July 19, 2011

Raiders tough by any definition

What is toughness?

It's a simple question but if you ask four different Texas Tech football players for their description of being tough you're going to get four different answers.

For some, being tough means delivering a crushing hit. Others see it as getting up on the opposite end of that hit. There is a consensus, however, that being tough means playing through minor injuries. Tougher than that though is having the sense to know when an injury is too much to overcome.

Tech junior receiver Alex Torres knows all about walking the line between aching and injured. He battled disc problems in his back all through the 2010 season.

"I learned a lot about that last season," Torres said. "Last season I learned a lot about myself as well as how to deal with injuries. It was an emotional, up-and-down, frustrating season for me to say the least. And because I've experienced that year I've learned how to gauge myself and how to gauge my body and overall how to emphasize on maintaining myself and maintain my body.

"I learned there's a line that I need to be careful when I get close to it. I appreciate the fact I was able to learn about that last year. Sometimes it's more important to take care of myself than dig myself into a deeper hole."

It's not like Torres wanted to see himself be reduced from an 800-yard receiver his freshman year to a 400-yard receiver last season. He faked healthy as much as he could to stay in the game.

During spring football practice Torres said he was feeling good but the coaches and training staff doubted him and made Torres wear a blue, limited contact jersey.

"I was still working through some injuries and the coaches knew it," Torres said. "I tried to tell myself I was 100 percent but the coaches knew better and the trainers knew better. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be where I am today because I would have pushed myself too hard and fallen back in that trap like I did during the season."

There finally seems to be a consensus that Torres has healed up but the receiver does special back exercises with the training staff almost every day to help prevent the injury from recurring.

"I feel like last year I was kind of hardheaded and was trying to hide things a little bit in order to downplay a little bit what was really going on in my body," Torres said. "I had this feeling that I was letting my teammates down if I was injured so in order to avoid that I was trying to downplay that and act like I was 100 percent.

"Now that I've experienced that I know a little bit better now. If I had been able to get on top of it and taken care of it, it wouldn't have been as much of a persistent problem through the season."

One of the more common connotations of being tough in football coincides with playing reckless defense.

Free safety D.J. Johnson thinks he has discovered Tech's most fearless hitter. Linebacker Cqulin Hubert.

It was actually a funny experience.

"Cqulin, he hit our own defensive back, Tre Porter," Johnson said. "He hit him hard. And Cqulin got up just so excited like he just tore the receiver up but the receiver was easily jogging off the field. Tre was the only one on the ground.

"It was funny but he was just showing how much passion he had for the game. We were like, 'Q, you didn't hit the receiver,' and he was like, 'he shouldn't have been in the way! He should have moved!' That toughness, that excitement about playing football, and when you hit your own player that's a spark everyone feeds off of."

Johnson also said a way to earn respect is to demonstrate toughness to the team by playing through minor, but still extremely painful, injuries.

The Red Raiders have a lot of tough guys on the roster if that's the definition.

"Derrick Mays had an injury to his knee during the spring and still performed," Johnson said. "You saw him and how he performed in the spring game. Most people don't know about these things, those little nagging injuries players have. I had hamstring injuries, not injuries but little tweaks I fought through. Kerry Hyder had a problem with his leg. Tre Porter also had something with his knee that he fought through.

"As far as toughness, we're a tough team. There's not anything that can really break us. But as a team, we're fighters. We're hunters and we're out there to get the job done. Whatever it takes, we're going to grind out there for each other."

Tech linebacker Sam Fehoko said escaping life's pitfalls is what builds and demonstrates toughness.

The senior backer from Honolulu, Hawaii, said there were a lot of cracks to slip into when he was seeking a college football scholarship.

"Football is like a door for a lot of kids on the Island, a lot of people use it to just find an outlet to a better life," Fehoko said. "Coming from Hawaii, coming from the islands, that was a major door for a lot of kids to take. It's hard to make it coming out of the islands because every kid wants to go play D-I football just like everywhere else in the country. It takes a lot of drive and motivation."

Fehoko then talked about the traps set for potential football players back home.

"Toughness is a really strong word in my culture," Fehoko said. "Growing up in Hawaii, it's more like you inherited toughness. You had to be tough to come from there. Where I lived there were a lot of people in housing, you know, welfare and living off that kind of stuff.

"Gangs. Fights. I mean my high school had the worst - it's rough. It's more like the background you come from and the maturity level you have brings the toughness. Depending on how you react to things makes you tough. Are you going to fall down and quit and give up on your dreams or are you going to push through? That's what makes a person tough. That's what makes a person not tough."

Anyone can associate with Tech punter Ryan Erxleben.

Sometimes toughness is swallowing your pride and accepting new limitations.

Erxleben was a two-time state champion defensive end at Lake Travis (Texas) High School as well as the team's punter. He missed the collisions when he moved up to the college level.

"Especially with the 'Air Raid' when (Mike) Leach was here, he liked to go for it on fourth down and definitely inside the 50-yard line going in," Erxleben said. "Definitely when I got here it was a big transition because I was always the team captain and always on the field and loved the grind and everything. You get up here and you're just kind of stuck on fourth down. I made the transition and I enjoy it a lot but I still get urges to hit people all the time."

So Erxleben tried to be a bullet after punting the ball in the 2009 Nebraska game.

"I punted one and I knew the guy was going to take it because he had an opening," Erxleben said. "I started sprinting and thinking, 'here's my chance, here's my chance,' and a guy just comes, jumps forward and 'boom.' I'm just on the ground going 'oh my gosh, welcome to D-I football.' That rang my bell and after that I learned it's just a different level. I think God has put me in my place and I just kick.

"You've got a lot of good players coming out of high school but if you don't have the size then that'll really take a toll on you. I'm happy where I am to be playing football and have no regrets. Especially after taking that hit."

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