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"MULES' HAVE TO PLOW THROUGH

This is the third story of A Day In The Life, a Sunday summer series in which Times sports writers chronicle a typical sporting day of someone, someplace or something on the North Suncoast.

At first, it seems like a prank.

A bunch of high school students are hanging outside a college dorm on a Wednesday night when a delivery car arrives with 110 pizzas.

But it's no prank. And in 20 minutes the pizzas are gone thanks to hundreds of teenage football players waiting inside the dormitory, packed into a hallway like 270-pound sardines.

The players are hungry, but they want the pizza mostly because it marks the end of a hellishly long day.

For 320 athletes who meet at Saint Leo University, from the Panhandle and south Miami and everywhere between, the day isn't about what they consume but what consumes them: becoming the best player they can be at the Down and Dirty Lineman Camp.

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The day begins 16 hours and three practices earlier. Breakfast is at 7:45 a.m. Shortly after, a parade of orange jerseys moves toward the main field at Saint Leo for the first two-hour workout of the day.

The field, worn from the previous drills, is split into four stations, with each practice including a nearly nonstop 25-minute workout at each. The only rest is a water break between stations.

To say the workouts are grueling is to say it is hot. Only the players, sweat pouring off their facemasks, truly can appreciate either statement. Yet it's something a growing number of high-schoolers are eager to endure each summer.

The camp started in Lakeland, and participation has increased from 42 players in 1992 to 960 last year.

A story in Sports Illustrated last year sparked interest, and the camp moved to Saint Leo, west of Dade City, to accommodate the growth. With three sessions in nine days, the camp will reach a plateau this time: 1,000 participants.

Each has paid $210 for the three-day event, but throwing away the money isn't what keeps them from bailing out. Surviving the camp is a priceless source of confidence, and players often wear their camp T-shirts under game jerseys on Friday nights for inspiration.

"Nobody's going to baby you there. You just have to suck it up and be mean," said Matt Rodriguez, who moved to the area from Virginia two weeks ago and will be a senior at Land O'Lakes.

"This camp teaches me that nobody's going to hold my hand," he said. "It helps you a lot. I know on game day, I'm going to have a whole different mentality."

Roommate Sean Long, another first-year camper from Land O'Lakes, said: "Every single person, at least one of the coaches has gotten up in our faces, just yelling."

It's a lot to take, but the thought of leaving camp early and giving up when so many others carry on is something too humbling for most to consider. Yet it happens every year.

"It's like the first day of practice at school when 120 kids show up," camp director Rod Shafer tells the players at practice.

"The next day, there's 80 there because a lot of guys decided they needed to focus on their grades, even though school hasn't started yet."

Some campers, tired from a previous session and fearing a longer one ahead, will hide in their dorm rooms and hope they aren't missed.

But attendance is checked each time, and anyone who misses a session doesn't get to take home their jersey or any camp T-shirts.

By the end of the day, 11 players will forfeit their jerseys and leave early.

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The mantra, shouted over bullhorns at practice and proudly displayed on T-shirts, is "Ain't It Great To Be A Mule!"

Quarterbacks and skill-position players may be the thoroughbreds, but the linemen are the mules, working together to carry the team where it needs to go.

There are enough mules at this session that practice spills off the main field and down to Saint Leo's baseball stadium.

In the outfield is a circle of 12 cones, with a row of 6-8 linemen extending from each like, well, a ray of sunshine.

In the middle is a fiery coach from Tennessee State, one of 21 colleges represented on the staff this week, and he is giving players the kind of tough love normally delivered by drill sergeants.

The campers stand with their knees bent, arms in front and palms forward, thrusting their hands outward with a "HA!" again and again with each blow of the whistle. They lunge forward three times, backslide three, one dead-serious ha-ha-ha after another, learning by repetition.

Coaches are hard on the players, but that's what the campers are paying for.

"I've never experienced a camp as physically and mentally challenging as this one is," said Rodriguez, who bonded with Long and teammate Nathan Gaul after lining up in the same group.

