Being a ball boy is a glamorous job. You get to watch football heroes up close, and then hang with them in the locker room. Some of them know your name. You are allowed to go behind the curtain, and get a rare glimpse of how a team really operates. You actually are part of a group effort, and you share in the rewards.
Being a football ball boy is a lowly existence. You get up early and stay late. You do the work no one else wants to do, and you had better not screw up. You get yelled at, made fun of and hazed. The only thing lower than you is mud, the kind you have to scrape off cleats.
Through it all, many former ball boys look back at their experience fondly. Some speak of unforgettable lessons, and of experiences that forged their life paths. They say they discovered their character and learned about the world around them in ways they never could have while sitting in a classroom. Yes, being a ball boy was a good thing.
Bears chairman George McCaskey, ball boy Chicago Bears 1970-1975: "It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was hard work, dawn past dark. There was a lot of, how shall I say this, players putting you in your place. But we had three squares a day, you were outside, you were with the players. It was great. They used to have those boxes of cereal that we didn't have at home, so we would stuff them in our suitcases… We got to drink a lot of pop. Joe Stydahar was the nicest assistant coach. He was always sneaking pops for us."
Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, ball boy Cleveland Browns 1987-1988 and Kansas City Chiefs 1989-1992: "I loved being around the guys. They were always good to us. A lot of them were like big kids themselves, so they always got along with young kids. Talking with Joe Montana and Marcus Allen, and getting a chance to play catch with guys… it created [the] memories of a lifetime."
Redskins tight ends coach Wes Phillips, ball boy Denver Broncos 1991-1994: "It was a great opportunity for me because I could be around my dad, Wade Phillips. My whole life I was used to him being gone a month or six weeks. I could be around him in his job, around football and players. Me and Kyle Shanahan were roommates. The last two years I helped with the quarterbacks. So I'm handing balls to John Elway, who I thought was the greatest player in the world and [who] might have been. It was playing video games, living on our own, driving golf carts, causing mischief and getting paid."
Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, ball boy Chicago Bears 1964-1965, Los Angeles Rams 1966-1970, Washington Redskins 1971-1975: "I loved the sport and loved the guys. In training camp, it's sharing life stories every day, sharing breakfast or lunch and finding out who they are. Tell me about your upbringing, your future, where you want to be? It was fascinating to me as a kid. Still is."
Bengals player personnel director Duke Tobin, ball boy Chicago Bears 1980-1990: "Being a ball boy shaped my childhood. I've been around pro football my whole life, and that has been a distinct advantage to me. There is a normalcy with this lifestyle for me that other people might not have. My year goes as the pro football schedule goes. It's the way my life has been structured, and I'm comfortable with it this way."
Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, ball boy St. Louis Cardinals 1979-83. "You got a chance to see players try to make the team at various stages of their careers and know their personal stories. You could see some of the Hard Knocks thing live and in person. And it wasn't just an hour show. It was every day, throughout an entire camp."
Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie, ball boy New England Patriots 2000-2001: "Larry Izzo was a special teams player, and he recognized I was Steve DeOssie's son when I walked in the door. He took me under his wing, and all of the linebackers then sort of adopted me as their ball boy. I took care of them. They let me get a pair of shoes. It was an incredible experience.
"Coach Belichick asked me during camp if I like Bon Jovi. I told him I did, even though I really didn't know much about him. He said, 'Great, we're going to the Tweeter Center tonight to see him.' I said, 'Are you kidding? What about bed check?' He said, 'Don't worry about it.' I went to the concert with coach Belichick, his wife at the time, his right hand man Berj Najarian and his wife. I'm standing next to Coach Belichick and we're jamming out to Bon Jovi. I'm a junior in high school. To have him include me in that was pretty cool. Those memories will stay with me for a long time.
"Then when the Patriots went to the Super Bowl, Coach Belichick let me come to the game and be a ball boy on the sidelines. No responsibilities. Just stay out of the way. And I was there on the field to watch Adam Vinatieri kick the game winner against the Rams... Fast forward five years, I'm playing against the Patriots and Larry Izzo in the Super Bowl my rookie year. I'm lining up for a punt snap and half of the punt return team is calling me ball boy and yelling at me to go get them a Gatorade after I botch the snap."
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For many, being a ball boy was about much more than having a vacation that was the envy of all the other kids on the block. They might not have realized it at the time, but some ball boys were taking the first steps on journeys that would lead them to where they are today.
Broncos general manager John Elway, ball boy Washington State Cougars 1973-1974: "I liked being out in the middle of it, being there at the game. I remember the intensity of running out on the field. I remember looking up and seeing all those people around you. It was a unique experience, especially when you get in front of 40,000, 50,000, that's a different feeling to be down there... Football was third on my list at that point for me. I was more into basketball and baseball, so it probably helped direct me to football."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, ball boy Decatur High School 1989: "I loved being that close to the action with my dad's teams. Swapping the ball, running all the way out there, you are in the midst of a game, and it felt like big crowds being in front of a couple thousand at a high school game. It furthered my love for the game, being around it at such a young age. It made me more and more anxious to be the quarterback."
