They lift weights until their bodies scream silently in protest and their muscles quiver from fatigue. They run until they throw up. Fans know it as the "offseason program." Players, I suspect, have some more descriptive names for it.
As the weather warms up, it's time for spring practice, then more of the offseason program and finally the summer program. All those "programs" are designed not just to make sure players are physically fit, but to change their bodies, to test their resolve, test their willingness to push through pain and fatigue.
Finally, it's August and time for preseason camp. There's always a sense of anticipation before the first practice. But camp, too, becomes a test of will and endurance, a test of a young man's willingness to pay a high price for success.
It's part of playing college football. From January until late August, there's nothing fun about what college football players do. It's hard, grueling work. Through it all, they also are expected to be to succeed in the classroom. It's too much for some, who decide college football isn't for them.
The reward for those who make it through is putting on a jersey, running out on the field and, for some, playing the game 12, 13, 14 times. For others, it just means an opportunity to put on that jersey and watch from the sideline.
Players who persevere will tell you it's worth it. They'll tell you that running out of that tunnel into a packed stadium is a moment that'll stay with you always. They'll tell you about the bonds of friendship with teammates that last a lifetime.
As the season nears, there is anticipation and optimism everywhere college football is played. Players are all convinced that they have worked so hard, given so much, that they will be successful.
But the reality of autumn is at hand.
A month from now, we'll know a lot more about who is a contender and who is a pretender. Two months from now, we'll know even more. Three months from now, we'll be talking about the Iron Bowl and what will be at stake when Nick Saban makes his first trip to Auburn as Alabama's head coach. Four months from now, we'll be talking about the upcoming national championship game.
A lot will happen along the way. Unlikely heroes will emerge. Teams that have been anointed as champions before they even play a game will turn out not to be champions at all. Teams of whom little is expected will accomplish great things.
Players will scream in frustration because the ball bounces the wrong way at the wrong time, robbing them of opportunities to realize their dreams. And they will celebrate victories that will become stories for their children and their grandchildren.
Fans will cheer and fans will boo, but they'll return again and again for this uniquely American experience.
Then it will be over. It'll be January again, and the process will begin anew.