“I give so much of myself on Sunday. I drain all the life out of myself out there. I get paid to play, to win, to give the city pride, so maybe everybody can forget for a little while how hard life is.”
—Randall Cunningham, Philadelphia Eagles, 1989
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Sundays are sacred. As summer fades and the NFL stampedes onto the front pages of every sports section from Jacksonville to Seattle, Americans from coast to coast scramble to rearrange their weekends around men in tights. And while throwing on the home team’s jersey and cracking open a cold one may constitute a warm-up for the fans in the stands, players take a more measured approach.
Pre-game rituals can range from the oddly meticulous—Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher eats precisely two chocolate chip cookies prior to each game—to the intense—former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins famously stalked the end zone while carrying on an intimate conversation with the game ball minutes ahead of kickoff—to the downright insane—legendary YouTube footage of ex-Jaguars defensive tackle John Henderson shows him repeatedly asking to be slapped across the face by an assistant trainer before taking the field.
But whatever the madness, there is a method. Because for hundreds of NFL players, gearing up for Gladiator-like competition on gameday is no small task, making even the most mundane parts of preparation critically important.
And with the 2012 playoffs nearing, sticking to the prep that got them this far is crucial.
First on the Sunday morning agenda: fueling up properly. “I always eat the same breakfast,” says Baltimore Ravens safety James Ihedigbo. His lucky morning meal became a tradition after a breakout performance in his freshman year at UMass, and has now lasted through multiple AFC Championship games and Super Bowl XLVI as a member of the New England Patriots. “I have French toast, three scrambled eggs and strawberries. I have that same meal before every game.”
San Francisco 49ers All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley is no different. “I eat the same meal since my rookie year,” he says. “It consists of two filets, eggs, pasta and broccoli and two purple Gatorades.” Hearty enough? Staley started all 16 games in 2011 for the Niners, who rushed for over 2,000 yards as a team.
And while sticking stubbornly to a particularly flavored sports drink might be simple superstition, many NFL players lean on their faith—and family—on Sunday mornings. Ihedigbo and his mother Rose, who travels to nearly every single game, share a gameday prayer. Likewise, Houston Texans defensive back Alan Ball can’t begin his day without speaking to both his parents. “There are two calls I always make. I always call my mom, I always call my dad,” says Ball. “Call my dad, talk to him for a little bit, call my mom, talk to her, say a little prayer with her.”
When mind, body and soul are full, it’s off to the stadium. Whether via team bus on the road or personal transportation at home, arriving at the arena for battle is enough to get a player’s mind right. Ravens All-Pro Terrell Suggs likes to ride alone, as he morphs into game mode. “That’s when I go from being Terrell Suggs into T-Sizzle,” Suggs told the Baltimore Sun last season. “It’s kind of like Clark Kent going into the phone booth.”
Will Allen of the Pittsburgh Steelers likes to be one of the first to show up. “I get to the stadium early—four hours prior to. I’m sitting down, just relaxing. I visualize myself making plays,” says the veteran safety, who has one of the League’s most unique methods for getting in the zone. “I think about being fluid like water. I get that from Bruce Lee, because he always talks about how water can go through anything, how powerful water is. Those are some of the ideas I like to think about.”
Once inside the bowels of Heinz Field, Allen says he keeps his schedule tight. “There’s a clock that runs mentally, through the whole sequence of events, that knows it’s the same sequence of events every Sunday. It’s good to get in that mode, that mindset, because it’s all familiar. You want to have familiarity on gameday, to help your mind do what you have to do and know how you have to prepare.”
Staley and Ihedigbo arrive early, too, since both like to take their time in the hot tub for some muscle recuperation. Hours from game time, the mood in NFL locker rooms is upbeat. “You take your time getting ready, guys are cracking jokes,” Ihedigbo explains.
And, depending on who you ask, getting ready requires a lot. “When I get to the stadium, I take a quick minute and make sure everything’s in my locker, get my suit off, take another little warm shower before I put all my pre-game stuff on,” says Ball. “Get my cleats on, make sure they’re fitting right, go walk around the field a little bit, get a little pre-stretch, a little warming up.”
