Friday, April 12, 2024

COLUMN: I decided to try out for the MSU football team as a joke. Then I got invested.

March 28, 2024
<p>Kaspar Haehnle, a reporter with The State News, poses with a football outside Spartan Stadium, March 11, 2024. Haehnle took part in the Varsity Football tryouts for the Spartans to get a closer look at what it takes to make the team.</p>

Kaspar Haehnle, a reporter with The State News, poses with a football outside Spartan Stadium, March 11, 2024. Haehnle took part in the Varsity Football tryouts for the Spartans to get a closer look at what it takes to make the team.

Photo by Brendan Mullin | The State News

“Do I have what it takes to be a division one football player?”

This is a question I frequently asked myself growing up and it ultimately became the only goal I had for myself as a child. With an array of division one athletes in my family, I felt I had a shot. However, as high school came and went, no football scholarship offers came in my direction and I hung up the cleats. 

But I still find myself pondering that age old question. So, when a close friend told me that the Michigan State football team was hosting open tryouts, I was intrigued. I once again asked myself if I have what it takes to be a division one football player.

The simple answer to that question is no, I do not have what it takes

The preparation

At first, me actually trying out for the team was a joke with my friends and coworkers

However, as the tryout dates neared, I began to see this as an opportunity. At worst, this would provide an hour of fun while being able to feel the rush of a competitive sport again. And at best, I would get to don a green and white uniform on the Spartan Stadium field next fall. 

This truly was the definition of a low risk, high reward situation, and I was all in

If I wanted a shot at making the team, I needed to begin training, mentally prepping, and preparing the way a college athlete would. With a mandatory meeting taking place on Feb. 15 and the tryouts on Feb. 21, I had two weeks to create a meal plan and workout schedule.

I also needed to choose what position to try out for. In high school, I played right tackle and defensive end. As a 6’1” and 180 pound freshman, these positions didn’t suit me well, as the average power five offensive lineman size is 6’5” and 280 pounds, and the average defensive lineman size is 6’4” and 260 pounds. 

Luckily, I also spent my whole football career as a special teams long snapper, which is a position where I fit the recommended size.

With my position picked out, I was ready to begin training. With help from my brother and roommate, I began constantly spending my free time outside snapping the ball 14 yards between my legs, trying to knock off the two-year rust that had been building up. 

By the time Feb. 15 rolled around, my snapping capabilities were as good as they were going to get, and I felt confident when I walked into the Clara Bell Smith Center to attend the mandatory meeting

The meeting, which took place in a dark lecture hall, had 40 to 50 students spread among the seats. I found myself scanning the room to scout my competition, feeling intimidated by familiar faces from big-time schools across the state

The meeting presented another obstacle, as we were told that we needed to complete and pass a physical and sickle cell test. These tasks seemed daunting. The hassle almost deterred me from trying out, but I decided to call my mom for help setting up the appointments

But I was also trying to keep this tryout process a secret, only planning to reveal it through this article

So when I called her and explained what I needed, she began to freak out, asking me why I needed the appointments

“Just wait,” I told her. “You’re going to enjoy it.” 

I received some good news a few days later, when an email alerted us that tryouts were moved from Feb. 21 to March 6. This gave me all of spring break to further better myself and grow more confident

Over spring break, getting better was all I focused on. I continued to snap the ball, working on 14-yard punt snapping and seven-yard field goal snapping. At this point, I felt as good as I ever had snapping the football.

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I was ready

But this feeling was suddenly shattered when I received an email the night before tryouts. In addition to information about the tryouts, the email contained one glaring piece of information: “As a reminder, we will not be taking any specialists (kicker, punter, or long snapper) for the spring term.” 

My whole plan was thrown out the window. I was left with no option but to improvise and began to relook at my options.

I had no chance to make it as an offensive or defensive lineman due to my height and weight. I was too slow to play wide receiver, too uncoordinated to play linebacker, and couldn’t throw a football more than 30 yards down the field. In my eyes, there was only one position I had a chance of making and that was tight end. 

Being a tight end, which is like a hybrid mix of an offensive lineman and a wide receiver, was something I had always wanted to do but never got the chance to. This was my opportunity to test what I was really made of.

The tryouts 

The smell of the fresh turf brought back memories of football, and the large white 100-yard indoor practice facility reminded me of the high school football camps I once attended

I felt 18 again when I strapped up my old football cleats, the bottoms still laced with dry mud from my final game. I put on a no. 36 practice jersey, which hugged my skin. I began to stretch as more students entered the facility

A whistle blew 30 minutes later, and a coach called us into a huddle. This moment brought back the most nostalgia for me as we stood close in eager silence, waiting for direction from our coach, just like the beginning of high school football practices. It was the calm before the storm.  

