KENOSHA, Wis. -- The mornings, afternoons and evenings that make up a month-long football training camp have a way of blurring into one another, but count Friday, Aug. 17, 2012 as a day that will stand out from the rest for members of the Northwestern Football program.
That's because the Wildcats endured one of the most unique and challenging workouts of their lives Friday, a conditioning test that was as grueling mentally as it was physically.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald welcomed to Camp Kenosha three members of the elite Navy SEALs unit that serves to protect America in many of the most difficult wartime settings our nation encounters overseas. Below is Skip Myslenski's account of the memorable day shared between the 'Cats and SEALs.
It is 11:56 on Friday morning when the buses pull away from the Sports & Activity Center at UW-Parkside and, just a few minutes later, those same buses were dropping the Wildcats into a lot some 200 yards from Lake Michigan.
Here the 'Cats debark those buses in casual disarray and start meandering toward the beach, where waiting for them is Chief Robert Stella of the Navy SEALs. "You guys better figure this out. I want a nice, straight line here," he barks at them through a bullhorn.
"Tell you what. You guys drop right down now. Right now," he then orders when that straight line doesn't appear.
Now -- with his players in the pushup position -- Pat Fitzgerald reads out the names of those whose injuries will prevent them from partaking in the festivities to come. Stella takes over again after that roll is read, and still he is not pleased with what he sees in front of him. "Go ahead. Act like zombies. Don't pay attention to your leaders," he will yell at one point.
"Get your head up. Get your head up," he will yell at another.
"We're not here to break you guys down. We're here to build you guys up," he will yell at a third.
Then it is time for the first drill of the day. The `Cats will have 90 seconds to run some 150 yards across the beach, jump into Lake Michigan, roll in the sand, cover themselves in sand, and return to formation. "We never actually heard what was happening," the safety Ibraheim Campbell will later say, when asked what he thought after he hearing that order. "We came to a meeting and thought it was going to be a talk on teamwork from some guy in the SEALs. But then we started doing pushups in the meeting and we realized it was more. Then he told us we had 15 minutes to get dressed and head to the buses for the beach. That's when we realized it was a lot more than we anticipated.
"So by the time we got here, I realized we were in for some stuff. So it didn't catch me too off guard. But it was tougher than I thought it was going to be. Just running through the sand, getting in the water, then having to run back all wet and sandy, it was a lot harder than I anticipated. But it was great seeing the guys next to me doing it. It made me want to work harder."
Stella, the Chief, is an old friend of a high school coach in the Chicago area, which is how Fitzgerald made contact with him. He tried to arrange for him to come out from his San Diego base at the end of the last school year, but logistics made that impossible, and so this Friday Stella appeared at Parkside along with SO1 (SEAL) Eli Crane and SB1 (SWCCC) Tony Souders. They were introduced to the team at 10, talked to them for better than 90 minutes and then joined the players on the beach, where for nearly three hours the trio pushed them through a version of SEAL training.
"This wasn't easy. This was not an easy workout and we knew that as a coaching staff going into it," Fitzgerald would say when the exercise was over. "But we felt the priority going in was to bring our team close together, and without a doubt this day will bring our team closer together."
"It doesn't look like you're paying attention to details," Stella barks at the `Cats, who have reformed after their dip-and-roll. So down they again go into the pushup position.
"You failed us by not getting wet and sandy," Stella is saying now.
"Let's play 'find the guy who got sandy.' Look up so I can see your faces," adds Crane.
"Stay off your knees," orders Stella.
Now the freshman running back Michael Panico, who has been selected for this duty at the earlier meeting, crab crawls out to lead them in five pushups. "Who told `em to give 'em five?" Stella asks Crane.
"You guys chose 20. I knocked it down to 15 for you," Stella then says to the 'Cats. "Twenty's the standard. But you guys can't handle 20 pushups. Do 15."
"I don't want to see any visible skin. Do you understand?" he barks moments later, sending them off for another dip-and-roll.
"Apparently you guys have some teammates trying to pull a fast one," Crane tells them after they reform and after noticing some `Cats who had not gone all the way to the water. "All he cares about is himself. That's what we're trying to break you guys of doing. He cared more about his own comfort than the rest of you guys. You guys are going to pay for it. Drop."
"Head on a swivel, so you always know where your enemies at," he goes on when they are in the pushup position. "Right now, gents, we're your enemy. You guys better figure it out today. It's us against you. Band together as a team. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start looking out for the guys on your right and your left."
The afternoon is still early and the drills have just begun, yet already their purpose is as evident as the sand smudging the `Cats faces. After their third dip-and-roll, they start checking each other out, start checking to see if the men next to them are covered in sand, and after their fourth they start yelling instructions at each other. "Shoulders, shoulders!"
