“Come on, coach!”
Mississippi State’s senior defensive tackle P.J. Jones was jokingly trying to get his strength coach Rick Court to come try and block him in practice.
“Just because you’re 70 pounds heavier than me doesn’t mean I won’t kick your tail,” Court quipped back.
“I’d step on your foot and you’d be done. Step on your foot, punch you in the gut, then knee you in the head when you bend down. Over.”
“Uh-uh, coach,” sophomore d-lineman Nick James chimed in. “We got you!”
I met up with Rick Court a little before 9 a.m. last Friday. I was supposed to shadow him for a day, learn about what he does and what life is like for Mississippi State’s strength and conditioning coach during camp.
He’d already started his morning at team breakfast at the hotel at 7, followed by the coaches meeting with Dan Mullen and his assistants. The SEC Network was playing at a low volume on the TV in his office as he got his notes together for the morning.
He’s as organized and structured as you’d likely expect a strength coach to be, and every bit as intimidating in sight and sound. Though he’s also far more outgoing, joking and warm-hearted than you’d probably think. I just hope he doesn’t get mad at me for calling him warm-hearted.
9 a.m., weight room at MSU’s football complex: The day started as each does, with Court running the staff meeting of full-timers, graduate assistants and interns. This was the first time he’d put up the schedule of how things will run on game weeks for the football team, a schedule they will soon begin following.
After a quick review, he then went into instructions on what they’d be doing in the weight room that day for the two workouts, offense/special teams first at 10, defense after at 11.
Somewhere right around there, close to probably 9:15, is where I heard the last sentence I completely understood for at least a couple hours. I’m no World’s Strongest Man, but I work out several times a week and have done so for years. I like to think I’m at least somewhat knowledgeable around a weight room. But I hadn’t been around anything like this before.
Court started naming off workouts (I assume?) that sounded more Latin than English, instructing the leaders of each station in the room what they’d be doing, reviewing any limitations on injured players (“He got a neck and a foot in the same day, but there’s no modified restrictions. He’s cleared.”), making sure the individual needs of each position group are attended to, anything they needed to know.
Watching and listening from the back of meeting, I only understood about every 10th word, but certainly not enough to string complete thoughts together.
“… hydrant … waggle … clams …”
I am beyond confused.
“Does that make sense?” Court asked one of his assistants.
“Yes,” he replied.
“No,” I thought to myself.
9:30 a.m., weight room: I must have looked sleepy to Court as he went back and forth across the room getting things set up.
“Don’t yawn in here,” he told me. “If the guys catch you yawning, they’ll make you do push-ups.”
9:37 a.m., weight room: I yawned. No one saw me.
9:45 a.m., weight room: Position meetings must be done because Dan Mullen is on the elliptical you can see on the second floor overlooking the weight room. He’s got his headphones in. I wonder what he’s listening to.
9:57 a.m., weight room: I could tell Court was getting anxious, ready for the players to get there and get the workouts started. He doesn’t seem like someone who very much likes wasting time. He had the place ready, now he just needed the people to run through the workout. He gave a strong punch to one of the hanging punching bags as he walked by. He was pacing, looking out the door, opening it, closing it, ready to go.
My favorite sight all day was when I happened up behind sophomore running back Ashton Shumpert, whose dreadlocks must increase the size of his helmet by at least a couple or few grades. He stood in perfect position with knees bent, stance wide and body completely still as he balanced small weights in each hand, slowly bringing them close to his chest, extending his arms back out, pushing them outward to his sides and then bringing them back in to start the circle over.
That muscle-bound running back was the picture of serenity amid the yelling, huffing and music surrounding him.
Once the warm-ups were done, Court met with the full offense/special teams group.
“We’ve only got 45 minutes. We’ve got the scrimmage tonight. Let’s get it right!
“The mind is just as important as the body. If your mind isn’t right, we’re gonna be 6-6.”
Once the weightlifting begins, Court transforms to maestro.
In the weight room, Court is a conductor, the players are his orchestra and weights are his instrument of his choice.
He runs from station to station, yelling, encouraging, teaching, correcting and blowing his whistle to let them know it’s time to move to the next one, which they sure as heck better run to.
Everything moves so fast in there. So structured. So organized.
The television screens have constantly rotating pictures. At one point, there was a slide of The Rock and Mark Wahlberg walking away from an explosion in sleeveless shirts.
In giant print on a poster on a wall are the words: “FATIGUE MAKES COWARDS OF US.”
Below that are racks of weights with dumbbells as heavy as 150 pounds, as if the idea of someone casually throwing around 150 pounds with one arm is normal enough to have those dumbbells waiting.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
“Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down!”
One of the offensive linemen was dancing between sets on the bench to the music playing over the speakers and joking around with Court.
“Get on the bench,” Court told him with laughter in his voice. “When you weigh 315 pounds, then you can dance.”
Court followed up the command with a smile and patted his young lineman on the belly.
10:45 a.m., weight room: It all went silent. The players were out and the music was off. The only sound was the staff putting all the weights and machines back in their place for the defense, who would be in shortly. It was during a conversation in this lull when I learned Court is from the Detroit area and actually played basketball growing up. In fact, in junior high, he had the unenviable task of guarding Shane Battier in the post.
11 a.m., weight room: The defensive players arrive as the offense is out on the turf practice field for a walk through. They may already be tired from their earlier walkthrough, but the defense got the better end of the deal. From the many-windowed weight room, I could see the heat of mid-day Mississippi sun coming off the ground. The haze makes it look like they’re on a TV with bad antenna reception.
