By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A few minutes before sunrise today, two UVa football players emerged from the McCue Center locker room. They were the last to do so on this steamy July morning. The players ran past giant tires and sledgehammers and joined a throng of teammates on the practice field.
The clock read 5:58 a.m. Two minutes later, the players, about 80 in all, began stretching in silence under the direction of Evan Marcus, UVa’s director of football training and player development.
On a day when the temperature would hit 100 degrees, sweat soon darkened the players’ T-shirts. But Marcus, whom the players know as “Coach E,” looked like there was no place in the world he would rather be. And that might well have been the case.
It was time for the seventh and final installment of a weekly workout that Marcus developed for Virginia’s returning football players this summer. He affectionately calls it “Manual Labor Friday.”
On other days, the Cavaliers’ veterans are split into three groups, based on their summer-school class schedules, for lifting and running sessions with Marcus. On Fridays, they come together as one for grueling 6 a.m. workouts.
The workouts “were all different challenges,” said Marcus, who trains UVa’s first-year players separately. “Some of them had to do with competition, some of them involved teamwork, and all of them involved accountability, that you have to count on the other guy to do what’s expected of him. So even though they had different themes along the way, all of them were hard, all of them made them uncomfortable, all of them had their goal in mind: to get mentally tougher by accomplishing a tough test.”
This morning’s program consisted of 10 stations that involved, among other things, sledgehammers, medicine balls, free weights, 100-pound sandbags and blocking sleds. It was a repeat of the workout that caused players’ tempers to flare July 1 over the unwillingness of some Cavaliers to complete each station as instructed.
The players were divided into eight groups. After the first member of each group finished the first station — swinging a sledgehammer 20 times onto a huge tire, 10 with each hand — he moved on to the next station. Then the second player in each group picked up the sledgehammer, and then the third, and so on.
On July 1, Marcus recalled, some “guys got to probably the eighth station, and then we had a guy who didn’t really do as well as he could have on the bear crawl station. So we came back and started again. We got about three stations into it. A guy shorted a rep [on the medicine ball throws] — a different guy — and we had to start over again.”
Two more restarts followed that morning before the team completed the stations to the satisfaction of Marcus and other members of UVa’s strength-and-conditioning staff: Ed Nordenschild, Everrett Gathron, Ryan Tedford and Bill Miller.
Would the same issues arise this morning? Time would tell. “I want to see what we’ve learned,” Marcus told the players before they assembled at the first station.
At 6:10, the pounding began, but not before Marcus reminded the players to be careful. “Coaching tip of the day: no sledgehammers to the head,” he said with the slightest of smiles.
This version of Manual Labor Friday ran smoothly, to Marcus’ delight. When players started to flag, their teammates encouraged them. No one tried to shirk his responsibilities or take shortcuts.
“Attack that sled!” a player yelled. “It’s waiting for you. You just gotta defeat it.”
His teammate conquered the sled, pushing it across the field and back. Everyone else did the same thing. For the defensive backs and receivers, the stations that involved lifting and pushing posed greater challenges than for the linemen. The skill players, though, had the edge when it came to running hills and sprints.
“It’s hard, but there’s no sense of, ‘He’s doing this, and I’m doing something different,’ ” said Marcus, the Miami Dolphins’ strength coach at this time last year.
“We all have to do the same thing. It’s all about the team concept that there’s some times that things are harder for some guys than for others, but we all have to band together and get it done.”
The morning’s work ended at 6:49 when a defensive back pushed his blocking sled through a tunnel of teammates and across the sideline. Marcus, his shaved head gleaming in the morning sun, then called the players together.
“Look around, fellas,” he told them. “Feel the kind of energy you’ve given each other. Feel the difference from the last time you did this. It’s night and day. I think we’ve learned a lesson about this team, and that’s a good lesson. We learned we can count on each other.”
Training camp begins Aug. 5 for the ‘Hoos, who are coming off a 4-8 season. More workouts await the players next week — they’ll have Friday off — and then Marcus will turn them over to Mike London and UVa’s assistant coaches.
“Are we tough?” Marcus asked the players after Friday’s workout.
“Yes, we are,” Marcus said. “Are we strong?”
“Absolutely,” Marcus said.