Chapman football players reflect on “Hard Knocks” accuracy

Brocton Schlaf, middle, and other members of the Chapman football team run through drills, learn plays and scrimmage against each other as part of their preseason training. Photo by Kali Hoffman

Wake up. Eat breakfast. Practice for two hours. Get treated for injuries. Lift weights. Review practice recordings. Attend a team meeting. Go to sleep. Rinse and repeat until the alarm sounds off at 6:30 a.m.

On Sept. 21, the Chapman football team’s starting lineup will run out under Wilson Field’s stadium lights for the very first home game of the season, accompanied by cheers from fellow students and families. But those sitting in the crowd may not have much of a clue as to the amount of preparation the players, tensed at the line of scrimmage, have gone through during preseason training. Training camp, as a football team’s preseason is commonly known, requires players to be “locked in” every single day, sophomore linebacker Duncan Heger said.

“You’ve got to see – like, ‘OK, I feel tired; I’ve been doing this for a week now,’ but then you’ve always got to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do it again today,” Heger said.

Short of physically experiencing the workouts, a way for a casual football fan to understand the atmosphere within a training camp is by watching HBO’s sports documentary series “Hard Knocks.” First introduced in 2001 and currently featuring the Oakland Raiders, each season of the show provides behind-the-scenes access to one National Football League (NFL) team’s preseason and illuminates the competition for roster spots within an organization. While “Hard Knocks” is based on a professional NFL level, the atmosphere can also be seen at a college Division III level.

“It’s what you’re taking out of the individual periods, what you’re taking from film, what you’re taking from the new plays and how you’re applying that,” Heger said. “Everyone is fighting for a spot.”

In the first episode of the latest season, part of the storyline is dedicated to defensive tackle Ronald Ollie, who was criticized for subpar work ethic by coaches and eventually cut from the team for not properly treating an injury. While junior football captain Dillon Keefe said the Panthers have strong team chemistry and no negative feelings towards one another, they do create a competitive atmosphere and push everyone to compete for a starting spot.

“We really try to weed those guys out,” Keefe said. “We try to figure out who is the weak-minded person, because those are the people that we don’t want either playing or we don’t want on our team.”

Heger said that during the preseason “nothing crazy ever happens” like players coming into conflict and Keefe said he thought “Hard Knocks” was embellished in dramatized moments. But both acknowledged that tensions can occasionally run high, due to the competitive atmosphere and the proximity players are in.

“It’s a proving ground, not only for your teammates and your coaches, but to yourself that if you can handle something like camp and you can make it through; then you know you can stick it out in the games,” Heger said.

Ultimately, both NFL Films and HBO are part of the entertainment industry and both companies are co-producers of “Hard Knocks.” Players are frequently shown socializing with each other, the coaches, or their families in the latest season and Keefe said he thought the show displayed more of the “social side” of football rather than the “sports side.”

“The important thing is not only what they include, but what they leave out and what you don’t see,” Heger said.

Generally, emotion-packed moments in camp involve self-motivation, Heger added, in contrast to the interpersonal conflict “Hard Knocks” presents. Both Heger and Keefe noted the importance of the mental aspect of football in addition to the physical. Throughout the first three episodes of season 14, any football-related action is shown on the practice field, with moments of watching recordings, learning plays or individualized quiet preparation for a game rarely shown.

“Every day, you’re getting eight new blitz packages or coverages. People that don’t play football don’t always see that mental side,” Heger said. “If you can think on the fly and know all your plays and know what to do in certain situations, that’s the toughest part of football.”