2017 All-American Game: Iron Sharpens Iron in the Land of Steel

On Wednesday July 19th, I left work excited. I love going on football trips. It’s like football Christmas. I headed up the highway towards my apartment and thought of the long season I had and what it meant to me that I was granted this opportunity to play in another All-American game. I then did a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t forgetting to bring something for the trip.

My girlfriend met me at my apartment and drove me to the airport. We said our goodbyes and I checked into my United flight. Security wasn’t bad so I had enough time to eat dinner. I took my obligated airport selfie. Sadly my travel buddy LeAnn Layman from Everett was unable to attend this trip so I had to take one in her honor.

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My first flight was from Seattle to San Francisco. I sat next to a middle school aged soccer team. I found it adorable that one of their players had never flown before and he was nervous. His teammates thought it was funny but I think he was actually scared.

My second flight was a red-eye from San Francisco to Pittsburgh. I got stuck in the back of the plane in a middle seat, an athlete’s worst nightmare. I don’t mind red eye flights because in theory you wake up the next day and you are there. That’s in theory. That doesn’t happen if the guy in the aisle seat next to you is a complete jerk and is completely in your bubble as he sleeps. I couldn’t sleep more than 20 minutes a time before I’d be completely sore.

I then thought, well maybe I’ll watch a movie. But then his arm completely took over the armrest which was the remote to the TV. I tried to move it gently and nudge him but that didn’t work. I gave up and tried to suck it up. When I watched him leave the plane when we got there was rude to others too.

Now, I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve had a lot of things happen. My trip to Pittsburgh had everything happen at the same time. Groggy from lack of sleep, as we were leaving the plane, I got a text from United that they forgot to put one of my bags on the flight. I went to baggage claim, picked up the bag that did arrive, and checked in with the baggage service. They said it was sent to Chicago instead but would be arriving later that day and they would drop it at the hotel.

I then went to the shuttle location and called the hotel to request a shuttle. Then I waited. 45 minutes. Then called again to make sure they were still on their way. The hotel didn’t know what happened to the shuttle. They told me to take a cab and they would pay for it. I’ve never had that happen before but I followed their instruction and took the cab. They did pay for it which was nice.

When I got to the hotel I was exhausted and just wanted to take a shower and nap. Pretty much everyone wants to do this after a long day of travel. You just don’t feel like a person. I had tried to request early check in previously, but when I arrived they told me the hotel was sold out the day before and there wasn’t a room available yet.

I went to the bistro, bought a $7 smoothie, sat in the couch in the lobby and waited.  I ran into a few Utah Wildcats players and talked with them. I was staying in a room with Stephanie Aliimatafitafi and Jenna Castro from the Portland Shockwave and they arrived at the hotel about an hour or so later. We finally were let in our room around 11AM.

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Stephanie and Jenna deciding that they should get the spa treatment if they were going to travel.

I took a shower and got settled in our room. My teammates Kase Tukutau and Malia Pome’e arrived sometime after with their friend and we all went to lunch at the hotel restaurant. We had originally planned to go to the Pittsburgh Pirates game where there were discounted tickets for us but we weren’t able to get away in time. So we watched it on TV while we ate.

We went to Wal-Mart to get supplies for the weekend, which for me is usually Gatorade, water, bananas, etc. Then we went back to the hotel to relax before the Meet and Greet event put on by the league.

 

The event was in the back of the hotel and was set up nicely. There were tables, food, a bar, and a DJ. The funny thing was, no one in my group thought it was supposed to be formal. We came dressed relaxed. Then we noticed that as people came in, they were either dressed to the nines or completely relaxed like us. I began to wonder if we missed the memo. I later heard that last year it was more formal so that’s why people were dressing like that. I just found it funny that there were people in cocktail dresses and others in basketball shorts or sweats. No matter. We still had fun. That night we went to bed fairly early as we were all tired from traveling.

The next morning was nice because we actually slept in. Our practice wasn’t until 2pm so we could afford to. Around 11AM we had breakfast at this awesome hole-in-the-wall diner called Eggs-R-Us. It looked like a diner from an 90s TV show. We sat down and ordered food. The portions were huge and actually very good for the price. I was impressed. In Seattle I would have paid 3 times the price for a meal of the same quality and portion.

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Our practice was at the same place that all the games were going to be, Highmark Stadium. It’s a pretty cool location because it’s downtown. You get a great view of the city skyline. There is a train track right behind it, and riverboats were going by as well.

 

When we arrived, the Division 3 Championship game between the Orlando Anarchy and the Arkansas Wildcats was almost at halftime. It was hot and humid. it  in the mid 90s and it felt like a giant outdoor sauna. I felt bad for their players because they are both small teams and therefore they had to be dead tired playing both ways in that heat.

The game ran long and since there was only one field, the all-american teams had to start practice on the edges of the field. We got organized with our teams and since there wasn’t a lot of space, our coaches had offensive groups and then defensive groups. When we were in offensive groups, all the defensive players filtered in where they would play on offense just to try to make use of the field.

