Ask any NFL player about training camp, especially players whose teams toil in the sweltering, 9,000,000,000 percent humidity of Houston, and ultimately he will circle around to one word. You can set your watch to it.
Grind. The NFL preseason is a grind.
To be truthful, the preseason is actually more of a sub-grind to the master grind that the players' NFL calendar has become -- off-season workouts in the spring, organized team activities and mandatory mini camps in June, training camp in the summer, and the regular season from September through January. All this physical pounding, somewhat ironically, for the privilege of playing even more football in January and, hopefully, February.
Texans center Chris Myers is on his tenth grind.
A sixth-round pick of the Denver Broncos back in 2005, Myers came to the Texans in a trade before the 2008 season, in large part because General Manager Rick Smith and former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak saw him as a perfect fit as the center of the offensive line in Kubiak's zone blocking scheme, which requires quicker, more athletic offensive linemen. (Yes, only along an NFL offensive line can you be viewed as "quicker and more athletic" at nearly 300 pounds.)
In his six seasons with the Texans, Myers has evolved from a nice "scheme fit" to, quite simply, one of the best centers in the entire league, having been named to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2012.
Texans left tackle Duane Brown is on his seventh grind.
A first-round pick out of Virginia Tech, Brown arrived in Houston the same season Myers did, in 2008. The eighth offensive tackle taken in a tackle-heavy first round, Brown has played with a perpetual chip on his shoulder and an Arya Stark-like knowledge of the list of names drafted before him -- Long, Clady, Williams, Albert, Cherilus, Otah, Baker, The Hound...
Brown endured his share of ups and downs through his first few years in the league before maturing into one of the best left tackles in football. Like Myers, Brown is a two-time Pro Bowler, selected in both 2012 and 2013.
They are the elder statesmen on a youthful offensive line. Myers calls Brown a "great tackle and great teammate." Brown calls -Myers "the salt of the earth."
The respect between the two for one another is palpable, but to a man, respect for the two from younger members of the offensive line is off the charts.
"When you have leaders like Chris and Duane along the offensive line, that's our foundation. That's where our camaraderie comes from," says -second-year guard Alex Kupper.
When a team is rebuilding under a new coaching staff, veteran players from the previous regime can either get on board or get run over. With wide receiver Andre Johnson staying out of workouts and organized team activities this past spring, Myers and Brown were the two most tenured Texans veterans in the facility as new head coach Bill O'Brien began the process of establishing an identity and planting the seeds of a new culture.
Fortunately for O'Brien, Myers and Brown were the perfect two Texans veterans to help lead the early stages of the rebuild. From the time O'Brien arrived for his introductory press conference in January, Myers has been treating 2014 as if it's his rookie year all over again.
"Look, being an older guy, you have to be open to change. If you don't do that, you're just looking for excuses," Myers says. "No one way is the right way. As a leader, you have to prove by example that you're open to change. Our core group of guys have been able to do that."
And then, with emphasis, Myers says, "We take the reins; we show the guys, step by step, this is how we do it."
Brown says a big key is actually not forgetting the 2-14 season but learning from it.
"It is just a sense of urgency here. We want to win, and everything we do is pointed to winning. We're all doing our jobs and we're all excited. You know, everyone is excited. We're not forgetting the past, but we're learning from it and we know what it feels like," Brown says. "We don't want that feeling ever again."
The NFL is theoretically a quarterback's league. Applying biological analogies, the quarterback and the head coach are the collective brain of an NFL operation. To the layperson, the "motor skills" of an NFL team are manifested in its skill players: quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers.
The dirty work, though, is left up to the offensive line, and the offensive line is the team's heart. Dutifully, it serves and paves the way for all the other players to do their jobs and provides the figurative pulse of the team. Its beauty is in its anonymity. As with the human heart, most people notice an NFL offensive line only when it isn't doing its job.
