The perpetual Day 1 question at Alabama football practice: 'How they lookin’?'

Cecil Hurt
Tuscaloosa News

”How they lookin’?”

That’s been the perennial first day question as Alabama opens football practice in August, at least for the past 40 years or so.

It probably goes back to the earliest days when W.G. Little arrived from Andover Prep with his football uniform (and, according to some versions of the legend, some extra equipment that he managed to acquire one way or another before heading south from Massachusetts.) 

The correct way to ask the question is using only those three words. The verb (“are”) is sort of an honorary member of the sentence, but is almost never asked to participate in its activities. The meaning comes across just fine.

The implication, though, is different than it was 43 years ago.

When Nick Saban’s 2021 team took the field Friday, it looked the way elite college teams look these days. There is no separation of freshmen, many of whom have been on campus since December.

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They have been working out on individualized programs in one of the nation’s premier weight rooms. The physical differences in a senior and a freshman do exist because of the extra years in the weight room but if you focus on a position group like quarterbacks for a deeper look, you don’t see anyone who glaringly needs a redshirt season to mature.

So “how they lookin’?” Is almost a ritual greeting, designed to elicit a response like “they look good, real good.” 

Alabama head coach works with the defensive backs during practice. The Alabama Crimson Tide opened practice for the 2021 season as they prepare to defend the 2020 National Championship Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Things used to be different.

For many signees, even after freshman eligibility has been reinstated in 1972, they looked like what they had been until that day: high school kids, vastly different in weight and strength than the juniors and seniors.

For most newcomers, the off-season went something like this: sign an SEC letter-of-intent in December, enjoy the rest of your senior year, go the prom, hang out with your buddies, play in the Alabama High School All-Star Game in midsummer, pray you didn’t get injured (I can think of at least two Alabama signees who never were the same after knee injuries in that exhibition) and then show up for your conditioning test.

That consisted of a mile run, or at least your best effort at making the four laps around the track. Some players (the varsity had to run a mile, too) had trained to be ready. Some, especially large linemen, labored in the August heat in Tuscaloosa.

The solution to get guys in shape was often extra running after practice. Byron Braggs eventually played in the NFL but arrived as a freshman from Montgomery with some extra weight. He didn’t make the mile so the next step was to run after practice, with results as frightening as they were predictable. After his first practice in pads in the usual Tuscaloosa sauna, Braggs had to run and collapsed along the way.

His core temperature was measured at 105 degrees, his life saved by fast-thinking trainers and the presence of an ice tub into which he was lowered. Hydration technology has come so far since then, and it’s impossible to even imagine Dr. Matt Rhea and David Ballou, Alabama’s cutting edge strength and conditioning team, getting their first look at an incoming player as he jogged around the practice field in a  pair of gym shorts. 

There were exceptions, of course. I saw Cornelius Bennett play basketball at Ensley High School. He was a full-grown man then, a full-grown man on the day he started practice at Alabama, and a full-grown man right through his long NFL career. That used to be the desired answer to “How they lookin’?,” a description of that gem who could play right away.

Now it’s the same answer in every Nick Saban year: “Good. Really good.” 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt