Spring is in the air. Sweeping green countrysides and a buzz of excitement on the fresh breeze. The Football Gods still slumber, but they briefly sigh, roll over, and belch riotously, giving us a rich and verdant hint of what’s to come: spring drills, the NFL Draft, and Pro Day, before dropping back into heavy hibernation for the warm months. Bask in it. Let the aura wash over you. Today, we live for football and all the glorious accouterments that surround it.
Pro Day is one of Texas A&M’s finest traditions dating all the way back to 2014, when Manziel Mania Round 1 left the ranks of college fans behind and stormed the beachheads of NFL sensibilities. Since then it’s been a staple in the Texas A&M Football dick-measuring rotation. As spectacles go, it’s hard to find a March weekday sporting event with more hoopla draped over less actual substance (sorry EPL fans). An Aggie tradition, indeed. And this year, we bring you live dispatches from inside the eye of the hurricane. Buckle in, readers.
If you’re wondering how we bypassed the Athletic Department’s draconian anti-blog credentials policy, it’s quite simple. Our engineers developed a surrogate reporter and cobbled him together out of surplus middle-aged white men, goatees, stale takes, and fitted ballcaps. We claimed he was a pro-A&M writer from something called the “Fort Bend Fortune 500 Fighting Farmernac”, a print-only recruiting newsletter with a circulation of approximately 350. His name was “Thaddd FiveStarWatch.” His credentials were granted sight-unseen, and he was even sent a complimentary welcome package containing media guides, lanyards, and a Texas A&M Information Digest containing literature about the University’s outstanding numbers in various categories: enrollment figures, smart money rankings by various publications, the works. We tricked Thaddd out with some state-of-the-art recording devices and he was on his way.
The practice warmups begin in earnest, with a chorus of white-jacketed Singing Cadets standing in formation on the risers performing Gregorian chants to the tune of the “SEC on CBS” jingle. Highlights from the 2017 season flicker on the huge blank wall of the facility behind them as the players slowly march forth from a tunnel shrouded in fog from machines. The select crowd of several hundred elite media members chosen to attend this event squeal in delight.
Each time a ball hits the turf, an army of maroon polo-clad TexAgs interns scramble to retrieve it and carry it back to the designated assistant coach on a plush burgundy pillow of crushed velvet, complete with white and silver tassels. The first intern to return five footballs is rewarded with a special “maroon retriever” emblem next to his or her screen name on the world-renowned message board site. The entire facility is meticulously branded, from the field turf right down to the logos on the air ducts.
Everything is choreographed precisely, right down to the incredible hors d’ouvres of braised partridge thighs wrapped in bacon that was cured artisinally at the Texas A&M Meat Science center. Jimbo Fisher can be seen chewing on one thoughtfully, taking dainty bites with his pinkies upraised as he holds a discussion with several recruiting writers, who swipe pawfuls of the appetizers greedily from the sterling-silver trays carried forth by Corps of Cadets freshmen in full dress uniform replete with white cloth gloves.
Following the hors d’ouvres, the army of waiters disappear for a noticeable period of time. The players are still going through warmups, and another round of drinks is served to the expectant VIP crowd, each one in a brand-new complimentary YETI tumbler emblazoned with the Texas A&M logo. (Visitors carry stacks of them around like so many trophies.) Then the waitstaff returns triumphantly in teams of six, carrying enormous trays containing entire roasted boars weighing in at approximately 300 pounds each. The boars have been slow-cooked over spits hand-turned by even more TexAgs interns for a period of 28 hours across the street at the company’s headquarters. Each boar was shot by a different VIP guest of Chancellor John Sharp from a helicopter at his ranch. The day-plus act of cooking was an event all unto itself, which in turn was catered by the cutting-edge Scandinavian restaurant Noma, with dishes flown in via supersonic jet from Copenhagen, Denmark.
