“The EX Factor” is a new series that examines the value of extracurricular activities in the admissions process as well as in the Tufts community. I will go “undercover” as a participant in various Tufts activities and I will share the experience afterwards. First up: varsity football!
My father and brother will readily confirm the following statement: I never suited up for a football game or a practice session in my life. Until last Thursday.
As an example of “practicing what I preach,” my colleague Justin Pike and I asked Coach Civetti if we could experience D3 athletics—or at least D3 athletic practice—first hand, and he happily made it happen. On Thursday afternoon we spent an hour with the Jumbos for a pre-season practice session.
So why did we do it? As the two admission officers who coordinate football recruitment for Tufts, we welcomed the chance to experience what these players experience, if only for a brief (and mostly painless) moment. As I moved from drill to drill, I gained a new appreciation for the discipline and stamina that varsity football—and all college athletics—requires. As a fan--and perhaps as an admission officer--it’s easy to overlook the work that happens when the bleachers are empty and when the armchair quarterbacks are distracted by other things. Participation in varsity athletics is more than just the minutes measured by the game clock.
First things first, Coach Civetti told us to come to the equipment room to get fitted with pads and a helmet. It wasn't a costume: the coach wasn't going to let us appear on the practice field unprotected. Here was my first impression of this heretofore unseen room in Tufts’ athletic center: someone does a lot of laundry! Jerseys and assorted undergarments were piled everywhere. Tufts Football gets an “A” for cleanliness.
Bob Kenny, the equipment manager, fitted us with our required gear. First came the shoulder pads (which were surprisingly tight once the straps were adjusted), then the helmet (surprisingly heavy), a mouth guard (uh oh…), padded under-shorts (very gladiator-like) and cleats (which seemed like ice skates as I walked through the athletic center). And what was the perfect accessory to this new outfit? My bowtie peeked out from beneath my shoulder pads. I was ready for my very first football practice (sans bowtie).
It was 81 and muggy when Coach Beaton met us outside the fitness center at 4 o’clock for our walk to the practice field. I learned that Jumbo athletes (of every sport) never step on the “T” in the sidewalk as they cross College Avenue and head towards the fields (it’d be disrespectful of alma mater) and the footballers always start jogging as soon as they reach the grass. That’s when I realized my aerobic capacity might not be ready for what was coming. (And I wasn’t wrong.)
When Justin and I arrived on the field, the offensive and defensive units were already engaged in various drills, and we tried to join them as unobtrusively as possible. But who were we kidding? Everyone noticed the 50 year-old dean in shoulder pads as I trotted across midfield. We were told to join the group (the special teams unit, I’m guessing) that was catching punts. Justin went first. The ball sailed high over his head while he ran in circles trying to anticipate where it would land; he misjudged it. Then it was my turn: it was same outcome as I squinted up at the late afternoon sun and watched the football dive towards me. This was not an auspicious start.
The punter was Xavier Frey, a moose of a sophomore from New Canaan, CT. I first met Xavier (or “X-Man,” as the coach called him) when I visited his high school a couple of years ago, and I vividly recall his vice-grip handshake that nearly brought me to my knees. And now I discovered that Xavier’s punts are as potent as his handshake: his second kick flew well over my head with no chance that I would (or could) ever retrieve it. But now I know how I might have done it: keep my elbows at my side and make a basket catch against my chest.
Having botched the special teams drill, next up was the kicking unit, where we learned how to boot the ball through the uprights. It always seems like a given during any NFL or college game but, well... My two attempts skimmed the grass (as if I were playing kickball) and both went wide to the left of the goalpost. Justin fared much better: at least his efforts were airborne. I was just relieved that I had not kicked the placeholder rather than the football.
Stretching was next, and I was happy to finally encounter a drill I could do. But I learned it is VERY hard to run backwards and it is not much easier to skip sideways in cleats. Sprints plopped me on the sod. The running and the heat snagged me, and I told Coach Civetti I needed to “take five” (but it was more like 10...) before the dean of admissions wilted on the field. I mostly needed to take off my helmet for a moment or two and catch my breath. It was unbelievably hot inside it.
I regrouped, and then Justin and I were paired up to block and/or run past each other (as if one of us were a running back evading tackle). I took my first hit. Let’s just say I appreciated why I’d been given a mouth guard…and I wished someone had told me to stick it in my mouth before my 25-year old colleague charged into me. Lesson learned.
The offensive line unit was probably the most ridiculous training station I encountered: I weigh 167-pounds and I am hardly a barrier to anything. The OL coach showed us how to ram the hand shield and then run towards the next player (each other), and Justin and I were off with a thud awaiting us.
And then our hour was up and Coach Civetti summoned the team to the sideline for a quick huddle. He invited me to say a few words, and I thanked the squad for letting Justin and me share their field for a few sweaty minutes—and for their good humor and kindness as we did so.
My afternoon in a Jumbo jersey gave me a renewed respect for the raw athleticism and precision that makes a kick sail through the uprights, or fuels a backwards sprint in pursuit of a towering punt or enables a bobbing midfield run that eludes a tackle. I never got to catch or throw a pass but I’m being realistic about the trajectory it would have taken. (Remember my kick.) The players make these things seem effortless when it is not without effort. It takes practice and talent and teamwork. And teamwork, just to name one, is one of those “21st century skills” that college admissions officers, among others, like to celebrate. That’s one of the reasons why athleticism “counts.” It’s a talent, one manifestation of personal excellence that an admission officer takes into account as an application is evaluated. (And, if I'm being honest, it’s one that I am not blessed to possess.)
When the Jumbos open at home against Bowdoin on October 5, I’ll be cheering from the stands with a fresh perspective about how they prepared for that moment.
Invitations from the various Jumbo clubs and organizations are welcome for my next EX gig.