High school football better MTV-free

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 10, 2005

No high school football practice I have ever seen was like the one I saw last Thursday at Marion Military Institute.

Hoover High School was in town, holding their annual training camp on the campus of MMI. The practice I attended was heavy on special teams and kicking work while various other units went through drills on the edges of the field. Nothing unusual about that.

But that’s about all that was usual for an Alabama high school football practice. For starters, as one of the largest high schools in the state, three-time defending 6A state football champions, and a top-ten-ranked program nationally, Hoover arrived in Marion well-equipped. By “well-equipped,” I mean that they had stationary bikes along the practice field, a trailer full of pads and equipment, several giant fans to keep the players cool, and more bottles of water than Atlanta has of Coke. The Bucs had enough staff on hand to keep Birmingham’s airport running smoothly, much less its favorite high school football team. In short, saying Hoover’s football team was well-equipped is like saying Dennis Rodman’s a little on the weird side.

Remember, too, that Hoover brought all this down with them from Birmingham. (What’s their locker room like? Gold-plated showerheads? Silk athletic tape?) But the thing that Hoover arrived with that made their practice the strangest? MTV camera crews, enough that they could have stopped to film a Puff Daddy video if he’d been in the area. Hoover agreed to let the alleged music network film a documentary mini-series about the football team, and there wasn’t one drill, one knocked-over dummy, one practice field goal snap that wasn’t caught on tape. Seen a fair amount of punt block drills in my life, but until Thursday I’d never seen one with a guy holding a camcorder standing a yard behind the defensive tackles as the ball was snapped.

What might have been strangest of all was that the Hoover players and coaches didn’t seem to notice the MTV crews at all. The way they ignored them, you’d think they’d have always plowed into a blocking sled with a camera lens six inches away from their facemask. You’d have thought the head coach, Rush Propst, would already have spent years with two grown men following him around with a boom mike and a huge fanny pack full of electronic equipment.

That reaction (or lack of it) was especially strange considering the response I’ve gotten visiting area football practices as just one guy with a run-of-the-mill digital snapshooter, namely lots of stares and “You going to put me in the paper?” and, once or twice, a look in my direction after a good play to see if I got it on film.

But for the most part, the kids in our area do the same thing with me skirting the edges of practice around that Hoover’s did with MTV breathing their necks: go on about the business of playing and practicing the game of football. And that’s why as fascinating as Hoover’s practice at MMI was, I enjoyed myself more at the two I visited in Linden later that afternoon. No one from MTV chattered away over a wireless headset on the sidelines of Marengo Academy’s session. No one from Linden High pedaled away on a stationary bike in their downtime.

Which, for me, is the way it just oughta be. I know good and well those kids wouldn’t have minded a bit if MTV decided to show up in Linden for the length of the season. I know that bike might come in handy every now and again, and I’m not going to pretend a souped-up blocking sled or a set of brand-new practice jerseys wouldn’t be welcomed with wide-open arms on just about every practice field in the area.

But speaking as a fan, football is best when all that fancy stuff is stripped away. It’s better without players worrying where a TV camera is or taking care not to trip over a generator cord. It’s better when all there is is football: the smell of mown grass, the bark of a coach’s whistle, the clatter of shoulder pads as players pull themselves off the turf and trudge back to the huddle. It’s better with the sunset’s long shadows and the trap run six straight times to iron out one wrinkle and the trucks lined up by the fence and the offensive tackle fighting himself to stay upright for the last ten yards of the day’s last wind sprint.

Sure, a lot of that same stuff happens at Hoover’s practices. But when it’s all mixed up with the entire linebacking corps worried about who’s recruiting them, with every coach angling for a better job, with that voice in the back of the head that says “I wonder how this’ll look on MTV”…well, it just can’t mean as much.

I congratulate Hoover on their success and exposure and I hope I get to finish the season reporting on championship games played in their home stadium. But when the season starts, I’m not going to be in Hoover or at the Hoover Met. I’ll be in York, at Sumter County’s field with its little ticket booth and the sign saying “Where Football is Serious Business,” there to see the home Wildcats and the visiting DHS Tigers kick their seasons off. And wherever MTV might be, I could not be any happier about it.