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, ball boy Minnesota Vikings 1996-2001: "I had a chance to see what made Cris Carter, Randy Moss and John Randle great by what they did Monday through Saturday, the mental and physical preparation. With John Randle, they used to take him out of team drills because he was so disruptive, he was beating guys so badly. To see the competitive fire of Cris going one-on-one with Dale Carter, and the battles they used to have with the Chiefs and Saints down in Wisconsin. The battles were so intense. I was like, if I want to do this, it's going to take a lot of dedication and hard work. I was able to see that as a teenager. It was eye opening. It was monumental in my development.
"Duane Clemons, Dwayne Rudd and Matthew Hatchette would come to my high school football games. Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Daunte Culpepper, Robert Griffith, Robert Smith and all these guys I idolized came to support me. It was mind blowing. I made up my mind then to give it everything I had to become a football player."
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In some ways, being a ball boy is like getting a degree in football. Living the ball boy life provides an education in the game, as well as an education in the business of the game.
Michael Bidwill: "You got a chance to see that there is a lot more that goes into a game or practice than what you see on the field. You get to see how another part of the business works. You see how different departments work together. I remember when we would move the team, 120 players back then, and coaches too. The ball boys, trainers and video guys had a huge job. After a game, the rule is you're out the door in one hour. Being part of that, you learn about how to get things done within a time frame with no excuses."
Duke Tobin: "The players I got to be around shaped my opinion of what football players should be. Even today I look for those types of players that were on the Bears in those years. You got to know those guys. They were all football. They loved the game, loved competing and they had personality. It was a rare situation and I was fortunate to be around it. The model I always use is Walter Payton. I understood his personality, work ethic, drive, spirit. He made it fun. He always had a bright, shining personality even if he was tired. That is the personality you want in a player."
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, ball boy Buffalo Bills 1991-1993: "I wanted to be a ball boy because I was playing wide receiver at John Carroll and wanted to learn more about the game to take back to college. My last year, Bill Brooks was there. He was a really good route runner. He ran a dig route perfectly, to a T. So consistent. He taught me how to run it. These are my points, this is how I set people up. There were things I had never learned before. I took that back and used it and it was successful with me. I learned some subtle things. I'd follow receivers coach Charlie Joiner around and carry his script, tried to learn as much as I could. I stayed after practice with the receivers, shoot the jugs machine at the guys. I loved it.
"I didn't even know about scouting then. The draft wasn't as big then. I saw the scouts there, but I didn't know what they did. One of my jobs one year was [that] I had to keep the scouts' rooms stocked with booze. It's a different league now. Those guys would sit and talk and tell stories. Sometimes I'd get to sit in there and listen to stories. At one point I thought, maybe I could do this."
Wes Phillips: "I remember very clearly Jim Fassel helping me throw the ball and teaching me how to throw it better than I ever had. I ended up being an average quarterback in college at Texas-El Paso. I remember just hearing things that have stuck with me. A lot of things you learn, you don't always realize it when you are hearing them. You just kind of pick up things. Then when you are in the profession, you realize you have a feel for something because you heard it back then."
Zak DeOssie: "I started navigating the rest of my football career by emulating what I observed when I was a ball boy. Watching these guys showed me what it takes to play. When I got to the Giants as a rookie, I think I felt a lot more comfortable than the typical rookie because I had been around training camps, and been around that championship organization.
"I was a quarterback in high school at the time. Coach Belichick would break down film with me and tell me about my throwing motion. Even Drew Bledsoe and Tom Brady would throw with me and help me with my technique. One day Rohan Davey had to go to a funeral back home. I'm sitting there on the sideline as a ball boy and all of a sudden Coach Belichick says, 'Alright, Zak, you are up. Get in there.' It was scout offense versus starting defense in a seven-on-seven passing drill. I hesitated. He said, 'No, get in there, you are in there now.' I tapped Damon Huard on the shoulder and said, 'Excuse me Mr. Huard, Coach Belichick said I'm taking these reps.' He shrugged me off and laughed and me. 'Get out of here, Zak.' Then coach called him off. I took four reps and went 0-for-4. The defense on the first play did an all-out blitz. The second play I threw a perfect pass to a rookie tight end and he dropped it. Coach reamed him out for it.
"I didn't know anything about long snapping then. Never did it in high school. One day Coach Belichick asked me if I could snap with the rookies. That was my first long snap in an organized situation. A couple of the resident coaches would come in from other college programs. After that first session, one from UNLV came up to me and said, 'I want to offer you a long snapper scholarship.' I laughed. I thought he was joking. He was dead serious."
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Sure, ball boys learned about football. But on the practice fields, in the equipment rooms and in the dormitories, they also learned about life. They learned how to get by in a foreign world, and how to deal with all kinds of situations and people who could be difficult.
Duke Tobin: "It teaches you that you can be away from home. We stayed in dorms in Platteville, Wisc. It teaches you work ethic, maturity, responsibility and independence… You learn about being a man. You get to see [the] leadership dynamic, who is in charge, and who is in not, and why."
Tom Telesco: "You have to have tough skin, that's one thing I learned. It was constant ball-busting in the locker room. It's a tough environment sometimes. You would hear it from staff, trainers, equipment guys, and players like Jim Kelly and Darryl Talley."
