintest of butterflies in my stomach even though I knew I wasn’t going to get a chance to play.

After my last soccer game for Cape Fear, I did not know that would be my final chance to dress out as a Colt, but on that Friday night, I got a second chance to be on that field representing our school.  

As I came out of the tunnel with these boys of fall who let me be one of them if only for a brief moment, I smiled the most genuine of smiles. I was not just doing it for the story anymore.  I was having fun.

On a personal note, my sincerest thanks to Coach Thomas and the rest of the Colts coaching staff as well as the entire team for giving me this opportunity to get just a small glimpse into their world.  Thanks also for putting it all out there on the field for our school every Friday night in the fall.