Rise & grind: Players endure early workout

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
12:00
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Players' tweets start up a little after 4:30 a.m., that strange time when it's not quite day and not quite night. Traffic lights blink yellow along College Avenue, and -- outside of a whirring Herr's potato chip truck -- the roads are silent.

Penn State workout
Josh Moyer/ESPNPenn State's players participated in an early workout Friday.
On this starless night ... or morning (take your pick) ... players pry their heads off their pillows and descend on the nearby Lasch Football Building. Streetlights around town still shine, and not a single student is spotted walking on a campus that holds more than 40,000.

But Garry Gilliam, a tight end turned offensive tackle, is up. He tweeted, at 4:39 a.m, "They sleep, we grind. They dream, we shine."

On this Friday, Penn State football players' days have already started. In about 30 minutes, their morning workouts will begin.

5:12 a.m.

Bill O'Brien walks onto the field with a whistle draped around his neck. The players are still inside the building, throwing on their gray T-shirts and blue shorts, and Penn State's dimple-chinned coach awaits them in the 31-degree weather.

Four bright stadium lights for the practice field are flipped on, and snow covers the perimeter of the turf. O'Brien chats with the staff and grad assistants, who constantly shift their weight from one leg to another to stay warm. He's cracking jokes, smiling and seems to be acting as if it's 3 p.m. He's ready.

"We should've had this at 3," he says with a nod.

About five minutes later, players burst from the weight room doors. Some hold their hands in the air, almost as if they're running through the south tunnel of Beaver Stadium. They yell, they chatter, they run.

The nearby stereo starts blaring LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," and the drills begin.

5:28 a.m.

Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, an eccentric-but-beloved guy who's been known to lick the weight room floor and do the worm in pregames, is dressed in his trademark shorts, backward hat and T-shirt.

Players break into six groups. Some flip tires, others weave through cones, and others stretch. Fitzgerald guides about a dozen to the northwest corner of the field. If he pumps his arms left, they go left. Right, they go right. Down? Their stomachs kiss the turf.

But O'Brien isn't liking what he's seeing. He cuts the music, and the entire field falls silent like a third-grade classroom that's ticked off the schoolteacher for the last time.

"I don't see the intensity I'm expecting!" O'Brien barks. "Let's do it!"

The pace noticeably picks up.

5:57 a.m.

Players jog toward the middle of the field and form a large circle. They already start to hoot and holler. They know what's coming; this is the most exciting part of the workout.

A player from the offense will grab hold of one end of a plastic, blue disc while a defender will grab hold of the other. Both will pull until one man lets go or the other can drag him about 10 yards.

Alex Butterworth gets the best of Sam Ficken, and the offense goes on a winning streak: Zach Zwinak, Jesse James and Eric Shrive win out.

In the last battle, Fitzgerald yells, he wants the baddest [expletives] from both sides to step up. John Urschel steps out for the offense; Nate Cadogan -- a former offensive lineman -- steps out for the defense. "Oooooh!" players yell.

Cadogan gets the early jump, but Urschel the math whiz starts pulling from about a 135-degree angle. Players bend down to watch the two struggle almost like some kind of dogfight. There's no money on the line here, but the excitement is genuine. Honor's at stake here.

Once Urschel gives the disc one last tug, Cadogan loses his grip. Kyle Carter playfully gets in the face of a defender, while another waves his hands as if to signal an incompletion. The offensive side explodes after Urschel's win, as if he just made a critical pancake on a long touchdown run.

They then head inside the much, much warmer weight room.

6:16 a.m.

Most grab a water or Gatorade. A few grab snacks from a nearby cart that holds Pop-Tarts, granola bars and Rice Krispie treats. There's even a fridge stocked with just applesauce.

The music starts up again, and this time it's set to the "50 Cent" radio station on Pandora. Other stations include 80s pop, 90s hip hop, Angels & Airwaves and Billy Joel.

Players grab sheets with their personalized workouts and head to it. Some scribble and make notes after taking their cleats off and lifting in their socks. A small competition brews between some offensive linemen.

Urschel, fresh off his victory over Cadogan, plans to see just how much he can lift in the shoulder shrug routine. He powders up his hands and adds enough weight so it now stands at 455 pounds. Sweat runs down his back. He grimaces with every lift.

"How many?" offensive tackle Donovan Smith asks.

Urschel, a bit out of breath, doesn't say anything. He just holds up four fingers on his right hand. Smith smiles -- and then heads to it.

He bares his teeth and groans every time he attempts those four lifts -- but he equals Urschel's strength. Another lineman attempts after Smith but can't even budge the barbell. Other players take the weights down a few notches.

6:56 a.m.

Larry Johnson watches some defenders work out, and O'Brien surveys the room from a balcony.

Fitzgerald cuts the music and tells players to hang from straps atop the weight machines or work on the exercise balls.

Shortly after that, he calls them all in. They put their hands in, and Fitzgerald offers them a few words of encouragement before they get cleaned up and head to class.

"Get some rest, chill out this weekend," Fitzgerald says. "And be great."

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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