This is Hard, But Not a Chore

Yes, the sailors who are strapping on the pads in sweltering August heat for the Navy football team have had to endure a lot this summer. Yes, summer practice is a grind, a grind that, in recent years, has become fatal for an unfortunate few and very damaging for an alarmingly larger number of college football players.

Yes, players have been known to flag a little bit (maybe even play a little possum) in practice before cranking it up when the first gameday afternoon comes across the calendar.

But for all that, Navy head coach Paul Johnson--who's been doing more mental gymnastics than Paul Hamm and the International Gymnastics Federation these days--is rightly concerned.

After a recent scrimmage on August 27, Navy's skipper had this to say:

"I would like to see guys break the huddle, run to the ball, fly around and act like they're having some fun rather them being oh my god I've got six minutes to go and I'll be out of here. I know that we might be a tad tired, but if our guys don't understand that if they don't play hard they're in trouble they are getting ready to figure it out real fast next Saturday night."

So there it is, folks: Navy's players might just be tired, and might just be aching to turn it up on gameday against Duke Sept. 4, but football--a sport with just 11 precious chances to prove yourself each autumn--can't be taken for granted. Nothing can be assumed, and trying the "flip the on switch when the games count in the standings" trick can be devastating in college football. The boys need to be warned about their mental approach to the game, and that's exactly what Coach Johnson did with his statement.

Here's the thing about this lack of enthusiasm that's so concerning: Navy will be more the hunted than the hunter in 2004. Life as the hunted is a burden of sorts, but in the long run, this is a game, and nothing more. Navy might be metaphorically likened to a deer in the woods, being preyed upon by wolves or tigers or mountain lions--sportswriters can and do (and always will) evoke such images.

But all those words are exactly that: IMAGES. Navy is not literally fighting for survival in 2004, only for football prestige. That prestige is significant, but when Navy plays--and this will especially hit home on September 11 against Northeastern--the Midshipmen will not be engaged in a TRUE life or death battle.

This whole exercise has its own measure of significance, but in the larger scheme of life, that measure of significance is ultimately small. The paradox is that if Navy wants to have a big season in 2004, the boys in Annapolis can't take themselves too seriously. They'll have to have some fun and actually revel in the role of a favorite, the role they'll play in most of their games. But if they view their burden as a chore and slog through the motions without the enthusiasm Coach Johnson is talking about, they'll get punished on the scoreboard as well.

It's a challenge Navy faces this fall, but a fun one. Let's just be sure that as the dog days of summer wind down, the Middies remember this. If they're bored and tired now, it's understandable. But the message has to sink in for Navy football: the sport is fun, even as a favorite. If the message doesn't sink in, Navy will simply be sunk in 2004. Top Stories