Bruce Allen: "I learned about people who were different from me. It opened my eyes. When I was 10, Deacon Jones took me under his wing. I came to consider Deacon my big brother. Our relationship was close until the day he left us. He had talent. God blessed him with that. But he also had drive, and his drive and his anger were about what happened to him growing up, what people had done to him. It was something I could not have experienced because I wasn't raised in the south the way he was."
George McCaskey: "Probably the most important lesson I learned, [one] that stuck with me to this day, not just in football, was how to keep a confidence. I was working at a disadvantage because I was the grandson of an owner. I didn't know if they trusted me not to take something back to Papa Bear. So I had to gain trust. I did that by keeping my mouth shut. It's the same kind of thing Coach [Marc] Trestman talks about today -- mutual respect, trust and putting other people ahead of yourself. When we first got down there, my dad, Ed McCaskey, gave me great advice, as he did throughout his life. He said, 'Keep your mouth shut and work your ass off.' There were team leaders like Doug Buffone who everyone looked up to. If he told one of his teammates, 'This kid's alright,' you were in."
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Not every experience is a pleasant one for ball boys. At one point or another, almost every one of them gets an earful from a red-faced coach or foul-mouthed player. And sometimes, they get worse.
Bruce Allen: "While the players were going through a walk-through type of practice one day with the Bears, I took all the helmets and lined them up all the way across the end line. I thought I did a great job. Then coach [George] Halas blew his whistle. They were all supposed to go run to drills. No one had numbers on their helmets and all the facemasks were generally the same. So the players couldn't find their helmets and that held up everyone going to drills. Coach Halas yelled, 'Who did this?' I'm probably seven or eight [years old]. If I had a shovel I would have dug a hole. He said, 'Why did you do that? I'm in charge of the organization around here!'
"When I was with the Rams later, Deacon Jones was the ringleader. If my dad, George Allen, made them run too many striders, they would tape me and throw me in the hamper. They would leave me in the shower from morning until afternoon practice, 11 [a.m.] until 3 [p.m.] or so. I got them to stop putting the hot water on and at least put the cold water on."
Brian Schottenheimer: "There was a time when I had to do wakeups. One day I forgot to wake up the top floor at 6 a.m., so they were all a little late to practice. Luckily [my dad] Marty didn't punish them too much since his son was the one who screwed it up. Neil Smith was waiting for me. He gave me a real hard time about it."
Zak DeOssie: "My last day of training camp as a ball boy, I came back from the shower, took my sandals off and then wiped my feet. Both of my soles were dark purple. They had this FBI powder. Once it got any sort of moisture on it, it would turn into a permanent, dark purple ink. The purple dye was all over my room. Once I got home to my house, I got a bunch of stains on my bedroom floor. All I had was ten shirts at the time, and all ten were tie dye purple. No one would admit who did it, and I was bent out of shape. I later found out it was the punter, Ken Walter. That's what specialists do, they play practical jokes."
Michael Bidwill: "One time Dan Dierdorf came back with all his sweaty clothes. I'm at the equipment door loading the big hampers to separate the clothes. I turn and look up and got hit in the face right with Dan's sweaty clothes -- his jersey, T-shirt, shorts, everything. I was not happy, but he was laughing. I took a quick break and washed my face. That will give you some humility. I'm not so sure being the owner's kid got me very far that day."
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No one can last as a ball boy without a willingness to work hard. For kids who are used to playing and lounging around all summer, being a ball boy is a radical change.
Tom Telesco: "I got my first taste of long hours. We'd come back from a preseason game at four in the morning, and go straight to the facility to get ready for the next day."
Larry Fitzgerald: "They have an equipment manager up there, Dennis Ryan, who may be the hardest working man in the world. He's there at 5:30 [a.m.], leaves at 11:30 at night when the laundry is done. He does it every day, and he demands the same kind of work ethic from everybody. That taught me hard work, dedication and responsibility as a young guy. It helped me become more mature in terms of my focus."
Zak DeOssie: "We did the math once. The ball boy rate was $100 a week. We added up the hours and figured out we were paid 32 cents an hour."
Wes Phillips: "Sweeping up the locker rooms, setting up equipment, putting laundry on hooks on lockers, sitting outside the showers and throwing towels to players, picking up tape they took off, shagging balls, we did everything. I even had to run pursuit drills for my dad. He'd throw me the ball, I'd catch it and run and players would have to cut me off. They'd all be grabbing me, trying to slow me up and push me down."
George McCaskey: "We were playing a preseason game in Milwaukee, and Doug Buffone goes out in pregame warm-up. He's in the middle of a drill and calls me over. He hands me something and says, 'Put this in my locker.' I look down, and it's his bridgework. He forgot to take it out."
Bruce Allen: "We got up at 5 [a.m.] and took pride in it. You want to be a part of it all. It's, 'What can I do to help the team?' From polishing shoes to fixing shoulder pads, whatever it took."
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Allen has several photos of himself as a ball boy in his home. As he speaks on the sidelines of a Redskins practice, his son George runs to help a player with some thing or another. He is a ball boy.