LONG BEACH — The autumn game always seems so distant in the spring, but on the campus football field at Cal State Long Beach last Saturday, it was evident from the growls, groans and sweat that September had come early.
It was the 49ers' annual Brown-Gold intra-squad game to conclude spring practice, a contest designed to be fun and entertain players' friends and parents, who brought lawn chairs and cameras and stayed for a picnic of barbecued chicken.
But the players, who have grown up learning to be fanatical when confronted with someone in a different-colored jersey, battled their teammates as if the league championship were at stake.
As Coach Mike Sheppard said, "It's nice to see people get after each other."
Jubilation and chants followed good plays while breakdowns brought dejection, expletives and impromptu seminars to locate the guilty parties, just like on fall Saturdays when the games count.
Joe Iosefa, an enthusiastic junior offensive tackle from Hawaii, looked as if he had been wrestling a bear, which would be a good match because Iosefa weighs 300 pounds.
Pads stuck out from his dirty gold pants, which had tape wrapped around them. Chalk dust from the yard lines spotted his huge calves and pieces of brown grass stuck to his brawny arms.
A soaked gray T-shirt stuck out from beneath his No. 75 jersey. He wore black gloves.
Trough More Suitable Than Cup
Teammates called him "Horse" and suggested that a trough would be more suitable than a paper cup when he got thirsty, which seemed to be all the time.
He and the other Brown offensive linemen would gather around assistant coach Artie Valero and discuss their stances and blocking techniques, snort some profanity and get ready to go back on the field where, they vowed, they would continue to "kick --- " while protecting quarterback Doug Gaynor.
All spring they had done a good job of doing that but Saturday the Gold's defense reached Gaynor a couple of times, although it could only touch him because hitting the quarterback wasn't allowed.
But Gaynor, who knows too well the discomfort of a real sack, got upset once and followed the linemen, who were also grumbling, over to their little huddle.
After a few words were exchanged, tackle Mike Lilly, 6 feet 4 and 280 pounds, said, "Just blame me and forget about it."
Before the game, Mike Sheppard reflected on his performance last season at Cal State Long Beach, his first as a head coach. He had received acclaim for his imaginative, high-scoring offense and for guiding an inexperienced team to a 4-7 record after a 0-5 start. But he was harsher on himself.
"About a C minus," he said.
"I don't think I was as good at calling the offense from the field as I was upstairs (in the press box)."
As offensive coordinator at Kansas he had worked high above the field, far removed from the confusion of the sidelines where the head coach always has players and assistant coaches tugging at him, people blocking his view and cables and cords to worry about tripping over.
"I didn't have good sideline organization," he said. "I'd look for a guy (to send into the game) and he wasn't there." Delay-of-game penalties plagued the 49ers.
Sheppard has designated poise as the No. 1 goal for him and his players. "We will not beat ourselves this year," he said.
Learned Lesson About Team
What Sheppard, 33, learned most from last year was that "the team reflects my personality and attitude more than I ever dreamed. If I acted a certain way, if I showed frustration--which I tried not to do--they thought that was the way they should act."
Many people would want their sons to emulate Sheppard. A friendly, polite man who once played football at California Lutheran College, he does not blanch at the salty language of football people, but is not entirely comfortable around it. He cares for his assistant coaches and is interested in their futures. He let them be head coaches Saturday while he observed.
"I think I'm a nice person," he said before walking to the field to greet parents and other coaches, including John Robinson of the Rams, whose son, David, is a 49er tight end.
"The last two weeks he (David) has been super," Sheppard said to Robinson, and then put in a few words about Gaynor, sort of a favorite son of his own:
"Doug is really good, Coach."
Gaynor, a senior, is the team's star. Last season he was third in the country in total offense and threw severe scares into Pac-10 powers UCLA and Arizona before they barely beat the 49ers.
He has long hair that spills out of the back of his helmet, but muscles are his most notable feature. He can bench press 425 pounds.
"The only quarterback in the world who looks like a linebacker," said teammate Dave Komendat.
The 6-2, 210-pound Gaynor completed 5 of 13 passes in the game Saturday, one for a touchdown in the Brown's 10-0 victory. He also ran 30 yards on one play, displaying the speed it is hard to believe he possesses.