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Young Modern Gladiators Take to the Arena—The New Recruits of UT Football

on March 5 | in Cover, Sports | by | with 1 Comment

Go to any college football stadium.  The walls rise high above the ground. The gates are bolted securely to protect the field of play.  Statues and plaques of the legends that competed before now shadow the concourse.  Autumn Saturdays are dedicated to young men taking to the field to uphold a tradition of representing their university with honor and a victory. This is the new generation of the young modern gladiator.

A lot is expected of the student athlete. They must perform valiantly on the field while fulfilling their academic requirements and participate in community activities. Not to mention, they’re still teenagers leaving home for the first time and experiencing freedom. Because of their student athlete title, they are held under much more scrutiny.

Training CampAt the University of Tennessee, preparing student athletes is recognized as a group effort.  “We have a great support system here,” says Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Dave Lawson. “We’re here in the weight room, the coaches, our Vol for Life (VFL) Program, the academic centers. It takes everyone together to help make that transition for our players.”

Evidence of the success of their programs is seen in players like senior defensive lineman Jordan Williams, who is on the SEC Honor Roll. Utilizing the support staff was integral in adjusting to college. “I feel like the biggest transition was time management,” he says. “I was the most stressed out kid, learning plays, getting my work done, workouts—it’s a big obligation. I know I can call any trainer and they would help me. It’s a family unit around here.”

Despite the challenges of starting a new life, Coach Lawson feels most of his athletes aren’t distracted teenagers; they’re focused. “The looks on their faces, they want to get in [to the weight room]. It shows they are highly motivated when they come in mid-year, ready to take a full college workload, watch film, be with their teammates. They could have chosen to hang out in their old hallways another semester.”

Knoxville, TN - Weight Room. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee AthleticsAs a high school senior, many athletes who go on to play collegiately have been the best in their area. But when they walk into a university, they aren’t the superstar anymore. “It’s crazy, humbling, coming in with a whole bunch of guys that are good or better than you,” says Williams.

They’re stepping into an arena where they have to bring their A-game everyday

“It’s such a big step, it’s the unknown. They’re stepping into an arena where they have to bring their A-game everyday,” says Coach Lawson.

Coming in ready to work each day has to be a quick adjustment for these kids. Because of their athletic time commitments, almost all attend summer school to keep up their academic eligibility. They train in the weight room year-round, trying to be better for another year of competition. “[When] a workout got hard, I would say I got next year, I could slack a bit. But you don’t,” says Williams, remembering his early days in Tennessee’s football program.  “Every day, you’re working a step ahead of someone else.”

One of the highlights for Coach Lawson in his 20 years of experience is watching the older students embrace the newcomers. “I love seeing the kids’ excitement when they hit their goals and their teammates celebrate with them. We watch the kids enjoy the moment. I see what these kids do everyday; most do not.”

Knoxville, TN -  Workouts. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee AthleticsAs Williams enters his senior season for the Vols, he clearly remembers the challenges of his first year and how it transformed him to the athlete he is today. “A lot of guys say I’ll ‘wait my turn,’ or I’ll ‘get it next season.’ My biggest fear was being far behind my peers,” says Williams.  “After my freshman season ended, I looked back and said, ‘Where did an entire season go?’”

It didn’t take long for the new kid to recognize what he had to do to step up.  He’s put on 20 pounds since entering college, earned more playing time, and excelled in the classroom. “I’m here now. It feels like yesterday I started. They [freshmen] try to convince themselves they have time; it’s not true. I try and tell people it’s not about how tired you get, you’re either going to come in and work or you won’t.”

it’s not about how tired you get, you’re either going to come in and work or you won’t

Coach Lawson’s focus is to build a total athlete in the weight room, but it’s more than the physical performance that motivates him and his staff.

“An exciting part of my job is the mental athlete, putting kids in a position to be successful.” 

It takes many elements to complete the package of a successful student athlete. This young modern gladiator must be smart, strong, fast, disciplined, and play with supreme confidence. They learn to execute these skills in the classroom, weight room, on the field, and in life. The result, according to Williams: “When a play is that good from start to finish, when we run our routes, make the right moves, line our hands in perfect form, when everything flows perfectly, it makes it all worthwhile.”  These gladiators walk off the field heroes.

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