Penn State Football’s 5:16 a.m. “Party Rock Anthem”
It’s 4:48 a.m., on a cold, dark and windy Friday, February 8th.
Sleepy-eyed young college men -- traveling by ones and by twos, wearing baseball hats and winter jackets and grey sweats and thick gloves, and toting drawstring bags – head by foot and by car to the Lasch Building at the eastern edge of Penn State's campus.
There, they’ll change into blue tights and shorts, grey T-shirts, gloves and knit caps to begin a morning workout nearly seven months before their 2013 season-opener.
5:00 a.m. – Managers, staffers, grad assistants and trainers hit the practice field. The team will practice on artificial turf; the grass turf is covered with large patches of ice and snow. The sound system in the weight room blares Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” Hardly.
5:12 a.m. – Head coach Bill O’Brien walks onto the practice field and is in a chipper mood: “We should’ve started at 3 a.m.” Then he adds with a grin, waving his hand, “And keep on moving it back and moving it back…”
5:14 a.m. – New defensive coordinator John Butler walks onto the field with a cup of coffee; a few minutes later, he throws it away. Gets cold in a hurry when the wind chill is in the low 20s.
5:16 a.m. -- Dozens of players run from inside the warmth of Lasch out a side door and stream their way onto the field. LFMAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” blares over the outdoor speakers: Party rock is in the house tonight. Everybody just have a good time. And we gonna make you lose your mind. Everybody just have a good time...
We’ll see about that.
5:18 a.m. – The players fall into a dozen lines, for running drills of all kinds, as O’Brien stands firm on the 20-yard marker in the middle of the field. The players prance, dance, hop and skip by him. The best skipper? Alex Kenney, he of long flowing red hair and white kerchief. Kenney finishes last, but his leaps are the highest with the longest hang times.
5:24 a.m. – By position groups, the players head off to all directions. Ab drills. Weight sleds. Cone and agility drills. Tire flips.
5:25 a.m. – This is a good time to get a good look at two higher-profile recruits. Freshman Adam Breneman, who later in the morning will attend his 15th day of classes as a Penn State student, moves easily with the tight ends when they push the weight sleds. Quarterback Tyler Ferguson, a JUCO transfer, certainly looks like he’s from California. He’s wearing an extra jacket and his sweatpants appear to be the thickest of any player out there.
5:26 a.m. – Speaking of tight ends, Matt Lehman is the only player who is not wearing long sleeves: just a grey T-shirt, white gloves, blue shorts, blue tights. He’s also the only married guy on the team, for what it’s worth.
5:28 a.m. – O’Brien has seen enough. Or not enough. Just after Pitbull chants, “I want everybody to stop what they’re doing” in his “Hotel Room Service” anthem blaring over the speakers, O’Brien says essentially the same thing. (True, I swear.) The music is stopped.
“I don’t see the same intensity,” shouts O’Brien, standing at midfield. “I don’t see the same intensity that I’ve been expecting. Pick it up!”
5:29 a.m. – Ninety-two Penn State football players pick up the intensity.
5:30 a.m. – Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, wearing his customary grey cargo shorts, shirt, whistle, backwards ballcap and Nicholson smile, orders: “Squeeze everything out of every single step!”
5:36 a.m. – Wide receiver Allen Robinson glides by. Moves fast. Looks cold. Has the only hand-warming sleeve around, from what I can see, tucked behind the small of his back. Gotta protect those 10 digits -- in a year or two they could be worth seven or eight figures.
5:39 a.m. – The guy working the sound system must have a great sense of humor. As John Urschel and his beefy O-line teammates make their way over, around and through 56 orange cones and a large handful of pads, Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” starts blaring.
5:45 a.m. – One of the morning’s best drills from a spectator’s standpoint: Linebackers Glenn Carson and Mike Hull square off, side-by-side through the maize of cones and obstacles. Both are expected to be leaders on and off the field in 2013. If Friday was any indication, they are up to the challenge.
The bearded Carson was taut in his blue tights, looking midseason ripped and ready. Hull is a tad smaller, but has less body fat and a bit more nervous energy. The two were in the first row for every rep of the drill, going head to head, chopping feet and turning their hips and running from side to side. The competition drove each man to do better, as Carson barely edged Hull three consecutive times.
5:55 a.m. – Under Fitz’s command, the players gathered at the west end of the field in a large circle. It was time to go mano-a-mano, with an offensive player pitted against a defensive player, both holding onto a two-foot wide blue disk and trying to drag the other man to his end. Fitz shouted one competitor’s name, then the other’s.
In the battle of the kickers, punter Alex Butterworth beat place-kicker Sam Ficken. Roars. Then running back Zach Zwinak dragged ski-masked safety Malcolm Willis across the end line. More roars. Tight end Jesse James outmuscled Carson, then offensive tackle Eric Shrive added another win for the offense. In the morning’s final battle, Fitz asked for volunteers.
Urschel ran to the middle of the circle for the offense. Nate Cadogan, a ex-offensive lineman, rushed out to meet his former linemate. After some pushing and pulling, Urschel secured a big victory for the offense. Huge roar. The defense must do five up-downs.
6:02 a.m. – But, first, the group is called together, in a big huddle. “Break it on J.J,” O’Brien said. J.J. is, of course, Jesse James, a true sophomore now having started classes last January. That also means he is a veteran of these early a.m. February workouts. And, as such, he knows the morning is not over. Not yet.
6:04 a.m. – The players run inside to the Lasch weight room to continue their workout …