football player

Kenny Vaccaro and Mykkele Thompson jump in celebration after Thompson’s fumble recovery late in the third quarter against Baylor. Texas implemented a more physical practice schedule the week before facing the Bears and was able to force two turnovers.
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

There’s nothing quite like two-a-days for a football player. It’s a signal the season is only weeks away and it’s the most difficult and physically challenging time of the year. Then when the season starts, the vigor in practice gets taken down a notch.

Normally the drop is not a problem, but it’s been an issue for the Longhorns. According to head coach Mack Brown, practice is the best indicator of how a team will perform, and during Texas’ two-game losing streak in which it gave up 111 points, the team practiced flat.

In order to remedy the issue the players kicked up the intensity leading into the Baylor game, and it paid off. Texas still allowed 50 points to the country’s No. 1 ranked offense, but it was the groups’ most emotional performance in weeks.

“The whole mood has kind of changed in the locker room and on the field,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “It’s a lot more physical across
the board.”

But the physical nature on the practice field can’t only last a week. It has to be a continuing mindset. If not, a team could lull into a false sense of security.

The Big 12 is too difficult of a test for a team to meander through practice and all of a sudden flip on the switch at kickoff. Every team in the conference, with the exception of Kansas, has a record of .500 or better, and without a fevered effort each week, Monday through Friday, Texas could get beat any given Saturday.

“We’ve got to continue to be that intense and we’ve got to do it every day,” Brown said. “We can’t afford to have a Saturday where we don’t play at high energy.”

When the energy drops, not only can the Longhorns lose — they can get destroyed.

Never was that more evident than in Texas’ 63-21 loss to Oklahoma two weeks ago. The Longhorns showed up to the Cotton Bowl flat and were clobbered as a result.

It was a game that stung and was the main source of the increased intensity level in practice leading up to Baylor.

But now Texas is coming off a win, and, once again, it will be up to the players to display the same level of emotional fire. It’s really easy to get ready for a rival like Baylor, but it will be a different test for Texas to find motivation against a lowly Kansas squad.

It won’t be easy, but the sting from the Oklahoma loss hasn’t ebbed quite yet.

“We need to keep the same mindset we had coming off of OU,” offensive lineman Trey Hopkins said. “We were an angry team. We had something to prove, and we practiced that way throughout the week. We had a chip on our shoulder. We can’t let this win soften us by making us feel comfortable.”

Former NBA All-Star Allen Iverson once mouthed off in a press conference “we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a
game, but we’re talking about practice.”

It made for one of the greatest sound bites of all-time, but if Texas hopes to blast through the remainder of the Big 12 schedule, Iverson’s advice is the last thing the team needs to follow. For Texas, it really is all about practice.

Printed on Friday, October 26, 2012 as: Change of pace in practice pays off for Horns

Former Longhorn Ricky Williams retired from the NFL after 11 seasons on Tuesday. Williams 34, had one of the greatest careers ever in school history, winning the Heisman trophy in 1998. He also had a strong NFL career, rushing for over 10,000 yards. (Daily Texan File Photo)

Photo Credit: Kassi Patton | Daily Texan Staff

Ricky Williams was Texas’ best football player of the last two decades, and arguably one of the best in school history. He ran for 7,206 yards and 72 touchdowns, won a Heisman Trophy and earned back-to-back NCAA rushing and scoring titles. He played 11 seasons in the NFL, a rarity these days, and is currently 26th on the all-time rush leaders list with more than 10,000 yards behind him. However, Ricky Williams’ biggest accomplishment as a football player was that he humanized the sport.

Much was made of the 34-year old’s NFL career, which came to an end after Tuesday’s announcement. The scrutiny started in New Orleans where he was good, but never explosive. It was then that he began to really feel the effects of his later revealed social anxiety disorder, a mental illness that acts like a tenacious gnat in the brain. It’s characterized by a persistent and irrational fear that people are constantly judging the sufferer, and it makes social situations unbearably painful to handle.

Williams was always shy, but many saw his aloof nature as something to scoff at. The truth was that he honestly couldn’t handle the basic task of confronting people. He used to wear his helmet into the press room when talking to reporters because he felt safe behind it. Williams sometimes literally ran away from fans as they approached him, not because he was cold, but because he was feeling incredibly anxious. He often barely associated with his New Orleans teammates.

