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Growing Up Colt
A Father, a Son, a Life in Football
By Colt McCoy, Brad McCoy, Mike Yorkey
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Koyboys LLC
All rights reserved.
Rookie Start in Blitzburgh
The distance between the Cleveland Browns Training Complex in Berea, Ohio, and downtown Pittsburgh is only 135 miles, a journey of two and a half hours.
As our chartered caravan of Cleveland Browns buses rolled through the Ohio countryside one balmy mid-October afternoon, I barely glanced at the crimson-and-gold fall foliage outside my window. Instead, I paid close attention to what our offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, was saying about the intricacies of the Browns' offense as well as the tendencies of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense.
I had been cramming all week for my first start as an NFL quarterback. I listened intently to Coach Daboll as he flipped through the Browns' playbook. Nothing inside the thick volume was new to me. All fall long, I had prepared myself like I was the starting quarterback, even though I had been relegated to the bench as a third-stringer. That meant reviewing the playbook and the terminology, studying film, working out in the weight room, and paying attention in team meetings.
It didn't mean practicing with the first or second team, however. Since the end of preseason, I had stood on the sidelines and watched our starting quarterback, Jake Delhomme, take snaps from center and work on our plays. Our No. 2 quarterback, Seneca Wallace, called signals for the scout team that practiced against our defense. All I could do was stand on the sidelines, toss a football from hand to hand, and observe.
In our 2010 season opener, Jake twisted his ankle but kept playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game we lost by a field goal, 17–14. When Seneca Wallace moved into the starting lineup, I was still treated like the third quarterback on the depth chart. Even though I ached to contribute to my team, I was the forgotten man on the roster. Coming from the University of Texas—where I had started fifty-three consecutive games over four seasons—I was used to playing, to being the guy. It was tough not getting to play, but I knew I had to be patient.
Just before halftime against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, Seneca took a big hit on a sack and went down. We had to take a timeout so the trainers could assist him back to the bench. The way he was limping, it looked like another ankle injury.
We were running out of quarterbacks. I edged closer to our head coach, Eric Mangini, secretly hoping he'd say, "It's your turn, Colt. Get in there." But Coach Mangini never looked my way. Instead, he found Jake Delhomme and asked him if he could get back in the game.
Everyone knew Jake's ankle wasn't ready, but Coach Mangini sent him back on the field to play anyway. That sent a signal loud and clear that Coach was doing everything he could to not give me the ball.
Jake found his helmet, took the field, and tossed a short pass to end the first half, and we jogged off the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium nursing a 7–6 lead against the Falcons, who came into town with a 3–1 record. (The Falcons were a good team on their way to an NFC–leading 13–3 record.)
There was no talk in the locker room of bringing me in, however, so all I could do was pace the sidelines as play resumed after intermission. During the second half, though, Jake reinjured his right ankle in a sack. Jake hobbled between plays, but he gritted his teeth and hung in there. The game was decided with about five minutes left. We were down 13–7 but driving the ball. The Falcons intercepted Jake's short pass and ran it back for a touchdown, ending our hopes. The frustrating loss dropped our record to 1–4, and it looked like the Browns were heading toward another dismal season.
The following day, a Monday, I drove to the Cleveland Browns training facility, wondering what would happen next. The Browns were down to one healthy quarterback—me. Since the Cleveland coaches had treated me like a leper since the season began, I figured they were busy making phone calls to bring in a veteran free agent.
Ever since I reported to training camp, I had gotten the message loud and clear: Colt, you're not going to play this year. Your job is to watch and listen. When I walked into the Browns' headquarters that morning, however, I was greeted like a long-lost family member who had unexpectedly shown up at a McCoy summer reunion. The slaps on the back and cries of "How ya doing, Colt?" were followed by "Coach wants to see you."
I marched into Coach Mangini's office, and he warmly greeted me and offered me a chair. "Colt, we need to get you ready for this weekend against Pittsburgh. You're starting."
I smiled. Just like that, I had gone from third-stringer to starting quarterback. My heart raced with excitement. I had been seriously itching to play all season long, and now I would get my chance to play in an NFL game and fulfill my boyhood dream.
At the same time, though, I knew all too well who we were playing that Sunday—the Pittsburgh Steelers—and where—on their home turf, Heinz Field. Visions of sixty-five thousand swirling Terrible Towels came into my mind, as well as stories I'd heard about how brutal the Steelers fans were on opposing teams, especially untested quarterbacks.
Nothing like being thrown to the wolves the first time out.
