By: Bob Carskadon (@BobCarskadon)
Knees on the ground, arms wrapped around an industrial-sized garbage can and head fully submerged in the black, plastic bag as the contents of lunch came back to visit, the entire Mississippi State softball team surrounded me, clapping, cheering, chanting something I was barely aware of and congratulating me as much as they could, no fear of treading too close to recycled bits of sandwich and Gatorade.
That, to me, was the biggest takeaway from spending an afternoon going through MSU softball's conditioning test.
And I didn't even pass.
But going into an afternoon where I expected to be impressed with how in shape these college girls are (I was), I left more taken back by the genuine support I received.
Literal support, too, as I had players on each side during the last leg of one event with an arm under each of my shoulders, refusing to let me quit, determined I would see the end, whatever it took.
Upon arrival in the Shira field house, the 20-some-odd softball players probably wanted me to fail. They wanted to be proven superior and they wanted to see their teammate, competing against me, emerge victorious, more proof of the work they put in both off-season and in.
But when the Bulldog Break-in started, instincts kicked in. Whether by nature of the person or nurture of their coaches, they cheered as hard for me as they did Rachael Zdeb, their teammate running alongside (and mostly in front) of me. When I slowed, they yelled, not out of anger or excitement, but to encourage me.
"It's all mental, Bob!," one of the blurry faces yelled as I stumbled along. "Don't let your body tell you no. You can do this. We know you can do this!"
In retrospect, I don't think they knew I could do it. Deep down, they probably had concerns when I hit the turf midway through the first of four rounds. Honestly, I'd have quit after warmups, before the real test even started, had I not had 22 of Vann Stuedeman's players yelling and clapping.
There was a certain amount of peer pressure, to be certain, especially with cameras on me and a mic hooked up under my shirt, but I have no shame. I could've quit.
But, at the risk of sounding cheesy, in those moments of heavy breathing, flat footsteps and uncontrollable dives to the ground, I felt like part of the team. I can quit on myself any day. But I couldn't quit on them. I couldn't quit on the 22 girls who had all been through the same test, lost just as much sweat, and followed me up and down the field, exhorting, encouraging and cheering me the whole way through.
Again, to me, that was the biggest takeaway. This team is in top physical shape, absolutely, but once more at the risk of sounding like a children's novel, their true strength lies in the bonds they have between each other. Player-to-player, coach-to-coach and everything in between.
Sometimes all it takes is to know you have someone who believes in you and supports you, no matter the odds or results. When one of those players takes the plate, steps on the mound, chases a fly ball or hurls a throw to first, they do it knowing there are 25 teammates and coaches who are cheering them on, believing in them the same way they believed in me.
I wouldn't have finished otherwise.
Now, don't let me mislead you. Finished is not the same as passing. In my case, it's not even close.
In my time covering sports, I've seen plenty of college athletes who couldn't have passed the test MSU softball has to conquer.
At the end of what was lovingly and misleadingly referred to as a warm-up, I looked at Zdeb with my hands on my knees and mouth hanging open as strength and conditioning coach Alicia Catlette walked up and asked if we were ready to start.
"There's more?" I coughed out.
The warm-ups themselves consisted of a few different jogs, then a couple different forms of lunges. If you're unfamiliar with lunges, it's what you spend eternity doing if St. Peter meets you at the pearly gates and tells you you're not welcome.
Now, I'm no marathon runner, but I'm not in terrible shape, either. I can run miles, multiple. Not many and not very fast, but I'm not completely unfamiliar with the concept of cardio.
This form of conditioning, however, was absolutely foreign to me.
Assistant coach Alan Reach told me before it started the first event was the worst. Why's that? It was lunges. Three lengths of them, stepping from lunge-to-lunge, on a 20-yard long area.
"You've got 1:41 to do three of them," Catlette tells us.
I lunge down the first length, breathing heavy, but doing fine. I make it back to the other end, and though Zdeb is far in front of me, I'm still moving. But as I start the third one, I see her cross the line, then she turned around and started again.
"What's she doing?" I asked.
"You're almost halfway done!" someone yelled, thinking they were encouraging me.
"Whoa, wait a second, this is three down AND BACKS?"
The following words muttered under my breath were not appropriate for a family audience.
Zdeb finished in 1:19, over 20 seconds ahead of the required time. On my final down and back, the entire team was walking with me, two of them with arms under my shoulders, as my legs nearly gave out on each lunge. I finished just outside of the 1:41 goal.
Sprawled on the ground as soon as I crossed the line, that was just the first round.
Next up: Farmer's Walk. Three down-and-backs, just regular sprints. Oh, with a 45-pound weight in each hand. And you have 43 seconds to do it. Predictably, Zdeb finished under the time in 37 seconds. I took 1:26.
Third event: medicine ball wall throws. You're given an eight pound medicine ball and you have to throw it and hit a spot on the wall at least 12 feet up, no lower. Do as many as you can for 30 seconds, then take a 30 second break. Five sets of those. My legs were jelly, so just using my arms at first was nice. For the first four sets, I was actually on pace to hit the target number of throws. Then in the final set, my arms got weak and I had to start my using my legs. Those didn't work.
Zdeb finished with an astounding 120. I tallied 78 before my arms stopped, short of the goal of 89.
The final leg of the Bulldog Break-in is the Partner Prowler Push. This one is done as a team, and I should specify in advance, the email I got with my times noted "Rachael has passed this every time in the past, regardless of her partner."
Until this time, anyway. It's three down-and-backs with a weighted sled. The first partner pushes the sled down the field, where the other takes over. Once finishing the push, partner 1 then backpedals alongside partner 2 while they push the sled back.
My backpedal was more of a slow walk in which I tried hard not to fall down and lose consciousness. Zdeb spent more time than she would probably have liked waiting on me at the end of the field.
With a goal time of 1:01, we finished in 1:33. Had I backpedaled with any speed, and not slowed to a crawl on the final lap, I would have saved Zdeb's perfect record.
But despite the fact I failed every round, even though I took up double the amount of the Friday afternoon they expected, and while I was an outsider who they should want to be proven unworthy, the unlikely scene unraveled.
Head in a trash can, knees struggling to keep me off the turf and arms wobbling on top of the bin, MSU's softball team cheered for me, congratulated me, chanted, clapped and patted me on the back, genuinely happy for and proud of me.
I didn't think I could do it.