“Most definitely [my social anxiety disorder] affected my ability [to be a leader]. I didn’t want to talk to the guys much,” Williams said in a 2005 interview just before making his comeback into professional football. “A lot of what makes a good leader on a team happens off the field.”

Most of off-the-field-Ricky became on-the-front-page-Ricky. His multiple failed drug tests were publicly scrutinized and fans saw him as selfish and a burnout. His durability was called into question, and his passion for the sport was swept under the rug for media types to attack only what they saw on the outside. To Williams though, his first disappearance from the game in 2004 was the “most positive thing” he said he did in his life, because it allowed him to confront his anxiety and seek treatment. No one saw this as courageous even though fewer than 15 percent of the one in five Americans that suffers from some form of a mental disorder will seek treatment.

“They should not feel that they are weird or not normal,” Williams offered as advice to those with anxiety in that same 2005 interview. “Confronting it and getting help are the key.”

At Texas, Williams ran with such gusto and passion that it was easy to forget that behind the longhorn logo and the retired jersey number that hangs in the heavens of Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium, there was a kid with more than just the everyday fears that afflict college students. Social anxiety disorder goes beyond being unable to handle public situations. Sufferers say it is a 24-hour cycle of stress. Williams braved it while at UT, and Mack Brown is one of the people to thank. He understood Williams’ on and off the field better than most.

“Ricky had a tremendous football career, and we’re looking forward to seeing a lot more of him notw that he’s retired,” Brown said. “One thing I know for sure, Ricky accomplished a lot on the football field, but he aspires for even more in his career after football.”

We have a tendency when we are younger to idolize our sports heroes, and we should, because they are our role models who can do extraordinary, super-human things. But its easy to forget what it is that makes us all human. Sports stars are afforded a sterile form of celebrity when they first step on the scene, and then any actions that occur thereafter, good or bad, are judged in a vacuum.

His retirement is sad, because the game will miss him. But make no mistake, Williams lives for things beyond football now even though it was one of his greatest loves. I had a chance to speak to him a little less than a year ago during the NFL lockout and when I asked him how what the downtime afforded him a chance to do, he said pretty much everything. He wasn’t focused on football any more than he was on his disorder. Instead he said he wanted to spend more time with his children, something he said he was unable to do before seeking treatment for his anxiety, and focus on his charity work.

“My football career has been filled with many great memories going back to pee wee football,” Williams said in a statement yesterday. “It has been a big part of my life and blessed me with so many wonderful opportunities and the chances to connect many people who have helped me grow and mature. I love the game and leave it feeling fulfilled, proud, in great health and excited about the future.”

The future for Ricky should be celebrated as a story as big as his football career. It represents the very real narrative of resilience conquering hardship, and it does it in an intangible way that will never require us sports writers to scrutinize his statistics, his injuries or his productivity. We can finally examine him as simply human as we should have done all along.

“As for what’s next, I’m excited about all the opportunities ahead,” Williams said. “Continuing my education, running the Ricky Williams Foundation and whatever other opportunities present themselves.”

Photo Credit: Texas Athletics | Daily Texan Staff

Free time: “I’m a relaxed guy, don’t do too much. I watch a little TV or do some studying.”

Favorite place in Austin: “My room, for sure. That’s where I spend most of my time. I don’t get out too much.”

Role model: “My dad. He taught me a lot about life in general and being a football player.”

Player you pattern game after: “I’ve started watching Michael Huff.”

The days of a football player getting knocked out, taking a whiff of smelling salts and running back on the field are over.

Tre’ Newton, who recently ended his football career because of a series of head injuries, can attest to that. So can Kyle Hix, Aaron Williams and a few other Longhorns who have missed games because of concussions.

Head injuries and violent collisions have the NFL’s attention as never before, and the NCAA is making moves to keep its athletes safer as well.

In the past, concussions might have been considered mere dings or minor injuries. But in the last five years or so, neurosurgeons and scientists have conducted research in order to understand how they occur and how to take care of them.

