Then and now: For today's prep football players, it's rough all summer -- not just in August
by Brandon Miller
Jun 22, 2013 | 2864 views |  0 comments | 165 165 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Wellborn coach Jeff Smith, right, led his team to six straight wins in the second half of the season. (Photo by Courtney Davies/Anniston Star)
Wellborn coach Jeff Smith, right, led his team to six straight wins in the second half of the season. (Photo by Courtney Davies/Anniston Star)
Wellborn coach Jeff Smith describes summer at The Hill when he was in high school as “rough and tough.”

Back when Smith was a linebacker, the Panthers would transition from running and calisthenics during June and July to exhausting practices multiple times a day in August. Since school did not start until after Labor Day, Wellborn’s agenda included a week of two practices a day every day, followed by three-a-days before returning to two-a-days the following week. The fourth week of practice was game week.

“Practices back were very tough,” Smith said. “We had three-a-days. We had camp.”

However, life has changed for today’s high school football players. While they don’t have to endure all Smith and other players decades ago did in August, they face a constant summer schedule that their fathers and grandfathers didn’t when they played.

“The August practices were tougher than they are now, but the demands of the summer are more now than they were,” said Smith, who is entering his fifth season as head coach at his alma mater.

Two-a-day practices have been altered by Alabama High School Athletic Association rules.

Teams cannot be in full pads more than once a day and cannot have two practices a day on back-to-back days. That’s caused some teams to cut down significantly on practicing twice a day.

One coach who still practices twice a day, however, is Mike Battles, who coached Smith at Wellborn and now coaches at Handley.

“We’ve always had two-a-days and we’ve always worked during the summer,” Battles said. “I think since the mid-’80s most people started having the kids work out during the summer because you can’t take off two months over the summer. Everything that we’re doing has always been 12 months a year.”

June and July have become essential to programs not getting behind, as opposed to being an advantage in the past. Players are bigger, faster and stronger, and nearly all of that comes from off-season training.

“We start training them when they’re in the fifth grade now,” Cleburne County coach and 1980 graduate Michael Shortt said. “By the time the season starts you should have your offense and defense in. The mental and conditioning parts should be done during the summer.”

Even when Oxford coach and 1994 graduate Ryan Herring played for the Yellow Jackets, summers were more relaxed than now, despite Oxford lifting weights three days a week and the quarterbacks throwing to receivers daily.

“We didn’t put helmets on until the first of August,” he said. “I remember us having two-a-days for two weeks, and my senior year when it went down to one week, we thought we were in heaven.”

While the summer is spent getting players near game-ready shape — outside of the physical aspect of putting on pads and hitting — today, one major difference between generations is the necessity to get current high school players acclimated to the Alabama heat.

“I’ve got my own theory, and I don’t think it’s any hotter or more humid than it was then, but most of our spare time back then as kids was spent outside,” said Piedmont coach Steve Smith, a 1988 graduate of Cherokee County. “We were in the heat all the time playing games, working or helping in the yard. Most of the kids were lucky if they had a fan in their room at nighttime. Most of the cars that my mom and dad drove didn’t have air conditioning — we’d just roll the windows down. Kids were just more acclimated to heat.

“Now we’re in a 72-degree generation. From in the classroom to cars to homes, kids are in 72-degree temperatures a majority of the time. When you’re in a 72-degree temperature and you’re practicing in 95-degree heat, it’s pretty drastic.”

Safety was a big cause for change in the rulebook. When the current coaches were players, many coaches limited how much water the players could receive during practice — sometimes not at all.

“We have trainers now and allow our kids to get water any time they want it. When I played, water wasn’t available on the field, and we’re not going to deprive our kids now,” Battles said.

Steve Smith takes time to prepare a schedule that will allow players to cool down during workouts, which includes players taking off helmets and shoulder pads during practice to allow their body heat to lower.

“Coaches would be foolish now if they punished players by not giving them water. You just can’t do that anymore,” he said. “You can’t get carried away in the old-school philosophy of coaching at the expense of one child having suffered from heat exhaustion or a heat stroke.”

Between necessary water breaks and players not getting burnt out of football after preparing for half a year, it’s important coaches find a way to avoid the standard workout over the summer. Battles has work stations he changes daily for workouts.

In the early 2000s, 7-on-7 camps also became a big addition to summer workouts after former Hoover coach Rush Propst brought them to the state. While it provided a nice change for teams that throw the ball often, it lost some flash as years went on and no longer suits every coach.

“At the beginning, I thought it was great, but now you see people play man-to-man all the time and linebackers are playing 10 yards deep, and that’s not how we play,” Battles said. “It lost its appeal to us. To other people, I’m sure they think it’s great, but we prefer 11-on-11.”

The standard summer workout today usually includes 30 dates through June and July with players needing to attend anywhere from 20 to 25 of the workouts. The AHSAA also requires the week of July 4 and the All-Star Sports week, which this year is July 15-19, to be off weeks.

Then once Aug. 5 arrives, practice begins.

While Handley, Piedmont, Oxford and Wellborn will continue to have two-a-days every other day — following AHSAA rules — until school starts, Shortt prefers to practice an hour and a half, take a break, then practice another hour and a half.

“I can’t remember the last time I had a two-a-day,” he said. “At Heflin, we always started school around the same time practice started.”

In turn, Shortt has flipped the script from the 1980s, showing that summer is useful toward building success, rather than spending endless hours on the practice field. As he enters his 16th season as head coach at Cleburne County, Shortt has won five region championships and made the state playoffs 11 times.

“Our goal right now is to maintain what we took into the offseason, lift weights and condition,” he said. “You can do enough drills on the field that are football related that may seem like practices, but they’re conditioning.

“I feel like I can do so much in the summer that I don’t need to have two-a-days now.”

Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star
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