If I didn’t know better, I would have thought Chad Spann was messing with me. Every few minutes during our hour-long conversation the running back would grunt, yell, or laugh without any discernible rhyme or reason. At one point as he talked his voice quavered as if someone was jumping up and down on him.
That’s exactly what was happening.
Spann made time for our phone conversation while he was on the receiving end of a deep tissue massage. The unexpected outbursts at various points during our conversation were a back-handed acknowledgement to his trainer/physical therapist doing things to his legs that Albert Haynesworth once tried to do to Andre Gurode’s head. The rookie free agent running back for the Indianapolis Colts has been steadfastly rehabbing a grade three hamstring tear that he suffered in the final preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals – an injury that occurred three minutes into the most important game of his young pro career.
Spann managed to play the entire game with an injury that leaves most people unable to walk: returning kicks, special teams coverage, and even as the running back on the game-winning, 85-yard drive . An injury that my colleague Dr. Jene Bramel asked me repeatedly if I heard Spann say “grade three hamstring,” correctly. Little did Jene and I know that the Colts trainers were also in disbelief after looking at the results of Spann’s MRI the morning after his performance. In fact, Spann repeatedly heard them use the term “anomaly,” referring to what he just did.
However, those who know Spann could have told you that he’s an anomaly. The star high school running back arrived at Northern Illinois as a walk-on freshman and in a matter of weeks rose from ninth to second on the Huskies’ depth chart. Not bad for a prep school player who to had to talk his way onto the field after making his own highlight videos and sending them to schools around the country without even a nibble.
As a senior, he had more touchdowns (22) than Cam Newton (20), leading college football with his proficiency at getting across the stripe. However, transitioning from college football to the NFL is enough to make any rookie’s head swim – and to go from the feature back at NIU to a rookie free agent with the Indianapolis Colts might has well be the football equivalent of completing a bachelor’s, by-passing medical school and jumping directly into a residency with Peyton Manning as the ER chief that the hospital administrators provide great latitude and deference on matters in his department.
Spann, who has an injury settlement with the Colts and might get a chance to return by Week 8, agreed to share his training camp experiences in this series, including the differences between the structure of football training camps in college and the NFL, insights into the complexity of the Colts offense, and how he could possibly play with a grade three hamstring tear. Frequently Spann’s stories revealed a more than what we typically read about the NFL from a fresh perspective.
Waldman: What’s the difference between the structure and expectations of an NFL training camp and a college camp?
Spann: It’s definitely a big difference. In college it’s about about structure and building camaraderie. You have a schedule and you stick to that schedule. You might have free time for an hour during the day in college and it’s at a specific time of the day. When I got to the training camp with the Colts it was a bit of a surprise how much freedom we had. We were allowed to go home because the Colts still have training camp in Anderson, Indiana so we were allowed to return to Indianapolis once a week.
They get a lot more free time than I was really accustomed to, but at the same time the days were a lot longer than I was accustomed to.
Waldman: I’ve had conversations with individuals affiliated with the NFL and they tell me that college programs dictate the times a player eats, lifts, and studies, but in the NFL most of those things are really done on your own time. What was your schedule like during training camp?
Spann: You’re normally going to be up 7 a.m. – 8 a.m. to eat breakfast, which starts at 7:00 a.m. ends at 8:30 a.m. At some point you have to pop in there to show that you where there. The team would have what we call “30/30,” which is a walk-through practice where the offense walks through 30 plays against the defense and then the defense gets to walk through 30 plays against the offense. That takes place for an hour from 10-11 a.m. We get two hours of free time after that and players will often take naps. Then a half-hour before practice we have a walk-through in the gym. Then there’s practice for a couple of hours around 2-4 p.m. or 4:30-7:00 p.m and sometimes we have late practices from 7:30 – 9:00 p.m.