After an appropriate time elapses and all parties have gorged themselves accordingly, ushers in maroon tailcoats appear in the corners of the crowd and cough softly into their fists. The Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band music on the state-of-the-art PA system gradually softens, the cue for seats to be taken (the actual FTAB has exchanged their march equipment for orchestral instruments and is positioned discreetly in a pit beneath the grandstand, providing ambient background music in a stark contrast to their gameday style.) In the first rows of said bleachers sit the phalanx of recruiting writers, dozens, hundreds of them. All given up-close and personal access so that they may compile and publish exclusive pro day content for immediate customer consumption. Or, just tweet it, if they lack business acumen.
In the upper risers, one level above the recruiting writers, but one below the VIP donors, sit the Texas High School Football Coaches. They have been specially invited here and given this seat of honor because “that’s how it works in this state.” Each has been given a commemorative seat cushion, a fresh log of Skoal, and a brochure on something called “form tackling” developed by Coach Elko in the hopes that the concept will make a comeback at the high school level within the state.
The Big Money Ags occupy the high-rise bleachers, which have been specially fitted with soundproof, airtight glass for the dual purpose of both keeping out the noise of the commoners as well as controlling their own climate ambiance and temperature. Sometimes the smells of cheap after shave and meat belches simply become too much for one to bear, particularly when they come from other people.
”But what about the NFL scouts?” you may ask. “Why aren’t they afforded the most prestigious seating?” Oh, but they most certainly are. Most have chosen to observe the drills from field level, mere feet away and able to hear and see and smell all the raw details of the event. But there are a select and innovative few who have volunteered to scout in real-time cyber-congruency, a patented system developed by the University and the Athletic Department. Tiny microchips and minuscule cameras and microphones have been implanted and embedded in the facial, cranial, neck, and shoulder musculature of the athletes so that each drill can be experienced in a darkened chamber as if the observer were actually performing the drill. A special shockpad on the floor mimics foot movements and a wind machine approximates the air resistance generated by sprinting. Scouts are offered the chance to observe in either the communal studio, or in one of the dozen or so individual observation pods, all spaced out in the subterranean level of the practice facility. Most choose the individual pods, and they fill up quickly, often not disgorging the spent and gratified scouts until a half-hour or more after drills have ended.
The ambient buzz dies to a soft whisper, like a bee being shut out of a window. Lanyards are pulled nervously, a stray chuckle or cough escapes from some of the more ebullient attendees. They are met with stern glares from the ushers, who have suddenly assumed grave, guardian-like postures at the end of each row. When the hush has reached an appropriate level of reverence, an octogenarian preacher strolls regally and slowly from the side entrance to the podium. “Let us pray,” he begins. His voice rings with a mellow authority and is steeped in thoughtful solemnity. He begins praying. He prays for the young men on the field, for the student-athletes. He prays for the coaches who give them guidance, and the parents who have helped them get where they are. He prays they will continue to make the right decisions, as they did when choosing Texas A&M (a soft and somber “whoop” whisper sweeps through the more spiritual observers). He prays next for the hard-working reporters in the recruiting industry, the backbone of the entire sport. Without their entrepreneurial diligence, the whole game would crumble meaninglessly into the shifting sands. He prays for the donors who make such sacrifices to finance the whole affair, and he prays for NFL leadership to make the right decisions, i.e., “draft our boys first.” Lastly, he prays for peace and stability throughout the globe or some shit. When he finishes, an a Capella chorus of “The Spirit of Aggieland” begins immediately, with two dozen singing Cadets dutifully unfolding a magnificently huge Texas flag in front of the stage area. The words flash across the utility jumbotron set up above the pulpit. Since actual aircraft is not allowed inside the facility, a squadron of replica WWII bomber drones fly in formation just below the ceiling, each one representing an Aggie Fortune 500 CEO. They trail miniature contrails of maroon and white mist. When it’s all finished, there is not a dry eye in the house. Then the drum cadence kicks off.
Just like with a Kyle Field game day entrance, there are pyrotechnics and smoke. The football players enter, looking strangely slim in only helmets and no pads. They pump the crowd up, but believe you me, no pumping is required. The ovation lasts a solid fifteen minutes as the players sign autographs for orphan children bused in by the Big Money Donors as the acrid smoke from the fireworks is absorbed by the advanced filtration system in the ceiling ducts. At last the SEC Network producers give the signal, and the drills begin in earnest.
