ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.
It is hot. It is humid. It is the perfect weather to snap on a seven-pound helmet and run around for four hours or five hours - maybe if you're 16 or 17. High school football practice is underway and so is our series, Friday Night Lives. Coaches are telling players that the sacrifices of August will translate to toughness this fall.
NPR's Mike Pesca visited two top teams to find out if that message is sinking in, along with the heat.
Mr. JEFF CERRO (Line Coach, Piscataway Chiefs): Hey, didnt I just do that, Mort? Didnt I just do that? Did I not just do that?
MIKE PESCA: Two-a-days.
Mr. CERRO: Did I not just do that? What the hell are you doing? (unintelligible)
PESCA: For soldiers, it's basic training. For accountants, tax season. For football players, summer two-a-days.
(Soundbite of a whistle)
PESCA: This is the working-class town of Piscataway, New Jersey, home of the fear-inducing, high-flying Piscataway Chiefs. Jeff Cerro, the impassioned line coach is a former Chief, as are all but one member of the coaching staff. Sweating out this 94 degree heat are the players who hope to make this team state champion for the fifth time this decade.
Mr. DAN HIGGINS (Head Coach, Piscataway Chiefs): Some guys are giving into the pain. Some guys are working through it. You could tell a lot by going through these hot August workouts.
PESCA: Head coach Dan Higgins is a policeman by night working the third shift right here in Piscataway. Maybe its because his father was the Piscataway head coach in the '70s and '80s, but Dan describes coaching this team as a calling. Though, today, all the calling he's doing is calling out his players to reject fatigue and complacency.
Mr. HIGGINS: Physical, mental toughness is the ability...
PESCA: This is the start of the p.m. practice and players seem grateful to be roused. A few minutes ago, many slumped on the bleachers of the stifling gym, darkened under that old public school trope that shutting the lights brings the temperature down a few degrees.
This was sophomore Javier Cruz's first day practicing with the varsity.
Mr. JAVIER CRUZ: It's not, like, killing me yet.
PESCA: Cruz despairs there are tangible rewards of sacrifice all around him. More than a dozen Piscataway grads are playing in college on scholarships. The current team has a number of offers, including wide receiver Jawaun Wynn, who didn't even start last year, but will be playing for Rutgers next year. .TEXT: Wynn took advantage of the off-season camp and combine circuit. Rodney Wynn was one of a dozen fathers who pitched a tent and grilled burgers in the shade, as their sons practiced.
Mr. RODNEY WYNN: Me and Jawaun been running around since February, going to from camps, combines, everywhere since February. And, you know, he just been showcasing himself trying to get a scholarship out of it, which he got out of it. But we put a lot of miles on the car since February. And now we're here in August.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WYNNE: Yeah, it's been a lot.
(Soundbite of a whistle)
PESCA: About 75 miles south of Piscataway, another top-flight team absorbed a highly detailed lesson in punt coverage under the noonday sun.
Mr. GIL BROOKS (Head Coach, St. Joseph's Preparatory School): You get the kill shot. But only take the kill shot if you got it. What has to be there for the kill shot?
PESCA: The man speaking the jargon of kill shots and jams is Gil Brooks, head coach of St. Joseph's Prep. The Prep is a powerhouse in the Philadelphia Catholic League and has been nationally ranked as recently as a few years ago. Each year, the team spends a week at a day camp in south Jersey for three-a-days. Brooks is demanding of his players, but also of himself. As a lawyer, he often has to return to his office when practice ends.
Mr. BROOKS: I'm not a big sleep guy. I - four to six and I'm okay. I don't have other hobbies, really. You know, I have my kids, but I dont have too many other hobbies. I don't golf. I don't do too many other things except prep football. So...
PESCA: Brooks' players are similarly driven. They test into St. Jo's. As befits a team of thinkers, Brooks instructs through interrogation, constantly questioning his players as he coaches. It helps that Brooks' mind doubles as the encyclopedia of Philadelphia football. He casually references specific plays from games long ago, sometimes before the players were even born.
Mr. DAN SWEENEY: No one has any idea of what he's talking about.
PESCA: Dan Sweeney, a senior receiver, says the players are in awe whenever Brooks recounts a reverse by Cardinal O'Hara in '98, but sometimes they're just nodding out of obligation.
Mr. SWEENEY: We've had a couple of instances where kids try to fake it. But it never really works because he's got the most insightful memory. But we've learned to respect him so much just because of everything he does for the team.
PESCA: Grueling summer practices are but one part of Sweeney's devotion to football. All the players train year round. Football dictates family vacations and limits the scope of other extracurricular possibilities. Joe Sweeney, Dan's dad, is also a graduate of The Prep. He recognizes the year-round commitment of his son and of all the sons.
Mr. JOE SWEENEY: In all honesty, itd be very difficult to miss more than a week or two, because most of the summer session is conditioning. And if you are away from that part of the game for an extended period of time, it will show.
PESCA: That's the fear and the fact. Every player on Piscataway knows if he relents, his opposite number on Sayreville may be powering through one more set in the weight room. Everyone at St. Jo's is driven by the vision of the guy he has to defend on LaSalle, somewhere out there, outworking him. Hundreds of players in each conference, millions nationwide, in a collective network of worry and hard work, punishment and repetition. The promise is that it will pay off in wins. The reality is half the time it won't, but at least this week, camp is ending and the season is about to begin.
Mike Pesca, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And we'd like your help with our high school football series. Tell us what you'd like to hear about or share a story from your city or your town. You can do that by going to npr.org/football. You can also share photos and videos of your team destroying the cross-town rival, or at least making a good effort.