When Tracy Cracraft sent her son River off to play football at Washington State, she never knew she’d see him on the field so often his freshman season.
And she didn’t realize how little she’d see of him off the field the rest of the year.
Because at a Pac-12 football program, the season may end in December but the time commitment is year-round. The 2014 season begins early for the Cougars with a game against Rutgers on Aug. 28, but in reality this season began the moment the last one ended.
“River came home for a week right when summer school ended in June,” Tracy Cracraft said. “He was able to come home for a week and prior to that he came home for a week during spring break, and prior to that he was home for a couple weeks at Christmas.”
Players at WSU also get one week off in August before fall camp.
Even during those few periods when River Cracraft was home, he still had one foot back in Martin Stadium, doing whatever it took to build on the successes of his first year, when he was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Nearly every day back in Trabuco Canyon, California, he was calling anyone with an arm and a football to play catch with.
Cone drills for footwork, lifting weights, running routes against imaginary defenders and even some extra conditioning filled River Cracraft’s and the other Cougars’ summers. Even when the team has practice, Cracraft can often be seen catching passes long after other players have gone in.
“Honestly, none of that came from me or my parents or anything. He really just went off and did that on his own,” his brother, Skyler Cracraft, admits. “My dad played sports growing up, but he never pushed River to do extra work. He wasn’t hard on him, he just wanted us to play sports to have fun. River was really just self-motivated and just built his work ethic from the ground up.”
That hard work begot more time commitments, as strength coach Jason Loscalzo demanded that the team put to use all the ice baths and other recovery equipment in WSU’s football operations building.
The building comes complete with a modern, football-only weight room. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the offseason the Cougars were lifting weights. Because they no longer have to share a weight room with other sports, the strength coaches have added to the workouts the players performed in the past.
“We have that new facility, so guys were coming in left and right doing extra work,” Loscalzo said.
“We have our NCAA rules we go by, our eight hours a week, and if the coaches are meeting with them we take that time out of our training. But the biggest thing I saw out of our guys this year was we didn’t have to prod them to do extra stuff on their own. A lot of guys would come to us and ask what they could do.”
On the days when the Cougars don’t have organized team activities, they work. When they don’t work, they think about working. With the physical toll college football players put themselves through, the periods where the body is allowed to recover can be just as important.
Even while resting, though, football is on the brain 24/7.
“I’m not killing myself, there’s no need for that,” River Cracraft says. “I’m taking a lot of mental reps. One of my high school coaches told me that once you can teach it, you'll know it better, so I’m always trying to teach people because it helps myself and it helps the other person.”
The receiver gained an eager and familiar pupil this offseason when Skyler joined the Cougars as a walk-on defensive back despite not playing organized football since high school. River, two years his junior, has spent much of the offseason consolidating his own knowledge of what it takes to be a college football player by schooling his big brother.
“The whole day pretty much consisted of football,” Skyler Cracraft said. “I’m defense, he’s offense, so we’re always going one-on-one. He explains how he’s going to do this, I explain how I’m going to do that and just trying to figure it out on both sides.”
The amount of time spent watching what had happened compared to the amount of time actually doing it was a surprise.
“There’s a lot (of film),” Skyler Cracraft said. “We’re watching film with our coaches at least two to three times a day right now. And then whenever we have a break at fall camp my brother and I are in the film room.”
Skyler Cracraft joined the team after trekking to every game last season, something his mother will continue to do in 2014. That way she can actually see her boys on a weekly basis, something that just isn’t possible during summer break.