For 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree, everything has to feel—and look—perfect. “Aw man, the preparation of getting dressed, the clothes, the fashion. You’re looking at your shoes, your socks, making sure your pants are right, your jersey, all of that stuff,” says Crabtree, now in his fourth NFL season. “I’ve got to have my chewing gum, any chewing gum, but I really like Juicy Fruit. The trainers are on the sideline with the Juicy Fruit ready. You gotta have your music. Gotta have your gameday music, it’ll get you right.”
Having the perfect playlist is part of most players’ pre-game routine. Suggs cues up 50 Cent or the theme music from 300, while Ball starts from scratch each Sunday. “I make a playlist each week for my pre-game warmup,” says the former Cowboy. “I tend to bounce back and forth between Rick Ross and Jay-Z, whoever I’m feeling that day.”
Ihedigbo’s eclectic track list includes Jigga, too. “I have a few gospel tracks in there mixed in with some Linkin Park and some Jay-Z. It’s a mixture of music because there’s a multitude of emotions before each game,” he says. “If it’s a rivalry game or you’re on Monday Night Football, you try to get those emotions out. Music calms me.” Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders remembers listening to Tupac or Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go To Work.”
In the ‘90s, Sanders’ pre-game antics were unparalleled. “A cheetah don’t stretch before he go get his prey, so I never stretched. I jogged to get loose, get me a good sweat, and it was on,” says the former Cowboy, Niner, Falcon, Redskin and Raven. “I would make sure I go by the receiver and I’d just let whoever I was going to play against make sure they saw me. I used to just jog by them [and say], ‘It’s real. Oh, it’s real. It’s your birthday. It’s your birthday today. You know, it’s your birthday…And I’m your gift.’ Just little stuff you do before the game. But it wasn’t no trash talk. It was just a little brashness. That was my gameday thing.”
Still, others prefer the ambient noise of the arriving crowd. Staley says he doesn’t really listen to music, preferring to visit with friends on the opposing team, while Allen occasionally powers down his headphones to clear his mind.
“One thing I really like to do is to meditate. That helps me out. Whether I’m listening to music or not,” says Allen. “I have my playlist that I’m listening to before the game, but meditation really helps me a lot. The quiet.”
Then again, even with a week’s worth of work towards gameday and a lifetime of football in their veins, the pros still feel the heat in the harrowing moments before the first snap. The calm before the storm does little to quell nerves. “I’m always nervous,” Suggs told the Sun. “I’m always nauseous, all the way up until kickoff. You want to play well for your city and your fans and your team. And that can get to you.”
Ball isn’t shy about his nervousness, either. “I’ve been in the league for five years, been playing football for what feels like twenty. And I still get butterflies, so when I hear the national anthem, that’s when I try to get all the butterflies out, just telling myself to relax, going over things in my mind,” he says. “Talking to myself and telling myself what I need to do that game, and get myself relaxed, remembering that it’s a game. That’s the time I start to get real butterflies.”
True to his position in the trenches, Staley simply wants to go out and hit someone. “I’m very calm before games, I save my energy,” says the 6-5, 315-pound lineman. “We get paid to play football and those are my favorite days. I’m excited, but I’m calm because I always feel very prepared. I’m not anxious.”
With all personal exercises completed, teams take part in last-minute huddles—think Ray Lewis or Drew Brees breaking their teams down with a chant—or team traditions. For the Steelers, as Allen describes it, “Ben [Roethlisberger] goes around and hugs every member on the team before we actually play. A couple of guys have rituals and things that we do together. So it’s kind of cool that we all bring that to light as a team.”
San Fran’s young wideout can take it from there: “That’s about it. ‘Bout after that, you ready. If you ain’t get it at practice, you ain’t gonna get it on Sunday. It’s football, you know?” says Crabtree. “It’s the fun day—the best day of the week is on Sunday. That’s when it really counts.”
Abe Schwadron is the Online Editor of TDdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.