The drills are announced, they are outlined for the audience, and then they are over nearly before they’ve begun. It’s rapid-fire, fast-paced action, just like the NFL, with no opportunity for hesitation or thought. These athletes are required to do one thing, and one thing only: the specific, choreographed combination of movements that have been pre-defined for them. Anything else is surplus; unnecessary. It’s a clinic on efficiency, and yet when they are finished, a mere quarter-hour after they’ve begun, the NFL scouts will walk away with a vast trove of data with which they can while away weeks mining and cobbling together to justify their reports to ownership that could possibly influence the actual draft selections. It is the most American process imaginable, and a radiant American flag waves triumphantly on the jumbotron as a holographic eagle designed by student engineers flies around the facility, delighting the old and young alike.
The drills then end abruptly, and there is a short pause as the players sprint back into the locker room. The attendees are then allowed a short restroom break, as well as the chance to bid on exclusive season ticket packages that are offered at a 12% off special discount rate. Then, just as suddenly, the players sprint back out and line up in a pre-ordained single row on the stage. Each is then given a hand-stitched, commemorative bathrobe to don. They are seated in special leather recliners as all the lights are completely extinguished and a chilling hush falls over the entire facility.
Ladies and gentlemen, do you remember the scene in the movie Gladiator where the Romans suddenly spring upon Maximus some tigers hidden on platforms rigged up from under the fighting surface? That happens next, with only a faint glow of blue lights outlining the edges of the twin platforms as the white-gloved Cadets slowly pull forth the brushed-nickel chains that raise them. At last they reach the surface. Then a huge spotlight is fixed upon each one, illuminating Aggie legends Johnny Manziel and Christian Kirk (who has surreptitiously slipped away from the stage somehow). The raucous cheers shake the very earth and last a solid ten minutes as the two players strut and exhort the crowd. Then a drum cadence begins, and the hush returns. The two players suddenly crouch at ready positions as if lined up in formation, one small spotlight on Manziel and another on Kirk out wide. The instant the drum cadence ceases, they spring into action, with Manziel dropping back fluidly in a five-step drill, and Kirk streaking flawlessly in a precise post route, illuminated by the light but making his way instinctively in complete darkness. Manziel releases the football just as Kirk makes his break in the route and the ball lights up, tiny LED bulbs stitched into the seams flickering brilliantly as it describes a perfectly geometric arc in the air and lands delicately in the outstretched hands of Kirk. The crowd erupts, the lights go out once more. They come back up ten seconds later with both Manziel and Kirk seated calmly with the rest of the team upon the stage. That’s it. The entirety of Johnny’s workout. It is more than enough. The largest video screen yet is then slowly dropped from the ceiling, and a 40-minute composite highlight of the entire 2012-2013 football seasons, from Florida to Duke, is aired unapologetically. The celebration that follows lasts nearly as long.
As the raucous cheers finally patter down into a happy buzz, a single spotlight shines on John Sharp, who gracefully makes his way to the stage to imbue the crowd with folksy wisdom. The closing ceremonies have begun, and they are no less impressive than the opening, although admittedly tinged with a certain air of somberness. Lyle Lovett is called forth in a surprise tribute to sing a song written by none other than John Sharp himself solely for this occasion called “They Don’t Make Cowboys As Rich As Football Players Is These Days.” The audience claps politely when the 21-minute obviously autobiographical ballad finally draws to a close, and a visibly distraught Lyle Lovett wheels his two duffel bags full of cash out to his truck. Then comes a brief closing prayer once the reverend has been awakened, in which he primarily thanks all of the donors and corporate sponsors who have made the event possible. And God, too.
The War Hymn is played three times through, with the last coda being nothing but five minutes of the “Saw Varsity’s Horns Off” verse and swaying. The band finally rests and a tentative silence hangs in the air like a thin pall of smoke. The house lights slowly come up and cast everyone bright-eyed and reluctant to leave this magical moment behind, wanting to hold on to this magical moment for just a few seconds longer.
Then a call for parking validation goes out and snaps everyone out of their reverie. Hands instinctively reach for wallets, and all is right again. The fans will make it through the summer one more time.