Navy freshman slotback Luke Lagera looks drained after another up-tempo, two-hour football practice in the hot sun. But the plebe from Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, destined to spend his first season playing on the scout team and junior varsity, has some cause for celebration.
He's getting his legs back.
Lagera's demanding, introductory summer at the Naval Academy - a seven-week endurance test of the body and mind known as "plebe summer" - has a way of slowing down an 18-year-old football player.
Starting in early July, incoming students experience a daily 18-hour schedule built around nonstop tasks typically ordered by screaming commanding officers. Chief among the duties is rigorous exercise, ranging from calisthenics to obstacle and combat course work to runs of two to five miles every other day. Before mandatory lights out at 11:15 p.m., the only hint of relaxation after the 5:45 a.m. wakeup comes with each of the day's three meals.
For Lagera and the rest of the 54 plebes comprising this year's recruiting class, football practice actually provides a temporary escape from the exhausting monotony centered in Bancroft Hall. But the wear and tear of plebe summer is readily apparent in guys like Lagera, who struggled early in camp with weight loss, dropped passes, and fatigue that reduced his mind to mush and his legs to jelly.
"It's a whole new lifestyle. Every day, you're thinking, is this right for me? What am I doing?" said Lagera, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament during his senior year at Lake Travis and rehabilitated his knee before coming to Annapolis. "I was quick in high school. But once you run all of those long distances, you come out here and it takes forever to get started.
"The game is a lot quicker. The hits are harder. You've been getting five hours of sleep every day. But in the end, you come out here and you're playing football. Every plebe has to find something that keeps him motivated. I'll definitely make it through. I won't quit."
Some will give up on football at some point, concentrating more on academics and their careers as future Navy or Marine officers. The ones who stay feed a program that has flourished under fifth-year coach Paul Johnson, who has guided the Mids to 26 victories, three straight bowl games and two consecutive postseason victories since 2003.
Plebes had quite a hand in Navy's initial turnaround. After the team's 2-10 finish in 2002, 15 freshmen received varsity action during a 2003 rebound to 8-5. These included now-senior fixtures such as linebacker David Mahoney, defensive backs Jeremy McGown and Keenan Little, and receiver Jason Tomlinson.
This year's squad features several freshmen who have moved onto the depth chart in recent days. They include defensive backs Blake Carter and Jeromy Miles, defensive lineman Nate Frazier, and linebacker Ian Meredith. In a program now more established, they are exceptions to the rule that plebes aren't ready to compete against bigger, stronger men in their early 20s.
"I think you give them every chance in the world," Johnson said. "But you have to understand they are coming off of plebe summer and they are starting brand new and they are 18 years old and they are playing against guys that are 22. So they have to be pretty special to be able to come in and play right away."
Plebe players come in two versions - those, like Lagera, who arrive at the academy straight out of high school, and those, like Carter, who spent a year at Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) in Newport, R.I. There, future plebes tend to their grades and learn the basics about Navy football during something akin to a redshirt year. They also get an abbreviated, three-week taste of plebe summer.
"NAPS prepares you for what to expect, but when you come here [and experience plebe summer], you still have to keep your mind on what's ahead, because you get depressed about what's going on," said Carter, who feeds on the camaraderie of his teammates, both fellow plebes and older players.
"You're not the only one who's out there passing out and sweating profusely. You know in time your legs will be up and going," Carter said. "And you know there's other guys going through it with you, and that all of the upperclassmen have been through it and they came out fine."
Senior Brian Hampton, who is slated to start his first game at quarterback in next Saturday's season opener against East Carolina, has the plebe summer experience etched in his brain. The constant running, either outside or moving about the hall. The endlessly repetitive tasks, such as making and remaking your bed after waking up. Superiors yelling at him. Briefings on academy life, over and over.
"And at that point, we had no [air conditioning] in the hall. You'd take a shower and were sweating immediately. There was a funk all over you, all day long. It was better to be outside," Hampton said.
"I could predict what I was going to do six hours from now. One thing that drove me over here was the monotony. When you get six weeks of that, you want to run over to football."