This meant I started with the running backs and ran through plays as a fullback for Priscilla Garnder, who by the way,  is I think a completely underrated running back for the Los Angeles Warriors. We ran through offensive plays to make sure we all understood the concepts. Then after the Division 3 game was finished, we went to the actual field to go over defense.

The tricky thing to these games is that everyone has different terminology back home. One team’s Cover 2 is not the same as another’s. One team might want to do something completely different in the same situation. I’ve learned this so I tried to make sure I asked the right questions so I would run the defense at mike linebacker how the coaches wanted. Our coaching staff was from the Portland Shockwave and I got along with them great. They are old school like I am and aggressive.

Now, I had brought my big brace and my little brace on this trip. My orthopedic doctor said I could start weaning myself off the big brace. I told myself my goal is to at least play next year with the small brace or even better, no brace at all. I’ve been training the last month with the small brace and it seems to be going well. I wore the small brace to the practice and I felt great! The humidity actually probably helped my cartilage injury feel better. I felt much faster with the smaller brace. The downside was that I was sweating so much from the heat that it was sliding. I resolved to try to see if I could get the trainer to simply tape my knee for the game.

I was thankful they let us practice without helmets and pads because we were all drenched by the time the practice was over. We then went back to the hotel to shower and had a nice dinner at the hotel before getting ready for the game the next day.

Saturday morning, we left at 8:15AM to head to the stadium. We went into the locker room which was cool because it’s the locker room for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, their professional soccer team. They were nice lockers. I picked to sit at the locker of Romeo Parkes who later I found out, is a Jamaican born player who was kicked off their team a couple of years ago for a controversial play. He got resigned for this season. I also found out by this picture that he enjoys making sure he stays fresh and smells good. I like the choice in cologne.

 

I then went to find the trainer and asked if she could tape my knee. It’s not a common tape job but I’ve had it done before and figured it might help just to have the tape to feel compression. She did a great job with the tape and I was ready to go.

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We went out onto the field for the walk through and halfway through it began to pour. As a northwest person, I loved it. Well, I hate rain at practices but something about playing a game in the rain gets me excited. Maybe it’s the defensive player in me. I think it makes it more fun. I know the offense will struggle with it. I know also that many of these players are not from rain areas and don’t know how to handle it like the players from the NW. In the NW if you can’t throw in the rain you can’t win. If you can’t catch in the rain, you can’t win. Rain is fact of life.

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We went back into the locker room and we got handed socks for breast cancer awareness. The league decided to dedicate the game to the cause and invited survivors to watch and be apart of the event.

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Finally, we went back onto the field and completed the national anthem. The National Conference won the toss and wanted to receive the ball first which meant our defense would be out first. I was in the starting defensive group and as the mike linebacker this meant I had to direct the defense.

The first quarter was a bit difficult for me as we hadn’t had time to install defensive signals and the coach was having me run over the sideline to get the call. My teams I’ve played on before all used signals or cards so running back and forth was a lot. It was made worse by the fact that the PA system was loud.

Once I got the play, and was running back towards the field, I was screaming at the top of my lungs the play but no one could hear me, the offense was already on the line of scrimmage and I’m running around to each group to try to get them to hear me but by the time the ball is snapped, I was out of breath and half the defense didn’t hear the call at all. Even huddling didn’t work because the offense was intent on getting to the line quickly.

Luckily, we were able to still hold their offense while we figured out our communication issues. We finally settled on simple signals where I could view the coach from sideline and then relay the call. This worked much better the rest of the game.

 

Let me put in here that the National Conference has beat my American Conference several years in a row at these games. It’s been a point of frustration. I believe there a few reasons for this.

Firstly, our previous coaching staffs for these games have tended to get too excited at the amount of talent on the field and try to make it backyard football because they get excited with shiny new toys. This did not go well. The players are too good. Having your QB run around like Johnny Manziel to throw to no one didn’t move the ball. The National Conference did a much better job previously of playing football. Secondly, our previous teams on defense were not as aggressive. Thirdly, we had zero cohesion.

There is also has been a difference between the play in the East (national) and West (american) conferences. I truly feel like this is mostly due to geography. The Eastern side of the country has major markets that are close together. Because of this, teams in that area have developed huge rivalries that have made them better. They also have historic programs that have great culture. Players stay there for many years and play the same players on other teams for many years. There is a familiarity.

The west coast is geographically different. Our major markets are much further apart. And we have had a lot of turnover as far as teams and players. This makes it harder to retain the level of competition that the east coast has had.

That being said, we still have a lot of talent on the west coast and I think it’s getting more competitive. We were sick of losing and we wanted to win this game to prove a point. People told me while watching this game that the announcers were confused as to why it was so intense for an exhibition game. That is why.

