By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the players in front of him strained to move sleds loaded with weight plates, Evan Marcus looked at his watch.
“You’re only at two minutes, guys,” Marcus yelled. “It’s only been two minutes of fun.”
With that, UVa’s strength and conditioning coach for football flashed a diabolical smile, and not for the first time on this fall morning.
About 28 hours later, Virginia would meet Ball State at Scott Stadium, and Marcus would be on the home sideline supporting the players with whom he works year-round. For now, though, his focus was Freshman Friday, the innocuous name given to the grueling weekly workouts Marcus devises for the first-year players who, with a few exceptions, are redshirting.
“Pain is temporary,” Marcus had advised the group earlier that morning inside the McCue Center weight room. Now the 15 players were in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, where pain — in the form of Prowler sleds — awaited them at one end of the field.
Each sled weighed about 60 pounds. For the linemen, 180 pounds of free weights were added; for the skill-position players, 140.
The workout wasn’t complicated, but that made it no easier for the players. Each had to complete a 300-yard shuttle in which he pushed a sled from the goal line to the 30-yard line and back, five times. Players were instructed to use the sleds’ low handles on the way out and the high handles on the way back. Progress was halting, as the freshmen had to stop periodically to catch their breath and summon the will to continue.
“You’re going to be in little bit of a dark place,” Marcus said, “but that’s OK.”
That left 13 players for Marcus and assistant strength coaches Bill Miller, Ryan Tedford and Steven Cuccia to supervise. There were more players than sleds, so “you’re going to have a partner that’s walking with you, encouraging you,” Marcus told the group. “The goal is to do it as fast as you can.”
Freshman Friday begins each week during the season at 8 a.m. On this day, defensive end Jack English and linebacker Micah Kiser entered the weight room eight minutes early., and the rest of the group soon followed. By the time the workout ended, a little after 9 a.m., the players would be exhausted, their shirts long since soaked through with sweat and tossed aside. But the weekly sessions are intended to do more than break down the players.
“It’s about mental and physical development,” Marcus said in his McCue Center office, where the soothing sounds of heavy metal emanated from his computer.
“Obviously with the physical development, they’re redshirted for a reason, whether it be they’re not strong enough, they’re not big enough, they need to lose weight. Whatever their flaw that’s keeping them from playing right away, you’re trying to fix that. So by the time the winter workouts start, this kid should be physically ready to challenge for a starting spot during spring ball.
“But besides the physical development, for a lot of these kids, their definition of hard has only been defined by their limited experience. So what we try to do is expand that definition of difficult, make them uncomfortable, and through that practice they get confidence in knowing that they can handle difficult situations and they can gain confidence as a team. It’s a shared experience amongst the freshmen. They have to help each other through it, and we also teach them about our culture.
“When you talk to a freshman and you say, `OK, we’re smart, we’re tough, we’re aggressive,’ they don’t understand what those words mean. They’re just words. So what we try to do with our Freshman Fridays is show them how those principles apply through the work we do.
“We talk about tough. After they’re done with this, these kids will have a clear vision of what tough is. So we layer the workouts each Friday with a lesson, whether it be about being a good teammate, being accountable, pushing through that uncomfortable spot. There’s a purpose to every workout we do, and that purpose is to teach them about our culture and get them ingrained into what it’s like to be a successful Virginia football player.
“And it’s hard. The players will always tell you, Freshman Friday was a challenge, and it’s supposed to be. Some guys just hate every minute of it, and that’s OK.”
In the weight room, the players started with a session that included sit-up throws with a 12-pound medicine ball, leg crunches, stomach crunches, and medicine ball exercises.
“It’s a nice little warm-up for what’s coming next,” Marcus told the group, which included two reserve offensive linemen, Eric Tetlow and Sadiq Olanrewaju, who are among the 11 true freshmen to play for Virginia this season.
By the time the players headed to the locker room to don their cleats, they were breathing hard, and they knew the hardest part of the workout was still to come.
Not long after the sleds began to slide across the field, sophomore defensive end Eli Harold wandered into the practice facility to encourage the freshmen. Marcus requires all players, even upperclassmen, to complete at least one Freshman Friday, and some do so in the offseason.
“My legs, they felt like Jello,” Harold said of his experience. “I never felt like that in my life.”
Harold was among the true freshmen who played for the Wahoos in 2012, and thus he was excused on Friday mornings. Classmates who were redshirting let him know what he was missing.
“They’d say, `You’re lucky,’ ” Harold recalled.
Some players showed more grit than others on this Friday morning — Kiser, safety Malcolm Cook, cornerback Kirk Garner and quarterback Brendan Marshall were among those Marcus singled out for praise — but all eventually finished. They would reconvene a week later to endure more pain.
Kiser graduated from Gilman School in Baltimore, whose football program perennially ranks among the best in Maryland. During his high school days, he said, he suffered through some arduous workouts, “but nothing as bad as this,” Kiser said, smiling.
Even so, he looks forward to Freshman Fridays.
“It’s a chance to push yourself, get better and really bond as a team,” Kiser said. “Our freshman class is pretty close. With stuff like this, you want to see who’s accountable, who’s going to get the job done, and you just push each other. It makes us better as a team.
“It’s tough, but football’s tough. It’s a tough game. The coaches are tough on you. It’s a sense of adversity. You gotta push through it, and these guys out there, they’re tough, they’re going to push through it, and when it comes to a game we’re going to push through it together.”