Sports Illustrated dedicated almost an entire issue to concussions a few weeks ago. In one of the articles, Peter King explained the link between football and psychological, physical and behavioral problems that afflict players down the road. He wrote how one scientist tested the brains of 14 former NFL players and diagnosed 13 of them with chronic traumatic encephalopathy — basically “incredible chaos in the brain,” which is seen in disorders such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and depression.

With this backdrop, football is changing how it deals with blows to the head. But how much?
Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis had four concussions as a quarterback for McNeese State in the early 1970s, but he never missed a practice or a game.

“I remember I had one in a Saturday scrimmage during spring training and I practiced on Monday,” Davis said. “I don’t mean to imply that I’m some Rambo tough guy; times were just different.”

Davis said that offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, who was an offensive lineman at Georgia in the ’70s, joked that he had so many concussions that he carried ammonia capsules in his belt on his uniform.

But players can’t just pop pills anymore.

“It used to be if a kid got one, he could go back in the game,” said Texas head coach Mack Brown. “Now, if he has symptoms, he’s through. They take his helmet. They may take him inside. They don’t wait to see if it clears and we’ll put him back in. If the doctor says you’ve got symptoms, you’re through for the night.”

The most common symptoms are headaches, dizziness and nausea. Victims of a concussion can also have trouble concentrating and problems with eyesight. University of Georgia head athletic trainer Ron Courson told The Associated Press that oftentimes symptoms can be subtle, so it’s up to the team doctor or trainer to ask pointed questions and for patients to be honest with what’s going on with their bodies.

To help doctors assess an athlete’s recovery from a concussion, major college football programs frequently use what’s called baseline testing. All athletes who would be susceptible to concussions in their sports are given these neurological balance and psychological tests that measure memory, reaction and recognition before their season starts. Athletes who sustain a concussion are tested again, and their healthy tests and post-concussion tests are compared.
Courson told AP that he makes players tell him the months of the year backwards, for example.
Baseline testing is important, but the No. 1 thing doctors and trainers go by in deciding if a player is healthy are their symptoms.

A few weeks ago when Texas played Baylor, Williams got a concussion when he and safety Blake Gideon accidentally collided late in the fourth quarter. Coaches recalled that Williams seemed out of it and Texas head trainer Kenny Boyd deemed him ineligible to practice the following week or make the trip to Kansas State.

After his week off, Williams returned to practice and played against Oklahoma State and said he felt “100 percent and I didn’t see any symptoms come back.”

After being cleared to play, however, an athlete who has sustained a concussion is at greater risk for another one. That risk goes down over time, though.

“I think guys are bigger, faster and stronger now,” Brown said. “From my standpoint, collisions are bigger. I’m seeing hits out on the field now that are amazing hits. I’m talking about Saturday and Sunday. The equipment, nutrition, strength training and stretching are better and I think all those things lead toward bigger hits.”

In addition to the tests, the NCAA has made moves to protect its players during games. There’s the targeting penalty, which means players cannot initiate contact with the crown of their helmets. Then there’s the halo rule, which prevents players from tackling an opponent in the head or neck areas.

The torso and chest are fair game, but sometimes jerseys are slick and if a player’s helmet gets knocked in the least bit, that is considered helmet-to-helmet.

These rulings have made it difficult for coaches and players to determine the difference between a big hit and a personal foul.

“I don’t know what to tell the players,” defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. “If you lead with your shoulder, they’re defenseless. If you lead with your head, it’s helmet-to-helmet. The officials have a hard judgment call, but it’s hard on a defensive coach. I’m very concerned with where it’s headed. We’ll all be playing flag football here in about 15 years.”

With these rules, coaches are worried that if players can’t aim for the upper body, they’ll start zoning in on the legs.

“We’re going to have some nasty knees now,” Brown said. “If Sergio [Kindle] had gone at [Texas Tech quarterback Taylor] Potts’ knees, he’d have broken his leg.”

Regardless of the cringe factor that’s setting in, players won’t hold back.

“I always go 100 miles per hour. I’ll worry about all that health stuff 10 years from now when I’m done playing,” Gideon said. “I’m making memories now. We all knew what we were signing up for when we started playing football.”