By Mike DeFabo
Times West Virginian
In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was infamously punished for betraying Zeus and forced to roll a massive boulder up a steep hill.
Every time he reached the top, it slipped from his grasp and fell back to the bottom, leaving the king right back where he started.
Over and over. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down. An eternity of futile labor.
Replace the boulder with a football and many here in the Mountain State can easily relate. Marion County native and current Alabama football coach Nick Saban recounted on “60 Minutes” that when he was playing Pop Warner, his father made the team run a three-tier hill. When it got dark the running didn’t stop, but instead players had to retrieve a leaf from a tree atop the hill and bring it back to the coach to prove that they made it to the top.
“Any football team you hear of, at least in West Virginia, you hear of hill drills,” Fairmont State football coach Jason Woodman said. “We never had to grab a leaf, but those are the same hills I grew up running up and down when I played Pop Warner.”
At Duvall-Rosier Field, just beside the bleachers, sits one such hill. Its grass is patchy and in some areas it is completely bare, leaving huge sections of cleat-stamped mud.
The Fairmont State football team knows its topography well. For some Falcons, too well.
“It’s one of the great tools of being back home in West Virginia,” Woodman said. “You have an uphill incline that you can use very effectively if you do it right.”
The Falcons use the hill in a variety of ways. For one, it improves conditioning, “physically and mentally,” Woodman noted. But more than anything else, it serves as punishment.
Fumble the ball; run the hill. Jump offsides; run the hill. Line up in the wrong place; run the hill.
“It was really serious back in the beginning of camp, trying to weed out some people like that,” freshman quarterback Cooper Hibbs said.
The duration of the punishment varies depending on the misconduct, not to mention the coach’s mood that day. Hibbs botched a handoff and got a 20-minute introduction to the hill. Miss a meeting or show up late for weightlifting and you may end up like Sisyphus, toiling up and down for what seems like an eternity.
“(Woodman) will leave some guys out there for the whole two hours,” Hibbs said. “It’s pretty brutal.”
Sophomore defensive back Dominik Mensah remembers his first time on the hill during training camp this season. During warmups, coaches didn’t think he was giving 100 percent.
“They told me to hit the hill, so I'm running it. Then I hear the whistles blowing and practice is about to start. So I tried to come down. I thought I was done,” he remembers. “Then coach was like, ‘No, what do you think you're doing? Keep running.’”
About two hours and 30 minutes later, Mensah was still on the hill.
“I couldn’t feel my calves. I couldn't feel my toes. I couldn't feel my legs,” he said. “I kid you not, when practice was over, after the rest of the team prayed, that’s when I got down off the hill. I promised myself I wasn't going to run that thing again.”
As Mensah explains his story, a defensive back begins arguing with the coaches. Back and forth they go, the player bickering with his coach.
“Look here, someone’s about to get a hill,” Mensah said.
Sure enough, the coaches send freshman defensive back Mike Flood to the hill. By his own estimation, Flood has been sent to the hill six times this year, earning him the distinction of “King of the Hill.”
Sophomore defensive back Marcus Teamer disagrees. He considers himself the rightful heir to the throne.
“Just because you run one day doesn’t make you the ‘King of the Hill,’” he said. “I stopped counting days. I count months now.”
The players described the feelings that come from a day on the hill. Burning calves. Sore feet. Legs that feel like they’re made of lead.
But the worst feeling, Flood said, is “just being up there by yourself.”
His quarterback, Hibbs, agrees.
“The physical punishment isn’t too bad,” Hibbs said. “But knowing that you messed up and you’re missing out on practice, that is the worst part.”
Email Mike DeFabo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.