Torrey Pines football off season includes Marine-style ‘Crucible’ training

The Torrey Pines football team is heading into the season as a band of brothers, after spending three days of Marine-style training at Camp Pendleton. A team of seven Marine trainers led 65 kids and 11 coaches through the trip the boys named “The Crucible,” filled with physical, mental and emotional challenges.

Perhaps the most challenging for a group of teenagers: no cellphones.

The boys camped like Marines, ate MREs, carried out tactical missions and learned all about problem solving and how to find true leadership in chaos.

On the last day, everything the boys learned was put into motion for a 6.9-mile trek over varied terrain, including mud six to 18 inches deep. The boys had to work as one, such as climbing a challenging incline while carrying supplies and teammates on their backs.

As Coach Ron Gladick said, “Marines are true heroes, teaching the Falcons that love for each other is the key.”

At the end of the training the boys received dog tags, a long-standing TPHS football tradition, and seven were named as members of the senior cabinet leadership team, names that the boys preferred to be known only to the team.

Of the Marine-style training, one senior cabinet member said, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Gladnick has been head football coach for the Falcons for two years. A former high school and college defensive end, he was an assistant coach at Torrey Pines from 2009-11 before spending two seasons at Clairemont High School, taking an 8-32 program to playoff victory for the first time in 20 years.

He was one of 46 applicants for the head coaching job at TPHS, undergoing an intense interview process which he said rivaled anything he saw in his business career.

Gladnick, who lives in Fairbanks Ranch, built an aviation parts business in San Diego and sold it in 2011, allowing him to focus full time on coaching.

“I’m blessed to do this. I can work 100 hours a week if I want to, and I probably do,” he said. “It’s not work when you love what you do.”

The Crucible training program was admittedly “a risk,” something he had never done before as a coach.

He met with Luke Shaffer, a recently retired Special Forces Marine and F-18 pilot, along with six other Special Forces Marines who would lead the training. Shaffer simply told Gladnick, “I need you to trust me,” and the two shook hands. The players had no idea what they were in for, and neither did the coaches.

“The whole program was to constantly challenge the players and coaches to solve problems under duress,” Gladnick said. “The seven guys were so good at what they do. They knew when to push, when to hold back. We were amazed, and they never let a teaching opportunity go by.”

The boys were grouped into units; each had a squad leader. The Marines set up mock scenarios and trained the boys how to handle problems. On the first day, they learned a “fireman’s carry” — how to carry a wounded person — which would come into play on their final day mission.

The difference between day one and day three astounded Gladnick. “I didn’t even recognize them as the same kids,” he said.

Communication was also stressed, and the boys spent one afternoon talking about leadership, each giving examples of life challenges they had faced. Even boys who don’t ordinarily talk or share were connecting and bonding, which Gladnick said was awesome to see.

A team slogan that came out of the training was “Man in the Arena,” derived from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt. The speech states that what counts is not the critics who point out when a strong man stumbles, but rather that credit belongs to the “man in the arena,” who “strives valiantly” and who at best knows the triumph of achievement and at the worst fails — but does so while “daring greatly.”

“The message is, people who try will live a life wrought with excitement, unlike the person who never tries at all,” Gladnick said.

As the boys’ cellphones had been taken away, Gladnick was the team’s only link to the outside world during the three-day Crucible. He kept his Twitter-feed teeming with live updates, and the parents loved it.

“I’ve noticed a huge change in the boys, (the lessons) carried over,” Gladnick said.

One of the things the Marines stressed was “Never go internal” — don’t personalize a challenge, share it with your team and look to your brothers for help.

“To me, that’s what the whole program is about; it really has nothing to do with football,” Gladnick said.

Football is secondary to what they are trying to do, he said, which is to teach the boys to be high-quality men. His players learn responsibility and accountability and the importance of a strong work ethic.

“In eight out of 10 games, we’re less athletic than the other team. In order to be successful, we have to capture all the intangible things,” he said.

Gladnick said his program is about getting the kids to play as well as they can play, to continue to raise their standards and live with the results of the games, no matter what happens. The non-football approach to playing football seems to fit for kids at Torrey Pines, he said — smart, high-character kids who learn that 11 players working as one can beat 11 great athletes.

Gladnick said this year’s squad has a lot of depth. Last year, only 11 players were over 100 pounds, but this year they have 24 over 200.

“These kids have worked so hard,” Gladnick said, noting that the staff works with them on their diets and tracks the calories they are burning.

In the winter training months, players were burning 3,700 calories a day and in the summer, an estimated 4,600 calories a day. The team staff helped work with parents to understand what the boys need to refuel their bodies to balance what they burn.

The team has also benefited from a brand-new, top-notch weight room at the school.

“We have as fine a facility as any private school in the county,” Gladnick said.

The team has just one NCAA Division 1 player this year with senior Steve Mason, who has received a scholarship to play for San Diego State University. The defensive end is 6 feet, 7 inches, and 260 pounds.

“He’s a very gifted athlete, a rare kid who can be as good as he wants to be,” Gladnick said. “We have great hopes for him at the next level.”

He said he is grateful for the incredible support he receives from the administration, the athletic director and mostly the parents. They had a very successful golf fundraiser, and recently a “Mommy Football” event had 60 moms playing football on a Friday night, which Gladnick said was great to see.

Gladnic said he loves how high school football can bring a community together and he’s glad to see that it’s been happening in Carmel Valley.

A game that always brings out the crowd is the annual match-up with Cathedral Catholic, the “Battle for Del Mar Heights Road.” This year’s game will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at Falcon Stadium, and there will be patriotic pre-game festivities to honor the day.

The Falcons team opens its season under the Friday night lights on Aug. 28 at Steele Canyon.