On the inside, the same routine was run through again.
At one point, one of the cornerbacks couldn’t do shrugs because of some soreness in his shoulders. Court grabbed an elastic band and put one end under the guy’s shoes, the other cradled by the inside of his elbows, asking him to pull that way.
“Good. Problem solving, baby.”
11:30 a.m., weight room: I don’t know why the thought struck me then, but as long as I’ve been around sports and covering MSU, I finally got something I never had. A thought clicked.
When players respond to outside criticism by saying, “They weren’t with us in the offseason,” this is what they mean. No one does see this stuff. Those on the outside just see the finished product.
This is why stars on the team shy away from individual attention or accolades when speaking with the press. Everyone in that room is doing the same work, putting in the same effort. None of the 105 players worked any less hard than anyone else. When someone asks a quarterback about how great he is individually, this is what he thinks about. These workouts. These afternoons on the practice fields. He doesn’t think about the sweat he broke. He thinks about the sweat of the 104 other people doing the same thing beside him.
On the way out of the weight room after the workout was finished, sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones looked at the countdown clock to the season opener beside the door.
“15 days, six hours and 37 minutes!” he yelled.
12 noon, multipurpose room of Seal Complex: Lunch, thank goodness. I worked up an appetite just watching those guys.
And food, it turns out, was the main topic of conversation with Court (after he got a quick lift in himself). Or nutrition, more specifically.
MSU hired a nutritionist as camp began, one of many things Court has done to get his team as healthy as possible. He told me about the setup they have after practice, where they have tables full of fruit, Gatorade and shakes that players have to eat and drink from before they can get off the field.
Once in the locker rooms, there are more Gatorades, more shakes and more snacks. Fruit is the best kind for it’s simple sugars and high water content. They are keeping players hydrated, keeping them from losing too much weight and keeping their bodies in peak form.
“I’d venture to say we’ve got the best post-practice in the country,” Court told me.
They’ve got a snack room setup outside the weight room, stocked with healthy options. They weigh-in multiple times per day.
Court, who moved to Starkville and took this job at the beginning of the calendar year, has introduced what has turned out to be one of the most important additions to the team: hydration tests.
Before and after practice, every player is required to take the test. It’s pretty simple. At a table in the locker room, one of the strength coaches has a machine that checks hydration levels in a matter of seconds. You get one of three colored magnets next to your name on a board depending on the results: green for perfectly hydrated, yellow for slightly dehydrated and red to signify that you are in the danger zone.
They put me through the test: I’d just finished a cup of coffee and I was right on the line between hydrated and not hydrated, so I grabbed a Gatorade. Any player who gets yellow is made to drink one. Anyone who shows up in red must drink several, with the first one including a salt tablet to help retain the water.
Court and his staff will then follow up with those players shortly afterward in team meetings to make sure they’re hydrating properly.
“We haven’t had a single cramp so far in camp,” Court told me.
As a team, they’re only losing two pounds per practice, which is incredibly impressive. Court has stationed two trainers with every position group at practice, with three types of drinks available to them. He’s not messing around.
“We’re at the front, in terms of sports science,” he said.
Court has been working on things like this for years, though. He’s been learning everywhere he goes, researching ideas, looking into new practices and developments and taking notes on all of it, preparing for the day he was finally the head guy with the resources to do what he wants. Now, here at MSU, he has it, and he’s only just started implementing everything he wants. His thirst for knowledge lines up with his desire for hydration.
1:25 p.m., Court’s office:
“Let’s go mess with these guys!”
Court grabbed his bullhorn and headed down to the locker room. The players had meetings in five minutes and he was going to make sure they were all in attendance.
A swoled up man with a shaved head, trimmed beard and a T-shirt tucked into his baggy gym shorts, he was power-walking around the locker room with his deep voice booming, index finger pointing and bullhorn blaring repeatedly, surrounded by shuffling players and coaches walking around blowing their whistles and yelling that it was time for meetings.
1:30 p.m., upstairs at Seal Complex: Turns out, I happened to be there for picture day for the strength staff.
“I need the new staff picture for my mantle,” Court joked.
“We didn’t get a chance to do arms before the pictures,” one of his assistants lamented.
If I felt uncomfortable or out of place in the weight room, it was nothing to how this group felt as they posed for pictures. To cover for their discomfort and nerves, they made fun of each other in turn as each took his headshot.
“Watch this. We can make Stallworth laugh in his picture easy.”
2:00 p.m., Palmeiro Center: With a scrimmage that night in the stadium, the team had a special teams walk through in the afternoon to prepare, where the strength staff half observed and half interacted, serving as dummies for drills here and there.
4:00 p.m., locker room: Time for the hydration tests and weigh-ins. The scrimmage is at 6 and team meeting is at 5. If someone isn’t hydrated, this is the last chance to fix it before the pads go on.
5:00 p.m., team auditorium: Court and his staff are set up just inside the door to hand out Gatorades as the team meeting begins. Like Santa with his naughty-or-nice list, they know who needs to hydrate.
6:00 p.m., Davis Wade Stadium: The last big scrimmage of fall camp took place in the nearly-finished stadium they’ll return to in two weeks for the season opener. As the night begins, Court again stands at the front of all 105 players, conducting his physiological orchestra, leading the team in stretches before the scrimmage begins and the day comes to an end.
He’ll be back at it first thing tomorrow, and every day for the next five months straight, at least. It’s no wonder his voice is so hoarse.