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Hawkeyes Huddle in HBO’s Hard Knocks

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How do you like that for alliteration?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams-Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While the prospect of a 2020 college football season in any capacity seems to slip further and further away from reality, we can be assured that there will be NFL this year, no matter how many cases, clusters or casualties COVID could leave in its wake.

And since there will be an NFL season, we’ve got ourselves Hard Knocks, HBO’s fantastic docudrama that typically follows a single team throughout training camp. This season however includes two squads: the Chargers and the Rams, both located in LA, both expecting to play in SoFi Stadium — the NFL’s latest cathedral, coming with a price tag of over $5 billion.

Hard Knocks gives fans an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at coaches, players, their families, and virtually everyone else loosely related to its cast of characters. This year’s version of the series is especially interesting because it shows us exactly how the NFL is adapting in the age of COVID.

Players are tested everyday, lockers get moved six feet apart, everyone wears a device that beeps when they get too close to someone else wearing the device.

The show makes gratuitous use of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” Such is life for a football player in 2020.

The Charger’s locker looks a bit sad
HBO

Oh yeah, there’s a couple Hawkeyes in this year’s show, too.

Desmond King and Bryan Bulaga start for the Chargers, while Jake Gervase and Austin Blythe play for the Rams. Blythe is the projected starting center after taking every snap last season, and Gervase is battling for more playing time after appearing in just 2 games as a rookie in 2019.

We got a good glimpse of King in the first episode, as Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn addressed his team via Zoom. There, we saw a grinning Des sporting a grinning Tigerhawk.

Des King cheesin’ on Zoom
HBO

Appearances by former Hawks have been few and far between, though there’s been just two episodes to date. Bulaga got some decent airtime in the second episode when he was iterating to Justin Herbert how his cadence helps the offensive move their feet.

Expletive expletive expletive
HBO

I never typically watched Hard Knocks. I don’t really pay any attention to the NFL outside of the Vikings. Which is why I was so blown away by how friggin’ entertaining this show is. The production, the editing, the rawness of it all makes for a near perfect television experience, and that’s coming from someone who absolutely loathes the reality TV genre.

The first episode introduces Lynn and Sean McVay, both at home with their significant others. McVay and his girlfriend drink Rosé in front of those stupid rock fire pits that you only used to see at Bar Louie, while Lynn and his wife grill chicken. Their houses are breathtaking. This show is worth its weight in real estate porn by itself.

The next two episodes jump from camp to camp, player to player, coach to coach. And in the age of COVID, from case to case.

By my count, three players or coaches admitted to previously having or found out they were infected with the virus: Anthony Lynn, Terell Lewis, and Andrew Whitworth. Chargers offensive quality control coach Seth Ryan, son of Rex, received a false positive from the NFL’s rigorous testing regimen, but was confirmed to be clear the following day.

Lynn found out he had the virus after watching Denny McCarthy of the PGA opt out of a tournament with symptoms. As the broadcast described symptoms of the virus, Lynn realized he was experiencing the same thing, and got tested.

Whitworth’s experience sounds especially harrowing: his nanny passed it onto his entire family. His in-laws were visiting at the time, and his father in-law spent five days in the hospital, but has since recovered. Players who test positive immediately go in a 10-day quarantine per the NFL’s policy.

But just because there is a virus, doesn’t mean there won’t be an NFL season.

The rest of the episodes bounce around players: we see Jared Goff at his Goff course, basically a par-3 hole on his property, which is the coolest thing I’ve seen. Jalen Ramsey goes house hunting in the desert after he (fairly) lambasts the media for fishing for a contract-related outburst.

We also see the Chargers host a Zoom meeting about kneeling with a local activist. Former Northwestern running back Justin Jackson appears in the call, voicing his support. Tyrod Taylor, who I completely forgot about, leads the call for the dozenish players who joined, offering support, if not aloofness. Long snapper Cole Mazza is the only one shown who adamantly disagrees with the premise of kneeling.

Overall, the show is highly watchable and offers more than just comic relief In These Uncertain Times.® We see millionaires—inarguably a collection of some of the greatest athletic talent on planet earth—dealing with the same things we are. We all know by now that this virus touches everything, but there’s just something about watching Joey Bosa sign a $135 million contract in a mask that somehow makes it feel a little more real.

Musings:

  • There are no preseason games, and players can’t wear pads until the third week of practice, which both feel like wins to me.
  • I can’t believe how many players wear hoodies/sweatpants/knitted hats in the LA heat, during practice no less.
  • The only time we see Desmond King in the second episode is when Chris Harris, Casey Hayward, Michael Davis and Derwin James engage in a serious game of cornhole at Hayward’s house. King was just spectating, which serves as an apt metaphor for his future in LA.