Don’t Call It A Comeback

By John Dell
Updated: August 14, 2008

NORTH CAROLINA — The big moment came during a 7-on-7 passing drill. It was my turn to do a slant pattern across the middle. The ball came, seemingly in slow motion, hit me in the chest, and …

I’ve always had a fascination with stories about writers participating in something incredible and then writing about it.

I’ve now had my George Plimpton moment, but I think I liked it better when somebody else was doing what came to be called “participatory journalism.”

Plimpton wrote Paper Lion after going through training camp as a quarterback with the Detroit Lions in the 1960s. His book was later turned into a movie starring Alan Alda.

My Plimpton moment was going to be a lot shorter — just one practice with the Winston-Salem State University football team to see what the players go through.

I’m 44. The last time I put on a football helmet was in the sixth grade. I quit the Villa Park (Ill.) Lions as a small running back with little quickness. I tended to close my eyes right before getting hit, which opened my eyes to the fact that organized football wasn’t in my future.

I am in good condition for my age, but I’m still not that big, 5 feet 7 inches tall, 170 pounds. I have run in two marathons and in several of the Twin City Track Clubs Ultimate Runner competitions, but this would prove tougher by far.

One reason I asked Coach Kermit Blount to go through the team’s first practice was that there would be no hitting. The Rams would be wearing helmets, T-shirts and shorts but no pads, which is required in early training camp by the NCAA.

I checked with my boss and my health insurance. My wife’s reaction was expected: “Don’t call me from the hospital, because I’m not coming to get you,” she said.

No sugarcoating what I’d go through

The two assistant coaches who were most intrigued about my idea were Nick Calcutta, the fiery offensive coordinator, and Kevin Downing, the wide receivers coach. Neither sugarcoated what I would go through.

Because I chose to work out with the wide receivers, I had to learn plays and formations to take part in the practice. I was the 86th player on an 85-man team, but at least I would give it my all, knowing that I had nothing to lose but my good health.

Calcutta wasn’t content with just my being at practice. I was invited to a team meeting the night before where I was told to sit in the first row with all the other freshmen. During the meeting, one of the freshmen sitting next to me was filling out NCAA paperwork. His birth year was 1990. I think I have socks that old.

Every night during camp, Blount has a speaker talk to the team. At that team meeting, there were two — Merlene Aitken, who handles the school’s NCAA compliance, and Dennis Felder, the energetic head of the sports-management department who helps Aitken with compliance.

The message to the players was about gambling and how even a friendly wager can get them in trouble. I hoped that meant that the players weren’t going to bet on how long I would last in practice the next day.

Jay Robinson, the equipment manager, issued my helmet, cleats, jersey and shorts. He gave me No. 9, the old number of Brandon Hussey, a former wide receiver who exhausted his eligibility two years ago. Hussey was always a good quote when I was chasing players after games, so I felt like that was a good omen.

Practice started in the heat of the day, about 1:30. Trainer Darrell Turner taped up my ankles, and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?” and then pointed me in the direction of the practice field.

The helmet started to get heavy about 10 minutes in, after just a few jumping jacks. It started feeling even heavier about an hour into the receivers’ drills, something along the lines of wearing a manhole cover.

Encouragement from the players

During the early stages, most of the players were quiet around me, not really knowing what this little old guy was doing on the field. But as we got going, running through the drills and through full-team workouts, players encouraged me because they realized I was holding up OK.

I also did OK on the first 7-on-7 “skills” test, the slant pattern across the middle that I actually ran correctly.

And I caught the pass from quarterback Jarrett Dunston.

A little later, I had to run a “go” route to the end zone, and I caught that pass for a touchdown. Of course, there was no defense on the field for that one, but at least I didn’t drop it. I resisted doing the Desmond Howard Heisman Trophy pose, but looking back I should have. Maybe I’ll do it the next time I successfully take out the garbage.

My fellow receivers really helped me. Omar Kizzie, a slotback who was usually closest to me when I lined up for a play, kept me posted on what pattern to run. Brent Thomas and Bryant Bayne pointed me in the right direction when I was lost, which was often.

There was no hitting allowed, but there was still plenty of incidental contact in the 7-on-7 drill. The defensive and offensive players liked to talk trash to one another, and the defensive backs showed me no mercy.

Neither did the coaches.

“Dell, you are trying my patience,” Calcutta yelled as I lined up in a formation on the wrong side of the field.

Before we started practice, Reggie Johnson, a talkative defensive back, found out I was going to be playing wide receiver and said, “I’m going to D you up.”

Practice seemed to go on for a day and half, and the last part was the hardest, of course.

One of Blount’s favorite things is conditioning. This day, that was 25 sprints of from 10 to 40 yards, and they ended the three-hour practice. But I handled all of the sprints, and my breakfast and lunch stayed where they were supposed to.

And my body was still in one piece.

I grabbed my notepad and tape recorder, slipped off my helmet, and went back to doing my day job. I guess the highest compliment came from Blount when he said, “I’ve never been interviewed by a player before.”

One of the best things about a football team is that players push and prod each other to get through each and every practice. It didn’t matter to the players that I was born the night the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was one of them.

I was allowed to address the players and coaches afterward. I thanked them for allowing me into their world for a day — and announced my retirement.

“I’m not pulling a Brett Favre,” I said.

NOTE: For a video look at Dell’s day in WSSU camp log on to