One of the most important questions players ask following the end of football season is, “What about next year?”
For many guys it’s a time of reflection on the season they just had, from triumphs and accomplishments, to failures and what-ifs. Rest assured, the moment that final whistle blows, you’ve showered, gotten on the bus or back to your car, it’s time to mentally gear up for the next season.
Breaks are few and far between at this level of collegiate football, with an offseason that spans from winter through spring. Those on the outside looking in might think that this includes long periods of vacation time away from football. This is certainly not the case, even though most of the day is occupied by other things such as class, and yes, more opportunities for “free” time.
Of course, less football doesn’t mean the absence of football altogether. Winter conditioning and lifting take place in the early morning, transitioning into spring football, where regularly-scheduled practice is added into the mix. Summer requires an even greater amount of focus — morning lifting and conditioning, as well team-led activities such as 7-on-7 with the skill positions, all taking place without the coaches. Throughout those times, players are still required to meet their academic requirements, get stronger in the weight room, stay in shape, and stay committed to finding time to perfect their craft.
All of this preparation starts early. And it’s all in anticipation of Game Number One.
So here we are! It’s finally game week of the new season. The roster is set, the depth chart is finalized, and the primary focus is beating someone in an off-colored jersey. At Mizzou, players are taught that the most important game is the next one on the schedule. They’re also taught to over-prepare in efforts to introduce that preparation to whomever that opponent might be.
You start with a day off from all football activities. It is a day to recharge, yet prepare mentally for the next 5 days. It’s a chance to get a jump-start to the school week or— for those slated for travel squad that week— to go over the game plan in the MATC with the coordinators.
You receive your binder in position group meetings. They’re tailored specifically with names on the spine and the opponent on the cover, and come equipped with the game plan and the opponent’s personnel groups inside the binder itself.
It’s here that you get your first glimpse of the upcoming opponent. From here, the focus becomes getting to know the opponent from top to bottom, refreshing yourself on the film, and getting to know the opponent’s tendencies. This is week one, so habits and routine are set from this day forward.
Tuesday — Thursday
The middle of the week is all about practice. All through class, the anticipation brews to strap up the pads and put everything into motion. A typical practice day starts with Tape and Weigh-in at 1:50pm, followed by at least three types of meetings before practice even starts. Tuesday’s team meetings are different because players review the opponent’s personnel for the first time as a group on the big screen. This gives everyone a face-to-face look at who they’ll be squaring off against. Each player’s name, height, weight, year, and accolades are discussed. No matter how tall or small the task may be, you have to know and respect your opponent.
Practices are constructed from the top down in an effort to create game situations that are so tough, taxing, and realistic, that the game appears “easier.” Players tend to hit a little harder, yell a little louder, and stand to be a little more edgy on Tuesdays. Wednesday practices are shoulder pads and helmets, where they’ll still “thud” one another, but ease off. The goal is to compete, but remember that they’re still going against teammates.
Thursdays are shells practices where minimal gear is utilized, and it’s time to put together the week’s scheme in a lighter, faster practice. Every play call, every catch, every personnel grouping, every rep is scripted. It’s no “off” day though. Thursdays are specifically designed to lead into something called, “48 Hour Preparation.”
During the last 48 hours leading up to game time, you lock in on the opponent. Guys playing in the game will meet shortly after practice, just before dinner at the MATC, then reconvene later that evening for group film. Why meet late on a Thursday? Because the temptation to engage in non-football-related activities that can hurt the body, get players in trouble, or throw off a player’s focus never goes away. To assure that temptation isn’t succumbed to, certain events and meetings are scheduled during times where those sorts of things can take place. Accountability is key for all players, especially during 48-Hour Preparation.
Fridays morning involves a short lift session. You usually lift twice a week at scheduled times, but Friday is all about getting good pump. The air seems thicker this day, the anticipation of the next day hanging in the air. After the lift, you head to class for the day, then return to the MATC for offensive and defensive walk-throughs.
When that’s all said and done, everyone heads up to the meeting rooms for the test. You’re met with a printout of the weekend’s schedule, and a test with 3-4 pieces of paper stapled together. Who is this week’s opponent’s Left Corner? Who is their backup Free Safety that rotates down to Right Corner? How old is their WILL Backer? What percentage of the time do they show Nickel on 3rd downs? These are all questions you should know based on the week’s preparation.
Once tests have been completed, everyone heads to a brief team meeting with the Head Coach. By now, two charter buses have pulled up outside the MATC and wait for the meeting to adjourn. If you’re home, you’re headed to the team hotel in CoMo. If you’re hitting the road, it’s off to Columbia Regional.
Preparation doesn’t stop once you get to the hotel, though. You immediately head to the conference or ballroom for dinner, where there’s a no talking policy. “Pass the salt” becomes a simple point of the finger. As the Head Coach files his way into the room, the team chaplain leads a prayer and everyone takes a seat to enjoy the meal.
Once finished, you have just enough time to put your things in your room before getting dressed in team-issued travel shirts and shorts. Then it’s back downstairs for more special teams, unit, and position meetings. It’s here where you get back your graded tests.
Players sit as a unit in a circle and go over the answers, along with their goals and expectations for the game tomorrow. They then break into unit meetings before a final team meeting at the end of the night. Strength and Conditioning Coaches open the doors to a ballroom, where players enter to a hype video provided by the video staff. The objective is to have energy, so don’t be the guy who walks in with a dull attitude. Imagine a room full of teammates entering a dark room with nothing but a small projector for light, jumping up and down to a video of you and your teammates hitting, flying around, and being excited to play football. The chills never get old.
The Head Coach says a few words as the coaches exit the room. From there, captains address the team before everyone breaks to get some sleep.
Strength and Conditioning Coaches have been up for a while, setting up foam rollers, bands, and other preventative equipment down by the pool and hot tub for guys who want to get an early stretch. A pregame meal is served early and— like dinner the night before— is silent.
Similarly, there’s no noise on the ride to the stadium. Headphones are at a dull roar so as to not distract other guys who are trying to prepare mentally as well. Particularly in Columbia, the ride to the stadium is where it starts to sink in. The Tiger tails hanging from cars, the lines of cars parked along Stadium Boulevard, and the fans who cheer as the bus rolls by — it makes everything feel real. You arrive at Faurot Field, grab your belongings and head to the locker room through a tunnel of fans. In Columbia, it’s called Tiger Walk, but you don’t treat it any differently than if it was on the road.
Arriving at an opponent’s stadium feels like entering a battlefield. You get taped up, strapped up with shoulder pads with jerseys already fitted, pants, gloves, girdles — all the equipment is waiting for you right alongside protein bars and Gatorade.
You take turns taking the field for pregame stretch and warm-ups, adhering closely to the schedule on the inside of the door. Believe it or not, it’s pretty quiet in the locker room, aside from the occasional guy who just can’t help himself out of excitement.
Once everyone is back in the locker room, the waiting begins for the countdown to hit zero. Coach addresses you for the final time, the captains take the field for the coin toss, and you ready yourself to storm the field.
This is what you’ve prepared for all these months. All the nerves seem to find an eerie peace as the light at the end of that tunnel approaches. You feel like a Tiger stalking his prey, ready to put your months of preparation to work.
It’s Game Week.
It’s Game Day.