We started with stretches — high knees, then butt kickers and so on — before being split into groups based on position. I was sent off with the running backs, quarterbacks, and tight ends. There, we performed a series of drills

The first drill was simple. If the coach told us “right” we would quickly shuffle right, if he told us “left” we’d shuffle left, if he said “forward” we’d sprint forward, and if he said “back” we would backpedal. Finally, when the coach would yell “break,” we would sprint 10 yards, finishing the drill. 

It seemed easy upon instruction, but when it was my turn to go, I quickly found that it took a lot of agility, balance and endurance. We ran through this drill a handful of times, and by the third time around, I was gassed

We then switched to a one-on-one pro agility drill. The objective was to line up in front of your opponent, get into a three point stance, and when the whistle blew, race back-and-forth between cones with the distance increasing each time

This drill tested my agility and speed, as I was quickly making sharp cuts while trying to maintain a straight line. Going up against quick running backs also didn’t help my look, as I was only able to win one race out of the handful that I participated in. 

The last rotation featured a ladder drill, where we had to high step, shuffle and sprint through an array of bags without touching them

It’s important for a tight end to have good footwork, and I was able to show it off better with this drill. I moved swiftly through the bags without touching them and my confidence started to rise

For the final portion of the tryouts, we split into our position groups. This was the most important segment of the tryouts yet, as it would allow me to be scouted closely by the MSU tight ends coach

But as I jogged over to the coach, I looked around and noticed that only one player was following me. This meant that out of the dozens of students trying out, only one other person was trying out for tight end. If my confidence wasn’t high before, it sure was now. 

The first drill we did was a figure eight cone drill. I had to run from cone to cone before sprinting and catching a small foam football

Though my confidence was high, there was one thing I was afraid of: my ability to catch the ball. Though I always considered myself to have amazing catching abilities, I had not practiced catching a football in months. While this was a small foam football and not a real sized college ball, my fears still sat heavy in my chest as I stepped up to the first cone.

I burst out of my stance and made a figure eight around the cones. I then sprinted in a straight line and put my hands up, watching the coach throw the ball. The football hit me right in the hands, and I squeezed it to make sure I wouldn’t drop it. I ran through the last cone and smiled in relief

I caught each ball thrown in my direction, and my confidence soared so high that I began to feel like a prime Travis Kelce

But on my last run, the coach threw a high ball that required me to use my frame to go up and snag the football like a real tight end would, and I completely misread it and dropped it. This set me back and in my opinion, it’s one of the reasons I’m writing this article instead of weight lifting with the football team.

We then moved to a zig-zag cone drill, which was awkward and took a lot of flexibility. Despite this, I was still able to run it without any hiccups, catching every ball thrown in my direction. 

After running the drill a couple of times, we were shipped off to the wide receivers and quarterbacks group. In this group, the wide receivers ran routes while the quarterbacks threw the football to them. Instead of a small foam football that we used with the tight ends group, this football was a real sized college football, one that was bigger than what I was used to

Upon stepping up to the line of scrimmage, I was instructed to run an eight-yard hook and curl route, meaning I had to run eight yards straight, then cut back in to make the catch. Once the quarterback called his cadence, I shot out of my stance, planted my foot in the ground, and came back to catch the football.

I was able to catch every ball thrown in my direction, but it definitely didn’t look pretty. The first ball was low, so I had to dive and catch it. The second ball came at me so fast that I caught it in my neck. The third ball, I bobbled and almost dropped

At this point, my confidence was depleted. I was feeling silly but I still had to finish strong. On my final route, I made my cut, came back for the ball, and perfectly caught it. I then tucked the ball and ran full speed up the field

Then the whistle sounded and tryouts were over

The aftermath

When I walked out of tryouts, I felt like I had just played a full game again. My legs and arms ached and sweat stained my shirt. 

But I was happy. Over a year after my high school football career had ended, I was back out on the field enjoying what I once enjoyed most in life, and that meant everything to me. 

Making the team wasn’t on my mind. If I made it then I made it, and if I didn’t then I didn’t. Overall, the best part was the unforgettable experience.

That was three weeks ago, and as of the publication of this article, I have not heard back from the Michigan State football program regarding whether I made the team. My best assumption is that I will not be suiting up for the team in 2024. 

Am I disappointed that this was the outcome? No. 

Over the hour-long tryout, I remembered how physically and mentally demanding football is, and I couldn't imagine doing it every day during the fall. However, this was one of the best experiences that I’ve had at MSU so far, as it reminded me what it was like to play my favorite sport in the world.

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