By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
August 16, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Do you remember trying something new for the first time? For me, one of my first stories was about a West Virginia basketball player named Chris Brooks and let me tell you, old Ernie Hemingway would have had a lot of fun with that one if he were still alive.
||Senior nose guard Chris Neild recalls getting the hook during his first collegiate appearance against Marshall in 2007. Today Neild is one of the top defensive linemen in the country.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
I still cringe whenever I think about that first lead paragraph, a Superman reference … Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive … you get the idea. Chris Brooks was a pretty good college player, but Superman?
Well, something similar will be going on over at Milan Puskar Stadium in a couple of weeks when West Virginia opens the regular season against Coastal Carolina. There will be a handful of first-timers getting their college football baptisms against the Chanticleers on Sept. 4.
Every player has a first game, a first start, a first play. It's a rite of passage. You just hope the outcome is good.
"A lot of people on the outside, especially people that haven't played the sport, as a young kid out there playing for the first time … it's one thing to be out there in front of the coaches, maybe a couple of reporters and some of your friends sitting up in the stands, but it's totally different when the music is playing and the fans start cheering," said cornerbacks coach Dave Lockwood.
Every coach has a story to tell about a first-time player. Lockwood recalled when he was at Minnesota trying to get a very nervous redshirt freshman defensive back ready for his first career start.
"The poor guy just got picked on all day," said Lockwood, shaking his head as if recalling a plane crash or an automobile accident. "They got him. It's just one of those things."
British philosopher Herbert Spence was the first to coin the phrase "survival of the fittest" after reading Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species. Of course he was referring to Darwin's biological theories, but Spence could have very easily been describing present day Saturdays in the fall when the alpha males get together and beat on each other for three or four hours at a time.
The timid and unsure need not apply.
The newbies will try and act cool like they've got it all together, but don’t let them fool you. They don't. Wide receiver Brad Starks remembered trying to do just that the first time he went on the field against Villanova in 2008.
"You're trying to play it off like you're fine but on the inside you're thinking, 'Oh my God, what's going to happen to me?'" he laughed.
Big offensive lineman Don Barclay couldn't wait to get his first taste of college action while standing on the sidelines as a redshirt freshman in 2007.
"Your redshirt year you're standing there thinking, 'Dang, I can't wait to get into the game' and then when you actually do you’re like, 'Geez, I can't screw up now!' It's crazy," he said.
Barclay said when the ball was snapped he went 10 times faster than he actually needed to because he was so concerned about blocking his man.
"I wasn't even looking at the defense," he laughed. "I was thinking, 'Uh, I know on this play I've got to do this and if he's there I'm blocking him' but I wouldn't have any idea what to do if they would have brought a blitz. I think I was moving so fast that it screwed the whole line flow up."
Offensive guard Josh Jenkins remembered hearing his named called for the first time during his true freshman season in 2008. He was just happy that he grabbed the right helmet when he went onto the field.
"Coach Johnson looks at me and he says, 'Josh, you're in for the two-minute drill.' We are trying to either get a touchdown or a field goal and I'm in my stance and everybody is shifting in front of me and my head just went blank," Jenkins said.
At that very moment, all of the things Jenkins was taught during the week could have been told to him in Chinese. It didn't matter because his brain had just turned into scrambled eggs.
"It was a pass and I just waited for the guy and then I tried to kill him," Jenkins chuckled. "I didn't even really need to be doing it like that. I could have been a lot more patient."
Linebacker Anthony Leonard also tried the kill-'em-approach his first time out on the field as a freshman in 2007. All week defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel kept telling Leonard that he wanted him to play downhill, a phrase defensive coaches often use to encourage aggressiveness.
So Leonard kept reminding himself to get downhill when he got into the game.
"I'm going to be on TV and all my boys are going to be watching back home and I don't want to get run over," he said.
Midway through the second quarter, Leonard finally got his big chance.
"At least I was lucky enough to go in there with the starting group so there were more guys in the huddle who actually knew what they were doing," Leonard admitted.
Leonard, his mind made up that he was going to destroy the guy in front of him and put the ball carrier flat on his back, dug his feet into the turf and got ready to unleash the fury. His only real concern was making sure he lined up on the right side of the ball.
"Well, they run a play action pass," said Leonard, his eyes looking down and his head slowly shaking back and forth. "I'm like, 'Uh oh.' To make a long story short, I got cussed out on that one."
Chris Neild also got the hook during his college debut against Marshall in 2007. Neild was so excited to be out on the field that he nearly took out teammate Marcus Broxie.
"They called a blitz and I completely went the wrong way," Neild said. "The blitz was coming from the right and I was supposed to go in the opposite direction and I stepped on his foot and just about broke his ankle.
"Then I got pulled on the next play."
A few games later, Neild was still in a haze when he made his first career start against Mississippi State. A penalty had been called during the kickoff that required another kick, but Neild wasn't paying attention and ran out onto the field anyway.
"I was the only one out there," he said. "It's a little unnerving when you are in the middle of the WV in front of all those fans with nobody else out there."
Scooter Berry said his big chance at first-game glory vanished into thin air.
"I remember my first snap was against East Carolina, it was so loud, I was nervous and I decided that I was just going to come off the ball and try and make a play," Berry recalled. "They hiked the ball, the tackle gapped down, and I closed just like I was supposed to and it was just me and the quarterback.
"I'm thinking 'this is it right here, a sack on my very first college play!' Well I started to go after him and he juked me and left me grabbing air," Berry said. "I felt so embarrassed."
Most of the players admit their overriding fear the first time they get onto the field is simply not looking stupid.
"You're thinking, 'Man, I hope my pants don't look funny and I hope my jersey looks right; I don't want to trip," said safety Sidney Glover. "You're actually thinking all that in your head. Plus, at my position if you slip and fall it's instruments up. It's six."
Lockwood said the coaches have to show confidence in first-time players even when they have their own private doubts and concerns.
"I believe when you get put in those situations - because the kids feed off of you - if they have any inkling that you have any doubt about the deal then they don't have a shot," Lockwood said. "He's saying, 'Yeah, coach is saying this but he really doesn't believe in me.' Whoever is in there, whether he's played or hasn't played, I've got to coach them to go out there and get the job done."
And then there are guys like Noel Devine.
"My first experience was exciting," he said. "To get an ovation like I got … I knew I had to make a play - it was a feeling inside that I've just got to make a play."
And he did, an 8-yard touchdown run against Western Michigan.
More importantly, he looked good doing it.