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—Get your knees up!
—Keep that ball high and tight!
—Come on! Let's go! Let's go!
Oh, brother. This is not good.
As a veteran player gets on in age, he loses his patience for rah-rah rituals that he knows are worthless. Grown men with refined football skills do not need to be goaded and harangued. Football is brutal enough without someone yelling at you. And if you make it to the NFL, you're a self-starter. It isn't high school. You aren't dealing with children. Nobody told that to Mangina.
Practice is long and physical. I spend it standing next to my new tight end coach trying to pick up on the terminology. The Browns offense, led by another former Patriots coach/Brady jockstrap carrier, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, is complicated and seems to have no rhyme or reason: arbitrary names for strange concepts. But I have been in the same west-coast offense since Menlo College. I am used to that language. And this system is an entirely different language, so of course it will sound like arbitrary names for strange concepts. But this is the end of training camp. People should know their shit by now. When I ask my new teammates to explain something to me, though, they just shrug.
—Shit, I don't know what to tell you, Nate.
If they don't know it, I'm in trouble.
I play some scout team offense and do okay. But I'm rusty. I was training hard in San Diego, but I wasn't playing football. My run-blocking technique has fallen to shit. I'm not a natural tight end, so for me to be a good blocker, I have to work on that technique every day. The only way to do that is to practice in pads. As horrible as it is strapping up every day and banging heads, it's the only way for a guy like me to have a chance at blocking three-hundred- pound athletes. I have to knock the rust off quickly.
Meanwhile, I'm catching some weird vibes around the building. Things feel off. I'm focused on learning the system as fast as I can, so I don't have a lot of time for psychoanalysis, but it's hard to miss. To a man, the entire Browns team seems to be deep in despair. There is a natural sluggishness that occurs during training camp, but this is something different. The men seem positively broken. They have no fight left in them. The locker room is quiet, so quiet. In Denver, even in the midst of training camp, the locker room was lively and social. Cleveland is a mausoleum. That night at my first team meeting, I learn why.
As I sit down in the emptiest seat I can find, I notice that players have handwritten notes scattered about their desks and their laps. They are reading over them nervously. Coach Mangini, a doughy thirty-eight- year- old frat boy with parted hair and a butt-chin, walks in and takes his place at the podium, a dip in his lip and a Styrofoam cup in his hand. He starts off by welcoming the two new men who were signed to the team that morning: me and some other dude.
—To show them how we do things around here, J.P., stand up. J.P. stands.
—There is a quote written above the door to the locker room; what does it say? —Uh, you must choose: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.
—Very good. You can sit down. Clarence, stand up.
He says it under his breath. Muffled chuckles from the audience.
—We have six core values on this team; what are they?
—Damn. Okay, um, trust, communication . . . um, hard work . . . umm . . .
Someone whispers from behind him.
—That's right, Clarence, focus. Okay, two more. Silence. —Come on, Clarence . . . Can anyone help him out? From somewhere:
—Football is important to you.
—Good. Clarence, you gotta know these. And I'm going to keep calling on you until you do. Sit down. B.J., stand up. Tell me the name and number of every offensive lineman on our roster.