Wind sprints all summer during conditioning drills.
Walking through plays during the first few days practice, just with helmets on.
The calendar said the high school football season has started.
But had it really?
Nope, not until the pads go on.
Then it’s football.
“I love hitting more than anything else. It’s the best thing about football,” said Pennfield senior Justin Lamb. “There’s a difference once we start practicing with pads. Conditioning and stuff is important and we had those days of practice, but this is real football now.”
The Michigan High School Athletic Association football practice policies state that during the first week of practices, only helmets are allowed the first two days, only shoulder pads may be added on the third and fourth days, and full pads may not be worn until the fifth day of team practice.
Teams throughout the area drudged through those early days of practice, with a lot of running, lot of learning plays, but not a lot of hitting.
With helmets only, players feel like they are football players. But they don’t feel like they are playing football until the pads start popping.
By the end of last week and the start of this week, high school football teams are now all getting after it with blocking drills, tackling drills, maybe a little Oklahoma drill, possibly some bull-in-the-ring — all in the name of hitting and getting hit. It is the essence of the sport and it is what the players look forward to.
“The first couple days, when you are helmets only, you are going through technique and fundamental stuff. When you get the pads you see the kids get more excited,” Pennfield coach Mike McGuire said. “In some early practices without pads, in the latter part of those practices, the energy just isn’t there. But once the pads get on, the energy is up for the whole practice.”
The MHSAA has rules to make sure players aren’t getting out of control when it comes to the collision aspect of this sport. MHSAA policy states that before the first regular season game, schools may not schedule more than one ‘collision’ practice a day. A collision practice is one in which there is live game-speed, player vs. player contact in pads. During the season, teams may conduct no more than two collision practice days in a week.
But there is a need for hitting with pads on, so players know what to expect once real games start.
“You don’t want to be soft when the season starts, so we want to go out and hit some people in practice and that’s what we look forward to,” Lamb said.
And you just can’t replicate the feel for a game, or prepare to play an opponent, when you are in shirts and shorts with just a helmet on. The shoulder pads, knee pads, thigh pads, make all the difference.
“People start going after it once the pads get on. It’s a lot different than those early practices,” Pennfield senior Carter Needham said. “It just brings a lot of intensity to practice.”
In the eye of the coach, that intensity brings about a heightened awareness, a greater ability to learn, get better and know how to be safe when hitting during real games.
Plus, a coach gets to see which players will help in keeping the scoreboard in their favor.
“There’s more of a true test once the pads get on, you can see who can play. We have a lot of competition at a lot of positions and once the pads go on, those competitions heat up,” McGuire said. “The kids get excited, that’s what you see out there, things get stepped up a notch.”
Bill Broderick can be reached at email@example.com or 269-966-0678. Follow him on Twitter:@billbroderick