published Monday, August 5th, 2013

Wiedmer: Mocs’ daily walk building a bond

The sound arrives each August and sticks around through November, briefly enlivening a short stretch of the Riverwalk at least five days a week. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

It is the sound of football cleats against the pavement on their way to or from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Scrappy Moore Practice Field. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

It started again this past week as the Mocs began working toward what many predict will be their best season in three decades. On Sunday morning that sound began at 7:20. It was scheduled to be repeated around 6:15 this morning, more than 80 players on their rhythmic way to hard, hot, humid work. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

Football is not an overly romantic sport, especially not the practice of football. It is grunts and groans. Aches and pains. Near constant collisions of hard plastic, be it helmets, pads or both. It is far more Bachman-Turner Overdrive than Bach.

And for a collegiate head coach such as UTC’s Russ Huesman, a coach once more attempting to waken his alma mater from a 29-year playoff slumber in his fifth season on the job, it sometimes boils over.

By 10 a.m. Sunday, the sky over Scrappy wasn’t the only thing in the sticky air trending blue. Huesman’s heated words to his tired team would have become one very long bleep on the Disney Channel.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hugely enjoy this fleeting time of year.

“I actually love the walk down here each day,” Huesman said before the sun pierced the gray drawn. “I was up at 6, drank a cup of coffee [black]. That’s one thing that’s tough about those 6:30 a.m. practices. I can’t get a pot of coffee going that early. Sometimes I get [caffeine withdrawal] headaches when that happens.”

The players don’t drink coffee before these workouts. They drink Powerade.

Some, like senior lineman Hunter Dockery, add a bagel with cream cheese.

Others, like true freshman defensive end D.J. Prather, opt for a couple of energy bars with his sports drink.

Nor do they disagree with their head coach about which end of the walk between the locker room inside McKenzie Arena and Scrappy Moore Field they like most.

“When I was a player here, I liked the walk back,” Huesman said. “Talking with my teammates about practice, stuff like that.”

Said Prather following the Mocs’ first day in pads, “I’d say the walk back, I guess. But it’s all been great so far. This was my first day in full pads as a freshman. It was pretty neat. Just being with my teammates, becoming a family. And by practicing in the morning, you get the rest of the day to yourself.”

Added Dockery, whose father Tim played with Huesman at UTC, “I definitely like the walk back. My Dad said some people didn’t used to make it back when he played.”

Of course, to hear Huesman recall those years in the early 1980s when he took the field under the late Joe Morrison, the walk from campus to Scrappy was more like four miles than 400 yards, over broken glass, in bare feet, all the while toting an elephant on your back.

“Joe Lee Dunn was my coach,” said Huesman of the former UTC defensive coordinator and Mocs playing great. “And he killed us every day. Run, run, run, then run some more. And you weren’t drinking water, either. He’d run us right through the water break. I don’t ever remember drinking water when I played.”

They drink water now. And Powerade. They take breaks. Call it progress.

But it still looks a whole lot like Scrappy Moore Field has looked for every August as far back as anyone can remember. Smells like it, too. Both the good and the bad.

“There’s the smell of the grass,” said Mike Royster, the assistant athletic director for equipment and facilities who’s about to begin his 40th year at UTC.

“Then there’s the smell of sweat, especially in the arena. It gets pretty bad toward the end of August. But then fall comes and it goes away.”

In the South it always seems to go away too soon, the games done, the autumn leaves too soon gone, football weather too soon swallowed whole by Old Man Winter.

But on Sunday morning at Scrappy, it all still felt and sounded new enough to look excitedly ahead rather than regrettably behind.

Said the legacy Dockery, another practice done, “We’re back to playing the game we love.”

Then he headed back toward McKenzie, a cup of Powerade in his hand, conversing with teammates every step of the way. Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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