When I called my dad with the news, the first thing he said was, "Congratulations, son. That's awesome!"
"Yeah, it's awesome, and I'm going to be fired up," I replied. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I get to play the Steelers, our division rivals, on the road for my first start. If I can go out there and play against their defense, I can play against anybody in the league."
I knew Pittsburgh had the No. 1 defense in the NFL and that their linebackers attacked the quarterback so often that people called them "Blitzburgh." But I saw nothing but opportunity.
"That's great to hear," my father said. "There's no other team that you'd want to start against because you're going to be gauged by how you play against the best."
Now our team buses were heading into Steelers territory as we crossed the Allegheny River into downtown Pittsburgh. We were a dispirited bunch after losing so many close games, and it looked like our season would get even darker following the Atlanta loss. Looming ahead was a murderer's row of elite NFL teams: after taking on Pittsburgh, we would face the New Orleans Saints, the New England Patriots, and the New York Jets—all top-tier franchises bound for the 2010 NFL playoffs.
Coach Daboll looked down at this notes. "Keep an eye on Polamalu. When he lines up strong side, and the free safety is in the middle of the field, expect him to blitz off the edge."
Coach was talking about Troy Polamalu, whose mane of thick, curly, black hair stuck out of his helmet and ran halfway down his back. Many of the football pundits on ESPN and on the NFL pregame shows believed Polamalu was the best defensive player in the league, and they certainly had plenty of highlights to draw from to make their case. Number 43 seemed to be everywhere on and off the field, thanks to his playmaking abilities and his advertisements for Head & Shoulders shampoo shown during televised games.
Polamalu and the rest of the Pittsburgh defense were known as the "Steel Curtain" around the league. (That nickname started in the 1970s and stuck through the years.) The Steelers' defensive backs were celebrated for pummeling quarterbacks and delivering vicious hits on receivers. But Polamalu wasn't the only defensive star playing in Pittsburgh. Coach reminded me to look out for another linebacker: James Harrison, who was bigger and bulkier than Polamalu and thus more lethal. When No. 92 got in a shot, quarterbacks sometimes didn't get up.
We pulled up to the Westin Convention Center hotel just as darkness fell on Pittsburgh. The plan was for us to check into our rooms and then report for dinner, followed by a team meeting in one of the hotel conference rooms.
The team meeting on the eve of a football game was our last chance to go through that week's game plan. The coaching staff would review how we were going to attack the Pittsburgh defense as well as defend against a powerful Steelers offense led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a proven winner, as evidenced by the two Super Bowl rings on his fingers.
As if we didn't have our hands full already, we would also have to contend with the emotional return of "Big Ben"—as the media called him—to NFL football. Commissioner Roger Goodell had suspended Roethlisberger for six games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after Ben was accused of sexual assault during the off-season. Goodell later reduced the suspension to four games after the contrite quarterback submitted to counseling and extensive evaluations.
Playing as if they wanted to prove to the league that they could weather the storm without their star quarterback under center, the Steelers had won three of their four games without Big Ben. Now that Roethlisberger was returning to the team, everyone in the Browns' team meeting sensed that the Steelers would be sky high, spurred on by their fans going crazy when their prodigal son stepped onto the field.
At Saturday night team meetings earlier in the season, Coach Mangini always had guys stand up and say something inspirational or talk about how they felt. For instance, if a guy on our team used to play for that week's opponent, Coach would ask him to describe what this game meant to him or what we needed to do to win the next day.
This would be my first NFL start, and something in my gut told me that I should say something to my teammates. I knew they had questions about me swirling in their minds: How are we going to play the Steelers—one of the best teams in the league—with a rookie quarterback who's never taken a snap at this level? What chance do we have to win—in Pittsburgh of all places?
After the team dinner, I approached Coach Mangini and told him, "I know you're going to call on me. I'll be ready."
He just smiled. Whatever.
When the time came for Coach to call on players to speak, he turned to me first and announced that I had something to say. Rising to my feet, I stood next to my table and looked around the conference room at my fifty-three teammates, a half-dozen players who wouldn't be suiting up in the morning, and our coaching staff and team officials.
"I want you guys to know that I haven't embraced being the third-string quarterback," I began. "I love and respect Jake and Seneca, but now that they're hurt, it's my turn to step in here and play.
"I know you have no idea what it's going to be like tomorrow. Everyone in here is scared stiff about a rookie going into Pittsburgh and having his first start. If you want to be scared, be scared. I'm not scared. I'm ready to play. I'm excited. I'm fired up. This is my passion. This is what I love to do. And I can't wait to get out there and play with all you guys tomorrow.