Look at any successful NFL team, and it probably has a good quarterback; look at any successful NFL culture, and it probably has a good offensive line.
If there's a line forming for glory in the NFL, offensive linemen are undoubtedly near the back of that line. They rarely get to spike the ball. They aren't on anybody's fantasy football team. They're hardly ever seen in commercials for shoes, cars or 12-inch subs. (Seriously, why aren't more offensive linemen endorsing 12-inch subs?)
Anonymity is their world.
The difference between offensive linemen and people in the hundreds of other largely faceless vocations in society is that many workers in those other jobs toil joylessly in their anonymity. Offensive linemen? They bask in it.
That's what Myers calls "The Trench Life." The trenches in the NFL, that confined area of extreme brutality between the hashes, from tackle to tackle, is where the offensive machine is greased for the skill guys -- you know, the guys who actually get to spike the ball, who actually get drafted in fantasy drafts, who actually endorse 12-inch subs -- to do their thing every Sunday.
This confined area of combat is Chris Myers's office. "Trench Life" is its culture.
It started out as a hashtag on Twitter that Myers began to insert during his periodic forays onto social media, and over time it evolved into more a movement than a mere moniker.
The blue-collar pride in Myers's voice is evident as he describes the meaning of "Trench Life":
"It sounds like it's just a football term, but it's an inclusive, broad term. It can mean anything for any line of work. It's about the grind; it's about doing the dirty work. It can be for any job. Maybe you're an accountant and you're running all the numbers behind the scenes. Maybe you're a quality-control coach on a football team and people see the results of your work, but they don't necessarily see you. You take pride in your job. You're not looking for recognition."
Right at this point, when it seems appropriate to wrap Myers in the American flag and have him fight Ivan Drago, he sums up the football definition of "Trench Life": "It's all about the pride you get in seeing your skill guys get the glory. We give each other props, and even though no one else is gonna recognize it, we know we're doing the dirty work."
"Trench Life" went from the esoteric to the tangible last year when, with the help of local apparel company Running Game Clothing, Myers oversaw the creation of "Trench Life" T-shirts to help raise money for Operation Smile, an international children's medical charity that performs cleft-lip and cleft-palate surgery, and also delivers postoperative and ongoing medical therapies to children in low- and middle-income countries.
Myers and his wife, Jenny, have helped raise more than $100,000 for Operation Smile in honor of their 18-month-old son -Keane, who was born with a cleft palate. After a couple of operations in the past year, Myers says, Keane is "doing great," but he says the surgeries to come are a process that will take Keane into his teenage years.
Myers is lucky. He has the resources available to get his son the best help. His charitable work with Operation Smile helps provide others less fortunate with similar assistance. Charity is a big part of the Chris Myers experience. He has done copious amounts of work with the military (little-known Chris Myers fact: If he hadn't gone to Miami on a football scholarship, he was going to enroll in the Marines); he's active in charity events for prostate cancer and, of course, Operation Smile.
"Paying it forward is a huge thing for me. I think my parents and Jenny's parents instilled that in both of us. J.J. [Watt] talks about that all the time, the platform we have as players," Myers says. "I just feel like whatever the cause is, I need to be there."
It was the last weekend in May, the weekend of Texans guard Ben Jones's wedding. Jones is an affable, talkative Southerner, one of the real characters along the offensive line, so not surprisingly, a number of his teammates made the trip to Athens, Georgia, to see him and his fiancée, Alex, tie the knot.
Like Chris Myers, second-year guard David Quessenberry was one of Jones's teammates to make the trip to Georgia.
Unlike Myers, Quessenberry is still on a rookie contract as a sixth-round pick out of San Jose State, and while he could likely afford his own hotel room, Myers had an extra room in his suite that weekend, so he offered it to Quessenberry.
The two were roommates for the weekend, and it gave them a unique opportunity to bond.
