Training Camp Grind

 The sun finally makes an appearance on a muggy Sunday morning in the early days of the 2019 Gryphon Football training camp. Alumni Stadium has a buzz to it once again, with one-on-one drills at one end of the field and the two lines going against each other near the goalposts on the College Ave. endzone. As that familiar sound of pads and helmets come together reverberate through the stadium, there are eager parents in the stands wanting nothing more than their kids to make a resonating play, like an interception that produces a loud, emotional roar from the core of defensive backs.

 “Keep the tempo up!” one veteran yells out as the Gryphons begin to show what all that tireless offseason work was for. But it’s welcome work for a group that can’t wait to start the latest chapter in Guelph’s rich football history.

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 “We wake up every morning at 5 am knowing there is still a pile of work to get done,” says the Gryphons’ new head coach Ryan Sheahan. “It’s been intense, condensed.

 “We have to manage the fact that we have less practice time before our first game and that’s putting some stress on people, especially first-year players looking to make the jump.

 “It’s not easy but the road to success never is.”

 While training camp can take a toll, as evidenced by the packs of ice strapped on banged-up body parts, it’s something players relish. The football offseason is a marathon compared to the sprint of the eight regular season OUA games and potential playoff battles. So by the time August rolls around and the opener against the McMaster Marauders looms, the Gryphon veterans are eager to get back on the field and test themselves, especially after the 2018 campaign ended with a loss to Western in the Yates Cup.

 “We’re starting up again so we can do our thing,” says fourth-year defensive back Dotun Aketepe. “Now, we’re actually back on the field. It’s not walkthrough, it’s not training – it’s football. It feels good.”

 Fifth-year quarterback Theo Landers finds joy throughout the process of camp, even during the demanding stretch of two-a-day workouts with a quick lunch at Creelman Hall sandwiched in between.

 “There are 105 guys so we get to meet all the different personalities from all different places,” says the veteran, wearing a red jersey that signifies ‘hands off’ for hungry defenders. “It’s about getting to know the guys, that’s one of the fun parts of training camp. And seeing the rookies and how they adapt to everything.

“It’s been a long summer. We put in a lot of hard work training and we’re finally on the field. We want to play and win games. That’s a big thing for me, ultimately winning games.”

 On this Sunday, the instructions from coaches come fast and furious. The team breaks into units to practice and there’s not much time for a slurp of water from the hoses on the sidelines. The group of kickers, which got a boost earlier in the week after a visit from Canadian Football League legend Don Sweet, work on refining their craft, while linebackers run a demanding drill, throwing themselves to the ground with their arms wrapped around a tackling dummy. The tempo needs to be high and for young players, it can occasionally be a bit overwhelming.

Landers remembers back to his first camp and how adjusting to the speed of both his own receivers and the defensive players breaking on the ball proved to be the biggest challenge.

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“I had James Roberts who was really helpful and a student of the game,” Landers says of the revered former Guelph QB. “That showed me that as a quarterback, you have to get in your book. Now that I’m a senior and with the younger guys coming in, I try to pass on that knowledge and let them know that the work you put into the classroom is more important than the work you do out here.”

The transition from wide-eyed rookie to veteran resource is a common theme in the Gryphon program over the years. Aketepe has gone through it himself. It’s an important process to go through and it often begins with the realization that the mental pressure of camp is as prevalent as the physical toll on the body.

 For the Barrie, ON native, his first ever Gryphon training camp experience back in 2016 produced a ton of anxiety.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he says. “I knew how to play football but university football is not the same level. I was nervous, worried. I thought, ‘Can I really compete?’ I had to mentally prepare myself.

“My parents always told me, put yourself in the best position early, and it will set you up over time. That’s really what I tried to focus on.”

It was also the guidance of his mentors and former Gryphon greats like Tristan Doughlin, Royce Metchie and Nick Parisotto, who all offered something different in helping Aketepe along the way, that made the necessary difference in both football and life away from the field.

Now he is more than happy to return the favour.

“The first thing I try to do is make sure that there is an open line of communication to me,” he says of his relationship with young players. “They can always talk to me. It’s a lot of information to get in a short amount of time – the coaches throw it all at you at once.

“I’m trying to recreate what I had when I first got here.”

Written by: David DiCenzo