Cardinal football takes first steps

By Ashley Festa

Cardinal Football

Kicking Off

UIW Board of Trustees member Bill Moll addresses the crowd at the Countdown to Kickoff.

UIW held the Countdown to Kickoff Blessing and Barbecue on Labor Day at the Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium on the university’s campus, officially beginning the countdown to the new football program’s first game in 2009.

About 2,800 UIW students, employees, dignitaries and other football fans attended the celebration. After a blessing, Archbishop José H. Gomez said “Now I’m going to sprinkle some holy water so the Cardinals will always have a winning season.”

Cardinal football benefactors, Gayle and Tom Benson, were on hand for the dedication of the facility bearing their name along with several members of the Benson family. Tom Benson addressed the crowd and praised the progress of
the new program.

Following the dedication, the Cardinal football players took to the field allowing fans to enjoy the team’s first public practice.

UIW athletes were available at Fan Fest for a meet-and-greet and autograph signing, and many of the younger fans enjoyed the moon bounce, waterslide and games.

Refreshments for the free event were provided by Bill Miller Bar-B-Q, Coca Cola and Silver Eagle Distributing/Bud Light.

Benson Stadium can accommodate 3,000 fans. The field house is equipped with locker rooms, athletic training spaces, weight training areas, office space and conference rooms.

The first day of Cardinal football practice was pretty much like every other day in August in San Antonio except that it was the first ever Cardinal football practice.

On Aug. 27, head football coach Mike Santiago, along with several other coaches, held a team meeting at 3 p.m. and warm-ups began immediately afterward. The team gathered on one of the on-campus soccer fields as a construction crew scrambled to finish the nearby Benson Stadium with only one week remaining before the scheduled dedication and blessing of the facility.

Nearly 100 players, including about 70 walk-ons, gathered on the field to begin the long process of becoming a cohesive college football team.

UIW coaches are trying to mold the players’ thinking into a “college mentality,” Santiago said. “The biggest difference” between high school and college football, he said, “is the speed of the game.”

To increase players’ speed, the coach explained, muscle memory must be created. Players must repeat certain movements until they become natural and instantaneous.

And the best way to do that?

“Practice, practice, practice,” Santiago said. And practice they do.

Four days a week, the team performs drills to increase agility and speed. Footwork maneuvers, ball-control drills and throwing exercises all help players to adopt the college football mentality. “It’s a lot faster pace on field,” freshman running back Trent Rios said.

Because this is UIW’s first football team, there are no mentors for these new students to look to for advice. Usually freshmen joining the team will have seniors who can explain what is now expected of them. Unfortunately, as the inaugural team, “we don’t have that luxury,” Santiago said. “Our guys are going to have to learn on the run.”

At the end of practice, coaches pit the offense against the defense so players learn to work together. Coaches can’t hold a scrimmage because it would cost players a year of eligibility. They are red-shirted this year, which allows the team to prepare for the 2009-2010 season without playing.

Practice is an interesting experience because many of the athletes played against each other while on their high school teams. Even so, they’re getting along well, Rios said. “It’s pretty good to have all of us come together now and work as a team to start something new. It’s a great group of guys.”

So far, there are about 50 players officially on the team roster. Every week, coaches increase that number by adding Cardinal logos to the player’s helmets. Santiago emphasized that he can also take the Cardinal away from a player if necessary. He hasn’t yet, but “I’ve threatened to,” he said with a laugh.

Cardinal football

Responsibility and accountability, part of what that Cardinal represents, are extremely important to the coach.

There have been a few players who have been disciplined with “Coach’s Time,” which is a study hall given as punishment for missing just one class. Here’s the kicker: Coach’s Time is Saturday night from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m.

Santiago explained that the old-school punishment of having players get up at 6 a.m. to run is not as effective because they are in good shape and are used to getting up early for weightlifting.

“The best way is to ruin their Saturday night. I know I wouldn’t want to be sitting around with my coach on a Saturday night,” Santiago said.

“I’m not their friend. I’m their coach,” he emphasized.

Santiago is very proud of the players, and he feels that he has their respect.

“These guys are doing good. They’re doing things right. They understand the meaning of representing the team.”

Santiago said he has to keep reminding himself “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

“It’s a long process to build the team. To build the team right,” he said. “I know we’re on the right track.”

The Cardinals will take on Monterrey Tech University for their first game in 2009.