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Practice! Practice! Practice!

Each Team Trains Differently, but All Have One Thing in Common: Hard Work


Hell Week.

Football players dread it.

Five to seven days of physical and emotional challenges. Two or three practices a day. Extreme heat. Dirty, sweaty, grimy uniforms. Tired, sore muscles.

Each team in the county has a distinctive signature for the start of "fall" practice, which began for all but a handful of teams Aug. 26 with three days of conditioning without football gear.

Hell Week prepares players for the football season. It has gone through a lot of changes over the decades. In many cases it's not as harsh or doesn't last as long as it once did, yet it still provides memories that players carry with them long after they graduate: the distinct smell of freshly cut grass; two-mile runs in full gear under the blazing sun; much-needed water breaks; ranting and raving coaches.

Some kids quit. And by the time the first game of the season rolls around this week, all of the blood, sweat and salty tears will seem worth it for the thousands who survived it.

Sunrise Service

The grinding music of Rage Against the Machine pours out of a boom box at 5:15 a.m. and fills the gymnasium at Servite High in Anaheim. Half-awake and nervous, the Friars, sporting shaved heads, are solemnly putting on gear for the first day of contact under early morning moonlight.

The gym is littered with mattresses, video games, small refrigerators, portable fans. Players bunk on the basketball court for four days, eat meals together and attend three practices a day. They're up at 5 every morning and won't go to bed until 11.

"You've got to be committed to do this," said Laguna Hills transfer Jason Garza, a junior. "I came because they say it is more like family here."

Coach Larry Toner emerges from spartan sleeping quarters in an office down the hall. His eyes are puffy as he cuts a path between mattresses. He has been on patrol, as he will be for most of the week, off and on all night. Despite prohibitions from priests and coaches, the Friar tradition of hazing new players continues when the lights go out in the gym.

Toner likens Friar Hell Week to boot camp.

"This gives them definitive focus, concentration, bonding and availability," he said. "It's not the easiest thing to accomplish. You can't get away from it. There's no respite."

At 6 a.m. the Friars are hard at work under illumination from a few porch lights from nearby houses and a near-full moon set low in the sky. Like cadets, they drop to the soggy ground over and over again and pop right back up in unison during warmup drills. They conclude with the "Hut Drill," a Friar tradition.

There are groans and by 6:30 the distinctive popping noise of pads on pads echoes across the practice field. In an area where offensive and defensive lines have been hitting and hitting and hitting, the field is already a muddy mess.

Friar coaches will be hoarse by the time practice ends.

The players have fire in their sweaty expressions, hidden deep behind face guards covered with mud and sweat.

One player swears when he misses a tackle.

"Drop and give me 25," Toner hollers. "It's OK for us to talk like that, but I don't want to hear it from you, son. Good gravy!"

The sun climbs slowly above the practice field and brings with it the sweet smells of bacon, ham and eggs being cooked by parents in the school cafeteria some distance away.

The smells from the cafeteria become distracting on the field. Toner gives the team a water break. Players stand shoelace deep on a muddy running track to guzzle from several leaky containers. They never remove their helmets, although the moon has slipped out of the sky and it's warmed enough to dry the grass. The Friars hit some more and then it's over for a few hours.

Time for breakfast.

Beach City

Fog brings a welcome relief at Edison High on the third and last day of conditioning drills. While inland schools baked, the Chargers ran in silence through the thick blanket of moisture that rolled up from Huntington State Beach, turning the practice field into a damp playground.

But Mother Nature wasn't cooperating on the opening day of full-contact drills and the Chargers, wearing green and gold uniforms, toiled like every other county team under a searing morning sun.

Jim Collins, one of several on-lookers seated on old wooden bleachers, has attended just about every Charger practice and game over the last 21 years. His grandson played on the 1985 Charger team that shared the Southern Section Division I football title with Long Beach Poly.

A lot has changed over the years, Collins said.

"I can remember having 100 kids out on the practice field when my grandson was here," he said. "Today, you're lucky if you get 40 on the varsity."

Some things remain the same, though. This is, after all, Surf City, and a laid-back atmosphere is evident. An inscription on a coach's shirt reads: "Action speaks louder than coaches." There are high-fives and bear hugs between coaches and players.

The Charger staff is mostly dressed in T-shirts, baggy shorts and wearing sunglasses. Some coaches are bare chested.

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