By Katherine Dunn, The Baltimore Sun
11:50 PM EDT, August 31, 2011
When Reggie White was growing up in the 1980s, he spent his summer days outside. When it came time for the first Milford Mill football practice in August, he and his teammates were in pretty good shape and felt acclimated to the heat.
Practice was tough, but White was ready for two workouts a day.
"I clearly remember a lot of running and a lot of hitting and going right back at it," said White, now the football coach at his alma mater, "but the kids I grew up with, we were outside kids. That has a lot to do with it. We were used to being outside and used to being in the heat, so playing in it wasn't anything to us. Now kids spend more time inside than outside with video games and 135 channels of cable."
Getting their players into shape and accustomed to the heat are just two reasons many high school football coaches say they need two practice sessions a day — commonly known as two-a-days — during the early part of preseason.
And the fact that the NFL recently banned two-a-days doesn't mean they need to be eliminated from the high school playbook.
"People forget, what they're doing at [the NFL] level is reviewing skills. We are teaching skills," said Poly coach Roger Wrenn, who's in his 42nd season as a high school coach. "We're not reviewing how to tackle, we're teaching how to tackle. We're not reviewing how to block safely, we're teaching how to block safely. That's hard to do without two-a-days."
Although some coaches, including Dunbar's Lawrence Smith and Edmondson's Dante Jones, don't hold two-a-days, the double approach to preseason practice has been a "rite of passage since the dawn of football," as Meade coach Rich Holzer puts it.
As most teams prepare for their first games Friday or Saturday, neither the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association nor the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association has plans to eliminate two-a-days. Coaches in other fall sports, including soccer, field hockey and volleyball, also hold them, but with the exception of field hockey goalies, none of those players wear heavy padding.
Most local high school football coaches say they doubt the NFL ban, which is part of the new collective bargaining agreement, will trickle down to the high schools, but some fear it will.
White, who spent four years with the San Diego Chargers, said high school players need two-a-days because most don't come to training camp prepared the way NFL players do.
"In the NFL, you get paid, so you're expected to come in in shape. You're expected to be at the top of your game," he said, adding that NFL players have offseason workouts that public high school coaches in Maryland are not allowed to conduct with their teams.
"The offseason regimen that they go through, it's ridiculous," White added.
"In high school, these kids are on summer vacation with Mom and Dad or working a summer job, and you've got to get them back in shape. In Baltimore County, we have only seven days before our first scrimmage, and that's not a lot. You've got to go through a lot before you put equipment on, and you're not going to have enough time" without two-a-days. .
Ned Sparks, executive director of the MPSSAA, said coaches are better educated than ever before about safety issues. They understand the importance of curbing activities on hot days and moving their players gradually into full padding when practice starts.
"There is not — that we know of — any medical research that shows this is inherently bad for children," Sparks said of two-a-days. "It's been part of summer workouts since there have been summer workouts. To rush into abandoning that is something I don't think there is any appetite for. Obviously, there are bounds and you want to be safe, but by the same token, you've got to put in the work."
The last thing coaches want is to have one of their players get hurt or suffer illness because he was overworked in preseason. Like most coaches, McDonogh's Dom Damico runs two-a-days but limits contact.
"I've been a head coach over 22 years, and I've never been big on the old-school, kill-the-kids philosophy," Damico said.
"I followed the current NFL model before the NFL picked it up, where we're almost always shorts and helmets. We rarely hit in practice. We won't have the kids tackle live until our first scrimmage. I protect the kids' heads, I protect the kids' bodies from any unnecessary contact at any time, especially during the first four weeks."
At the high school level, players aren't subject to the number of two-a-days that NFL players were. In Anne Arundel County this fall, coaches could run only two days of double practices because of a Maryland public schools rule forbidding them once teachers report to work.
Practice for the MPSSAA started Aug. 13, and Anne Arundel teachers reported Aug.16. Other area counties and Baltimore City had a week more of two-a-days, while the private schools, which started practice Aug.10, had up to four weeks.
In addition to the physical preparation of preseason, coaches point to the mental preparation, especially in football, in which many of the athletes play on both sides of the ball.
"Two-a-days are absolutely vital when it comes to high school football," said Joppatowne coach Bill Waibel, noting that public school teams have only three weeks to prepare for their first games.
"Even in its simplest form, football is, by far, the most complex game we play. We need the extra time to cover all of these aspects: run offense, pass offense, goal-line offense, punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return, extra point/field goal, run defense, pass defense, short-yardage defense, three or four secondary schemes, two to four defensive schemes, two to six offensive formations … the list goes on."
The one change that could make football coaches willingly give up two-a-days would be an earlier start to preseason workouts.
"I think eventually we will see the [NFL] rule come to us," North Harford coach Ken Brinkman said.
"I am all for it on one stipulation, that the MPSSAA allows us to begin five days earlier. Instead of starting on a Saturday, let us begin on a Monday, and then all schools have equal an amount of preseason instead of the way it currently stands. This way, we could all have two weeks prior to the first scrimmage."
While Sparks said there has been no discussion about adopting that model, there is one viewpoint that all the coaches agree upon:
"You've got to give coaches time to get these kids ready," Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt said. "When you don't know what you're doing, that's when injuries happen."
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