"Our game tomorrow is going to be the start of something great. Bring your all because I know I'm bringing all mine. The hay is in the barn. Let's go."
Let's just say that I saw a lot of big eyes and stunned faces looking back at me. You could have run a herd of Texas longhorns—real ones—through that conference room and no one would have noticed. But those surprised looks quickly changed to smiles, followed by a few chuckles, after my "hay is in the barn" line.
Actually, that was the second time in two days that some of my teammates had heard me use the phrase. At our practice the day before, I ended our workout by gathering the offense around me. It's called a "breakdown" in football, and usually what happens is that all the players gather in a circle around the quarterback, who does a final "fire up" before everyone breaks to take a shower.
Often, quarterbacks scream something like, "Win on three ... one, two, three—"
"Win!" everyone yells.
But for my first breakdown, I wanted to do something different. "The hay's in the barn," I announced in a loud voice. "Let's go win this thing. Win on three ... one, two, three—" "Win!" my teammates yelled. But nobody left for the locker room.
"The hay's in the barn?" asked one of my wide receivers. "Dude, what does that mean?"
The rest of the offense had quizzical looks on their faces, too.
Time for an agricultural tutorial.
"Look, where I come from, you have a harvest season," I said. "You plant the hay grazer, you let it grow, you watch it grow, you cut it, you bale it, and you put the bales on the trailer. You drive the trailer around and park it and put the hay in the barn. When all the hay is out of the field and in the barn, your work is done and you're ready for the next thing."
I had everyone's attention now.
"That's what this week is. We worked, we worked, and we worked. I worked, I worked, and I worked. The hay is in the barn, man. It's Friday. No more practice. Now it's time to go win. Our work is done."
"That's cool, Colt," said one of my teammates.
"Okay," said another. "I get it now."
When our team meeting was over, I headed up to my room. After taking a shower, I immediately fell asleep with no anxiety whatsoever. That's the way it's always been for me on the night before a game. I slept hard because I knew my preparation was done.
The hay was in the barn.
While Colt was turning in for the evening, my wife, Debra, and I checked into our room at the Omni William Penn Hotel. We had flown in from Lincoln, Nebraska, with our good friend Dick Anderson. That afternoon, the three of us had watched the University of Texas upset the fifth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers 20–13. Dick was a Nebraska fan, even though he lived in Austin, home of the University of Texas. (Dick was also Colt's landlord for two years, but more on that story later.)
We had made the trek to Lincoln because our youngest son, Case, was the second- string quarterback at Texas. He had won the backup position as a true freshman, meaning that for the sixth consecutive year, a McCoy quarterback was suiting up for UT. After losses to UCLA and Oklahoma, the Longhorns weren't expected to beat Nebraska on the road, but Coach Mack Brown's team stunned the college football world with a huge, surprising victory.
Five hours later, we found ourselves in Pittsburgh, terribly excited but also terribly anxious about Colt's first NFL start. Colt's wife, Rachel, had driven in from Cleveland with a college friend, Leslie Peterson, and they were staying in Pittsburgh with a friend Rachel knew from Baylor University, where she attended college. We were thankful they had arrived safely, and we made arrangements to meet up with Rachel and her friend in the morning.
Debra and I awoke just after dawn, which is our custom. We began our day by bowing our heads and praying for Colt's safety and protection. After our prayer time, I could tell Debra was a bit keyed up and nervous. She's been a coach's wife for many years and had watched her three sons play in hundreds of games over the years, but I could sense her apprehension. That was certainly understandable. There's always a certain amount of fear in every mother's heart when her son straps on a helmet and jogs onto the field—even more so this time because this was the NFL.
Debra is a student of the game, and she knew that the kind of football played in the NFL was a quantum leap from Division I college. The size, speed, and intensity of NFL players brought a whole new meaning to the nerves she felt that morning. I felt the butterflies in my stomach as well, but also a full helping of fatherly pride. My son—my offspring whom I had brought up from nothing—was fixing to start an NFL regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who many thought were the best team in pro football. My son would be playing quarterback, the premier position in football—maybe all of sports—before more than sixty-five thousand rabid Steelers fans and millions of TV viewers. How cool was that?
Excerpted from Growing Up Colt by Colt McCoy, Brad McCoy, Mike Yorkey. Copyright © 2011 Koyboys LLC. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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