'Real Football' Starts When Players Don the Pads

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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)


KNOXVILLE — Todd Kelly Jr. broke into a smile early Friday afternoon when asked how putting on full football pads instead of running around in a helmet and shorts might change Friday night's practice for the Tennessee football team.

"Coach (Butch) Jones is probably going to say the same thing he's said my first three years," said Kelly, the senior safety whose father starred for the Volunteers at the dawn of the 1990s.

"He's going to say, 'Don't get too focused on full pads. Let's still be smart. Putting pads on doesn't mean you can just throw your body around. Let's continue to play fundamental football.'"

And that's certainly one way to look at how both Tennessee and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football programs probably should have approached their first practices in full gear, which were scheduled to take place Friday night at both schools.

But UTC equipment manager Mike Royster — now an assistant athletic director for equipment and facilities who's beginning his 44th year at the school — has a somewhat different view.

"There's an old saying," Royster noted by phone Friday morning, "that everybody's an All-American in shorts. The players' intensity and coaches' intensity really picks up when you put those pads on. That's when the real football starts."

Real football. Or as UT assistant director for equipment and apparel Allen Sitzler noted while taking a break from a very long day in preparation for Friday night: "When you watch them hit and be hit (with the pads on), you learn who the real football players are."

But as one might expect, there are real differences in the two programs when it comes to equipment and everything else.

For instance, Sitzler has 19 student managers at his disposal. Royster has five.

Beyond that, Sitzler can count more than 400 football helmets when he walks into the UT equipment room, everthing from practice helmets to white game-day helmets to the alternative smokey gray helmets. Asked how many helmets his program has, Royster said, "One hundred fifteen."

Some of that is number of players, of course. The Vols have 85 scholarship players and at least 25 or 30 walk-ons. The Mocs have 63 scholarship players and a similar number of walk-ons. But what the two schools strongly agree on is both the need for safety and how today's current equipment — especially the helmets — has made the game safer.

"You want everything to fit right," Sitzler said. "Safety is the biggest issue, and when things don't fit the way they should, you can get hurt. We don't spare much expense for safety."

In his office, Royster has one of every helmet ever worn by a Mocs football player, going all the way back to the days of leather helmets.

"There's no doubt the game's safer than it used to be, and they're making it safer all the time," Royster said. "Probably the thing we deal with the most when it comes to keeping equipment in top shape is adjusting the air in the air control systems that almost all football helmets have now. You have to check the air level in those helmets — do they have too much or too little? — almost every day."

That doesn't mean these newer, better constructed, concussion-conscious helmets are flawless.

"You can't convince me that you'll ever stop all concussions," Royster said. "But they've come a long way."

And as game day approaches for both the Vols and the Mocs, the student managers of both schools put in long hours making the players look their best each Saturday of the season, even if there's nothing quite as cool as when Notre Dame's managers used to spray-paint the Fighting Irish helmets with paint that contained 23.9 karat gold flakes.

Alas, even that tradition has been farmed out to a professional company rather than Notre Dame students.

But both UT and UTC do all they can to make their helmets look brand-new each week, right down to restriping the helmet or putting a fresh logo on each side.

"That first game (against Georgia Tech on Sept. 4 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium) will take (our student managers) about three hours worth of work on the helmets," Sitzler said. "After that it will probably take around an hour and a half each week."

UTC's take a little longer, mostly because there are 14 fewer managers and the Mocs wear the same headgear in practice that they do in games, which means it's harder work making those helmets look new when they've been colliding with each other all week.

Yet whatever path the equipment guys take to get their teams ready for success, the players seem more than happy to embrace that extra 20 pounds or so they'll now be carting around at least once a week until their seasons end.

"It's not really football," UT senior defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said last week, "until you put on the pads."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]

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August 5, 2017


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