"Get each other! Get each other!"
"Check the man next to you!"
"You missed time. Drop down," Crane tells them after this fourth attempt, and then Stella takes over.
"You may start to think we're getting a little bit nit picky. But you guys are in a pretty good conference, right?" he says. "So you're playing a lot of good teams, right? This is the kind of stuff that's going to put you over the top. Because you're paying attention to the minute details they're not paying attention to."
"Yes, sir!" the `Cats yell in unison.
Six times they will hit the water, but after the last, there is no roll in the sand. It is time to move on, and now they are divided into seven-man boats. A half-dozen of those boats go to the far end of the beach, where they embark on an endless array of pushups and lunges and belly flops. The other five head toward a truck in the parking lot, returning finally with tires fit for a semi, heavy tires, nasty tires, tires they now line up along the sand. One `Cat from each of those boats is called forward by Crane, who is some 25 yards away from them, and now he gives them instructions, describes the competition to unfold, and they return to their boat mates in a dash, relay those instructions, and off they go in a line, one flipping the tire and retreating to the end of the line, the next flipping and retreating, on like that until they reach Crane, where together they stand the tire up and roll it back to the start.
Boat crew nine is the winner here and its members are sent off to hydrate. The members of the other crews put their feet on the tires and do 15 pushups before they can do that. Boat crew nine is the winner here and its members can sit on their tire after they hydrate. The members of the other crews must stand. Boat crew nine is the winner here and its members remain seated as the others set off on one more competition. "It pays to be a winner," they yell as that competition begins.
"One of the main things from the tires is guys had to communicate," Campbell will later recall. He had been one of those leaders instructed by Crane, one of those leaders who had passed that information along to his boat mates, and here he continues, "Even more important than communication was that guys had to listen. So effective communication and teamwork really brought us together."
"Number one, the communication issues we had a year ago as a team, to solidify that and galvanize that," Fitzgerald will say when asked what he hoped to accomplish on this afternoon. "To see that one breakdown in communication, the whole team loses, the whole team fails."
There is also this scene now on this Lake Michigan beach. Those players who were excused from this workout, those players who could have spent the afternoon merely watching, have themselves jumped in the water, gotten down in the sand and begun doing sit-ups, crunches and other abdominal exercises.
The other six boats, the ones at the far end of this beach, are themselves now walking toward that truck in the parking lot, and from it each extracts a 250-pound log. Back they come, each log on seven shoulders, and now Stella is telling them, "If you guys aren't communicating, you aren't working as a team."
Now these boats do their own devilish drills, sit-ups with their logs, half sit-ups with their logs, half-squats with their logs, lunges with their logs, races with their logs. ("Embrace the suck," they often scream to each other in encouragement.) As they labor, and this is not insignificant, their water bottles are refilled by defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and a number of players who have been held out of this drill. "There's a lot to learn today," the linebacker David Nwabuisi will later say. He was the leader of one of those boats that took on the logs, and here he continues, "Everybody's got to hold their weight, like he said. If we're all holding that log, it should be 40 pounds apiece and that's not bad. But everybody's got to hold their weight, everybody's got to be accountable. We need everybody. Everybody's important. And the leadership's important. He's got to give the right directions, and everybody's got to be really focused and listening in."
Finally, the afternoon drawing to a close, these boats pick up their logs to return them to the truck. But they do not take the direct route. They instead head toward the water, take a right, walk some 75 yards along the water's edge, take another right and head toward a small hill, which they climb once, then descend, then climb again before descending a last time and depositing their load in the sand. Now all the 'Cats are together and in front of them, on a concrete abutment some 18 inches high, stand Stella and Crane. "What did you learn today?" Stella asks.
"We need every man to carry his weight," shouts Nwabuisi.
Then Stella is talking, recounting the story of a SEAL who, with the possibility of escape there in front of him, jumped on a grenade to save his friends and himself died. "Instead of self-preservation," he is then saying, "he thought of his teammates and made the ultimate sacrifice. That should humble you a little bit."
Now it is Crane's turn and, at the end of his remarks, he reveals that he had a buddy killed the day before, that he would like to honor that buddy right here, right now, with 15 pushups. The 'Cats drop and, smartly, count them out.
When they arise, they applaud the two men in front of them.
By that time (if not much earlier), the Wildcats had a new level of respect for the work being done by so many of their peers in the various branches of the United States Armed Forces, along with a heightened understanding of how crucial communication, trust and fearlessness are to the success of a team. By that time, the Wildcats were much closer to being "ready" to kick off the 2012 season than they were at 11:56 a.m.