"It's more trying to break you mentally, to get you the whole aspect of "You need to go hard full-time.' I'm not going to lie. It's tough, but I'm liking it."

There's a coach for every eight campers, allowing individual instruction even with 10 times as many players as local teams might field this fall.

The relentless attention to detail covers technique, but attitude and appearance as well.

One coach yells at a player: "Pull your pants up, son! I don't want to see any of that!"

Another thing they don't want to see: players asking for breaks or asking coaches to slow down.

If an athlete is not properly conditioned, it will show quickly, and the only escape for a player is the short walk to a white tent where trainers offer medical assistance.

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The "hurt tent" is not the place to be, the last resort for exhausted and overheated campers.

The morning session has eight players seeking refuge in the shade. One cools himself with an ice bag on his head, while another rubs a bag over his protruding stomach.

The water breaks are strictly enforced. Still, by the end of the day six players needed IVs to replenish fluids, Shafer said.

"I've watched more vomiting, more cramping, more guys with IVs today," legendary University of Miami offensive line coach Art Kehoe later tells the group as the campers half-fill Saint Leo's gymnasium bleachers.

"But I've also seen more guys out there working their butts off, trying to get better," he says. "That's what this is all about."

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After an intense morning, the players head to lunch with healthy appetites.

If the camp is designed to test linemen by pushing them beyond their limits, it has the same effect on the Saint Leo cafeteria staff.

Rich Vogel, who runs the cafeteria, estimated that it produces four times as much food for the campers as it does on a normal school day for the entire student body.

For this lunch, that means 800 pork chops and 180 pounds of hamburger patties. Meals are all you can eat, and the campers go through 100 pounds of hot dogs and 300 pounds of french fries in a day, washing it down with 150 gallons of Powerade.

Cramping is a major concern, so players are encouraged to eat bananas, a source of potassium.

The cafeteria orders six 40-pound cases of bananas, and they arrive just after breakfast. By the end of lunch, one box remains.

The volume of food doesn't compare to gymnastics or karate camps Saint Leo hosts, Vogel said, or even to a quarterbacks camp it had a week earlier.

"These guys are different," he said. "They linger a little more, eat a little more. They're more like grazers."

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The breaks between practices are low-key, with players glad to be off their feet and many sleeping.

Some gather in rooms where campers have PlayStations, while four individuals from Hernando High play cards in another.

"It's the only thing that can keep us calm, keep us relaxed," said Windham Rotunda, a second-year camper and part of a large Leopards contingent.

Two more practices follow, with cloud cover mercifully taking the edge off a 90-degree afternoon.

The later sessions bring more contact and competition.

When players gather at night to hear Kehoe's speech, some are limping, most are hurting and all are tired. But all are cheering and nodding in agreement as Kehoe talks about "submitting to success," a philosophy that has helped him win five national titles with the Hurricanes the past two decades.

In three days, linemen are given the most concentrated instruction of their young careers, and a confidence that can rub off on teammates at home.

Kehoe said that every team he sees winning a state title in football, there is a Down and Dirty camper somewhere on its line.

"Once we make it through these practices, we know we're ready to play," Rodriguez said. "You make it through these three days, it's pretty respectable.

"It's going to take a lot of hard work this fall, but I'm pumped up to play," he said. "I can't wait for the season to start."

Art Kehoe, who has won five national titles as Miami's offensive line coach, shows a player the proper technique in the camp at Saint Leo.

Justin Cochran, far left, blocks Ivan Vega as coach Chris Hansen watches Cochran's form. The intensity shows on the face of Ryan Winter, right, as he goes through a drill Wednesday. With three sessions in nine days, the camp will reach a plateau this year: 1,000 participants.

Eric Ervin, far left, struggles with cramps as Sean Long tries to catch his breath. Several players needed IVs to replenish their fluids after

completing workouts in 90-degree heat. At right, a trainer tapes Jason Kaminski's injured ankle.

Up next:WEDDINGS

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