The National Conference in the mid 1st quarter struck first with a seam pass to the tight end. Then they scored on a hook and ladder play. I was mad at myself because I saw it happening but I was too far to get into the right position to get the pitch person. No one else on edge was home and they went up 14-0.

In previous years, this would have signified the National team on their way to dominance again. But this year felt different. This is my 6th time playing in this game and the make up of the team felt different. We were moving the ball on offense. The running game was working where previous years we hardly tried to run the ball. The National conference was struggling to run the ball and even though they were up, there was not a huge threat in that area.

Then they fumbled the ball on a hand off. I wish I had this play back. If I had known how much room I had, I would have scooped it and probably scored but I was so intent on getting possession of the ball for my team that I got excited and slide a little too early and it squirted out of my hands. I’m usually good at recoveries so I was kicking myself. They eventually punted so it didn’t hurt.

The very next possession they had, they fumbled again. There was no way I was going to miss a 2nd chance and I slid in to get the ball. Suddenly the tides changed as our offense had the ball close to the red zone. We scored and put up a 2 point conversion to cut it to 14-8. We have a game.

We put up another 6 at half time but missed the extra point to go in tied at 14 a piece. At halftime, we recognized the Team USA players in attendance as well as the breast cancer survivors. We then got hydrated and pep talks from our coaches.

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The 2nd half was intense. Twice our defense held their offense out of the end zone when they were in the red zone. One of those times it was 7 straight plays we held them out after they were first and goal.

I was playing well. I felt so much faster and lighter without my brace! It boosted my confidence. Since they didn’t run the ball a lot I didn’t get much action between the tackles but was making plays on receivers and saved 2 touchdowns. There was one deep ball they threw on our safety and I sprinted to help and tackled her at the 4. There was a 2nd play where Sami Grisafi ran up the middle and I tripped her at the 1. I laid out the tight end on a 3rd down pass. I broke up a pass that was bobbling around at the 5 where the receiver was going to catch it off about 5 tips until I lowered my shoulder into her.

I was making plays and directing traffic and my knee felt absolutely fine. This was the most like myself I’ve felt since my injury. And to tell you the truth it excites me. If I can do this 16 months after surgery without a brace, I can’t wait until I have another few months before the next season to get even stronger.

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Our defense was scrappy as hell during this game. We created turnover after turnover. It wasn’t until the last few minutes when turnovers bit us back and we were down 28-20. Our defense got the offense one last opportunity as my good friend Maria from Sin City laid a girl out to get another turnover. We drove down to a 1st and goal with about 30 seconds. I thought we might be headed to overtime if we can convert a TD and 2 point conversion. Then we threw a pick towards the right pylon and the National team took a knee.

I still think we made a point even though we lost and it’s good overall for our sport and league. We need competition between the conferences. Iron sharpens iron.

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After the game, I went to the locker room exhausted. It felt like a playoff game really and I loved it.

We went back to the hotel to shower and eat. We relaxed a bit and then went out to the pool to hang out with some of our new friends we had made from New York and Arlington. The Arlington players even taught Kase a new chant.

#bangem

A post shared by Holly Custis (@relentlessfbl21) on

 

I went to bed at 11pm because we had early flights and I learned a long time ago that it is awful to be hung over and flying an early morning flight. Never again will I repeat that mistake.

At 4AM I woke back up and we got ready to leave. We took the rental back to the airport and then the fun travel times started again!

First of all, usually when you drop a rental off after hours you drive it to a spot and put the keys in a box somewhere but there were so many returns that there was a line of cars that went out of their return area and around the corner. We figured out to leave the car at the back of the line. Then no one could find the box. I finally found it and several other people who had been looking for it were happy I did.

We then hurried to the ticketing area as Stephanie and Jenna’s flight was a half an hour before mine. Then we realized apparently it was a popular time to leave Pittsburgh as security was absolute chaos. By the time I got through it, I barely had time to get something small to eat before I jumped on my first flight.

I flew back from Pittsburgh to San Francisco on my first flight. I slept a little but also watched the movie Gifted. Why did I do that to myself? Watch a movie that would make me cry on the middle of the airplane multiple times from being both happy and sad? I think I hid it well. I think the guy next to me only noticed once me wiping the tears away.

We landed actually early but then got stuck on the runway for about an hour because apparently another plane tried to take off, didn’t get enough speed, and screwed everything up. They sent us around it originally, then sent another plane to our gate. Then we had to taxi around until we were assigned a new gate.

By the time I got off that plane, I literally went to the restroom, and jumped back in line to board the next one. Then we got stuck on the runway again, probably from the same issue. This time  it was for 45 minutes before we took off. I landed in Seattle at 1:30PM. Only to get stuck on the runway AGAIN.

I was so happy to be off a plane and to see my girlfriend at the baggage claim.

We had lunch at Red Robin and I ate a lot since I had basically only had airplane peanuts the entire day. I passed out at 6PM for a nap and slept all night instead.

 

 

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