That’s all standard and pretty much the same as college, but the biggest adjustment was instead of waiting the next morning to watch the film of practice we would watch the film that night – even after the late practices. So I wouldn’t get out of position meetings until 10:30 p.m. and at the same time I’m trying to learn the playbook and with the Colts playbook we have 30 pages of installation every day. So when I get to my room between 10:45-11:00 p.m. and then I have to study all the new information that we got that day that will be used tomorrow for another hour or so and I don’t go to bed until midnight.
Waldman: Are you sure you didn’t sign up for med school instead of the NFL?
Spann: (Laughter) That’s what it really felt like…
Waldman: I can imagine. Those are long hours for anyone and your job has the physical aspect, which makes learning a lot of new mental material underrated in its difficulty. What about the meetings? What was that like?
Spann: It’s a new experience. When I was in college we rarely watched film together as a whole offensive unit. In college, we watched practice and games in our own rooms and coaches would give us grades for our performances in the games and go through every play. We separated so my coach could rewind and fast forward where he needs to. But with Indianapolis we all do this as a group. So everybody has to be on the same page, especially in an offense such as this one with Peyton Manning (normally) under center. It was hard to adjust at first because you’re sitting in an auditorium with 6-7 different position coaches all talking at once and the offensive coordinator has the clicker. Then you have Peyton Manning pointing out what he wants done. There’s so much going on all at once.
Waldman: Your head has to be swimming when this is your first experience of this kind.
Waldman: As great of a football player Manning has been and you being a Colts fan growing up, what was it like meeting him and working with him?
Spann: As much respect as I had for him for all these years I grew up in Indy as a Colts fan, when he opens his mouth you pay attention. Everybody listens. I actually got the opportunity to work with him closely because when he was trying to rehab and come back he would come in after practice and he would do hand offs and throw a few routes. All the hand offs he would do would be with me, Delone Carter, and Darren Evans – the three rookies.
So we got to do a lot of work with him and that helped me understand the offense a lot faster because it’s just you, him, and somebody handing him the ball and he’s calling out checks at the line and doing all of that stuff at the line he does. And when you have Peyton Manning doing this with you everything gets easier.
Waldman: That type of detail and work ethic fits with the story I heard from former NFL scout Dan Shonka, who describes a moment at the University of Tennessee where he encountered Manning alone in a darkened gym at 10:30 at night practicing drops. It’s fascinating to hear that story and piece it with the work he does with his backs and receivers on the field prior to every game (something Ray Lewis does a great job of explaining in this video). To see that kind of precision and detail and match it with a receiver like Austin Collie, who I heard used to work with his former teammate Max Hall on routes every night after dinner at BYU, and anyone could see those similar mindsets fitting together really well.
Spann: After practice we’ve all gotten together with Austin Collie and Blair White and gone through a pass shell - a “Skelly” – with just a running back, Peyton, and two slot receivers, and drive up and down the field. He’ll call a play at the line and throw it to the three of us running routes. That’s the kind of stuff that brings us younger guys along and it sharpens his tools because he knows that people are going to be where they are supposed to be at the right time.
Waldman: Was there a point in training camp where you felt like you were getting your feet under you after that initial period of your head swimming in the film sessions?
Spann: Absolutely. Of the three rookie running backs – me, Darren Evans, and Delone Carter – I knew the playbook the best. After our meetings we would get the script from our coach for the next practice and those guys would come to my room and we would go through the plays and write out all of our routes for the entire script. We’d do that the night before and it helped me and them develop our understanding of the offense. It really only took a week and a half to get acclimated with how practice was run and how the plays were called. It became second nature.
Tomorrow: Spann discusses the layers of of knowledge required for the Colts’ pass protection, what it’s like working with teammates who are also his competition, and the feedback he received after his first preseason game.
Author’s Note: Spann visited the Tampa Buccaneers this weekend and there have been nearly a half a dozen teams that have contacted the running back, telling him to be ready in case the Colts decide not to bring him back.