If you were David Quessenberry and were drawing up the perfect NFL veteran whose brain you could casually pick for a couple of days over a few drinks, you would end up with Chris Myers. Like Quessenberry, Myers was a sixth-round pick, so the two have similar chips on their respective shoulders. If anybody knows the precise advice to give to a young offensive lineman who's probably been told a bunch of times he's "too (this)" or "too (that)" to succeed in the NFL, it's Chris Myers.
Quessenberry enjoyed a solid training camp and preseason his rookie year in 2013, before a foot injury early in the regular season landed him on injured reserve. But with the depth chart unfolding the way it was at the beginning of 2014, and fully recovered from the foot injury, Quessenberry was in line to perhaps start at right tackle in his second year.
That weekend in Georgia, Jones and Myers remember, Quessenberry was a little under the weather but didn't think much of it. Head colds happen, they thought.
As it turned out, though, Quessenberry was far sicker than even he knew.
At practice on June 3, the Tuesday following Jones's wedding, Quessenberry felt what he thought was chest congestion. He was having trouble breathing and felt light-headed. After observing Quessenberry, Texans head trainer Geoff Kaplan told him to go see the team doctor.
Kaplan may have saved Quessenberry's life.
When Quessenberry went to get checked out, doctors found two liters of fluid in his lungs. They also found a mass in his chest, and confirmed that he had lymphoma. He was later told that if the fluid had been left in his lungs, he could have drowned on the field.
Fighting for a spot on the Texans is one thing. Now, at age 23, David Quessenberry found himself battling for his life.
For Myers, it made the time he'd just spent together with Quessenberry over the previous weekend at Jones's wedding that much more poignant, that much more valued. It also made it clear to Myers what he needed to do -- one of his Trench Life brothers was down, so he needed to do whatever it took to pick him back up. And thus "Texans for DQ" was born.
Led by Myers and Brown, the Texans launched a fundraising campaign in honor of Quessenberry with a goal of bringing in $100,000 for the Lymphoma Research Foundation. Again, like the "Trench Life" T-shirt effort for Operation Smile, the central revenue generator for the "Texans for DQ" effort would be T-shirts (again, courtesy of Running Game Clothing) in the Texans' deep-steel-blue with an eye-catching "DQ" logo on the front.
How committed to this effort are the Texans? Well, the franchise gained league approval to sell the T-shirts on the team's shopping website and in the Go Texan store, which is almost unheard-of for gear not licensed by the NFL.
Additionally, the shirts have been manufactured in the colors of a handful of other NFL teams, including the Falcons, who practiced with the Texans in Houston in mid-August and whose offensive linemen posed for pictures with the Texans' offensive line after practice in their DQ T-shirts, and the Colts, whose head coach, Chuck Pagano, survived a highly publicized bout with leukemia in 2012.
The offensive line has dedicated this season to Quessenberry, and his courage serves as additional inspiration in what the team hopes is a season of redemption.
"Man, we are out here battling, but that's nothing. To know how strong [David] is about his fight, his approach, and to be able to support him as much as we can from afar, that's what it's about," says Brown. "This effort is about helping keep his spirits up."
Jones echoes Brown's sentiments. "That was an emotional day for us when we found out DQ was sick. It hit home," he says. "It makes this season easier -- all the workouts, the practices -- knowing we can't complain, knowing what we're going through is nothing compared to what [David's] going through."
Quessenberry has spent the past couple of months in his home state of California undergoing the first few rounds of chemotherapy, and the plan is for him to be part of a research and trial drug study at MD Anderson Cancer Center back in Houston this fall.
His hope is that he will eventually become healthy enough to return to football, but for now, the immediate goal is beating cancer.
"Some of the days, it's hard just to keep food down. Some of the days, you try to get out of bed. But when you get little things like [the "Texans for DQ" campaign] and it just reminds you how many people are pulling for you, how many people are behind you," Quessenberry said in August shortly after hearing about the launch of "Texans for DQ."
"It feels like an army. You got an army behind you. And it motivates you to push through the hard days."