There’s being in shape — and then there’s being in football shape.
Every coach says it. In fact, it’s bandied about so much that it’s become cliche. After spending my Saturday morning participating in the Philadelphia Soul’s open tryout, I vow to no longer roll my eyes when a coach tells me that.
“Even athletes we bring in, when they come in and they make the final team, they won’t be in football shape until Week 2 or Week 3,” said Soul head coach Clint Dolezel.
I went into the tryout raw. My only experiences playing “organized” football came from running post routes in the backyard with my buddies. But I do consider myself a fit, 32-year-old. I hit the gym four or five times a week.
So as I volunteered for this assignment (yes, it was my idea) I didn’t feel a need to train. I continued with my normal workouts, only stepping them up by adding a 20-yard shuttle run, 40-yard dash and standing broad jump in the days leading up to the tryout.
As I arrived at the NovaCare Complex, I felt nervous, but confident. I went through the registration process, got my number (221) and listened to former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski’s advice.
“If you fall down, get up and continue the drill. Don’t cut yourself,” said Jaworski, who serves as Soul president and part owner.
Fighting for reps
Despite my legs feeling like anchors, I survived every challenge thrown at me. Sure, my times were slow, but I hadn’t embarrassed myself, at least not to my knowledge. Then came passing drills. We were divided into position-specific groups and I followed the skill guys. It was unorganized. Guys were jumping the line and fighting each other for reps, but I somehow managed to go out for three routes: a slant, dig and post. I caught the slant (in stride), got overthrown on the dig and was underthrown on the post.
All the while, Dolezel was shouting instructions and yelling, “We don’t run that route,” when someone messed up.
Next, 1-on-1 drills. That meant going mano-a-mano against a corner. After a 20-minute wait — my body was tighter than elastic wrap — I got my shot.
Not “rare” this time
Ten-yard hitch. I ran and turned and the ball slammed off my hand. Dolezel huddled us up and called out numbers. No. 221 didn’t leave his lips.
“You’ll find the roughs everyone once in awhile, the guys that don’t have any experience, but they’re rare,” Dolezel would tell me afterwards. I wasn’t in that rare group. My day was over.
1. For me, the experiment to try out for the Soul wasn’t about making a professional football team. This was about dispelling myths. The first being that all reporters are out-of-shape slobs that have never attempted to walk in the shoes of the athletes they cover. I competed. But I’ll bite my tongue the next time an Eagles player drops an “easy” catch.
2. Sometimes people think arena football isn’t real football. That’s not true. These guys were running NFL-style combine drills and turning in times worthy of a second look.
Rare diamonds in the ‘rough’
Most AFL rosters are stacked with guys that made it to an NFL training camp and got released. There are exceptions. The Soul, established in 2004, have found three players — Nyere Aumaitre, Jerome Hayes, Keith Stokes – from open tryouts that eventually became starters.
Frankford High alum’s ‘dream’ still elusive
The Soul divided us into three different groups to start the tryout. Judging by appearances, it had to do with ages, heights and weights. Luckily, I got paired with Jason Singletary – a 35-year-old from South Philadelphia.
Singletary, who played at Frankford High, was making his seventh attempt at cracking the Soul roster. He was forced to leave last year’s October tryout early after injuring his quadriceps, but he returned to compete in the January one. He didn’t make the Soul, but a scout for the Indoor Gridiron League (IGL) – it’s a feeder program for the Soul – spotted him and signed him.
Singletary played cornerback for the Richmond Colts last season.
“This [playing professional football] is my dream, my goal,” Singletary said. “Until I make that final goal, I’m going to keep going.”
Words to live by. Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh was stacking boxes in a warehouse 3-4 years ago. Now, he’s one of the top-3 quarterbacks in the Arena Football League.
“Even though I didn’t make the cut, I still feel confident,” Singletary said. “I’m 35. Come on. I’ll be back next year.”