“Pineapple,” one player shouted loudly. His response was the only choice for word day at the Central Alberta Buccaneers tryout.
Among the crowd of 30 or so grown men, stood a nervous journalist veiled as an athlete, trying to take in the tryout experience.
Not the smallest, tallest, skinniest or largest player, it was easy for me to unassumingly slip into the background at the Bucs second open indoor tryout of the winter.
It was an experiment in athletic vigour for this intrepid reporter, trying to immerse myself into the inner workings of the football team. Perhaps see if I had the chops to hang around with the big boys, despite very little of in-depth knowledge of the sport.
That’s not to say I’m an idiot when it comes to football – I play in two regular fantasy football leagues. I’ve played plenty of downs for flag football teams in different places and a fair share of reps in the video game Madden.
Fortunately the tryout was non-contact, no helmets or pads. At 175 pounds and in terrible shape, bones could have easily ended up in several pieces quickly.
So with that, on athletic ability alone I dove into the tryout head first.
First off, Hollywood America ill-prepared me for a senior Canadian football tryout.
There were no coaches with clipboards constantly yelling, no run until you puke drills (although I felt like I was going to on several occasions) and no hitting.
In my limited experience of inside the huddle information, I joined the defensive back group, aka the usually the shortest and quickest players on the field. It’s mostly a reactionary position from what I’d seen in my time watching football, so I figured it’d be the best place.
After some careful instruction on a few footwork drills, we went to work. Athletic ability and teenage years playing competitive hockey carried me through this part.
Everything was going swimmingly for the first half hour or so of these drills, until they broke out the ladder. The ladder goes on the ground and you do various footwork exercises running through it. This attempt at coordination nearly killed me.
There was one particular motion where you drive your knee up in a running motion and then put it back down on the ground and shuffle forward, without raising your other leg. It’s as confusing as it sounds. After stumbling mightily and expecting laughter and ridicule, a veteran player took me aside.
He encouragingly taught me step-by-step the drill that I couldn’t grasp. He explained the drill was a reminder to jump start the brain, an interruption of the natural running motion.
No laughs, no embarrassment, just brotherhood. There were high fives from every guy in the line the next time I went through, as there was for every player good or bad. For a moment, you were part of the team, even in a tryout.
During one-on-one drills about an hour later, there was another moment, where everybody watched me, the new guy swat a pass away from a long time player. In a one-on-one, a wide receiver runs a route, the quarterback tries to throw him the ball. The defensive back has to tightly cover the receiver and attempt to knock the ball away.
The aforementioned pass was “under thrown” according to the veteran, but his gripe was quickly vetoed. Everyone congratulated me for a simple accomplishment, one that happens hundreds of times on a regular football field, but was monumental for new face in that moment.
There was a touch football game which my team lost, a loss I understand was under protest because of certain rules violations.
There was a little competition to finish the night, but no winners or losers in that one, apparently just bragging rights.
After some stretching, a few platitudes about the terrible off season condition everyone was in, the group broke up to head home.
The most frightening comment came as I was packing up, from defensive back Ryan Miller, who like me hails from Ontario.
“Look pretty good out there. Might want to think about strapping on the pads when the season starts,” he said.
I laughed, thought ‘no way’ and went home to stick to what I’m best at, watching hockey.
Byron Hackett is the Advocate’s sports reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org