There are days when Dylan Zylstra asks himself, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go to class?”
Just class, nothing else. No endless sessions in the film room, no lifting heavy plates in the weight room and the dining room. No getting knocked on his butt at practice.
And definitely no bear crawls in an overheated gym room at 11 p.m. – in February.
In other words, no football.
“As painful and miserable as it can get sometimes, the feeling of running through the tunnel on Saturday gets you through almost anything,” said Zylstra, a senior defensive lineman at Eastern Washington.
And when the cheering ends?
“Pretty soon, I’m going to be looking for a job, and I think I’m going to have an edge because I know to work hard,” Zylstra said.
And smart. Somehow, for going on five years, the 22-year-old Zylstra has balanced a 40-hour-a-week football season with a full class load, a girlfriend, a social life and a black lab named Asher who loves to go pheasant hunting.
Besides a bachelor’s degree in business management, Zylstra will have earned an unofficial master’s in time management, all thanks to football.
Says Zylstra: “I have no idea for what’s going to come after this, and I may not be the most talented or the best qualified, but I’m always going to work my hardest.”
A season without end
One of the biggest misconceptions about the college football season is that it has a beginning and an end.
Barely two weeks after the Eagles lost their FCS semifinal playoff game last Dec. 21, they were back in the weight room – two hours a day, four days a week.
The goal is simple: “Getting as big as you can,” said Zylstra, who understands the concept as well as anyone. He was a 205-pound linebacker at Kentridge High School who was recruited in 2010 by Montana State and Air Force, but only Eastern offered to let him move to the line.
In addition to that, “I fell in love with the place,” said Zylstra, who also embraced the idea of packing on muscle as part of a diet-and-exercise regimen.
“It’s hard to get started, but once you start buying into what the trainers are doing, the weight will come on,” Zylstra said.
Zylstra was up to 225 by the fall of 2011, when he saw limited action on the line; now he’s at 285 – a bit light for a Division I lineman, but he makes up for it in speed and ranginess.
“I could be a 300-pounder, but I don’t think I’d play the way I was meant to play,” Zylstra said. Or negotiate the winter conditioning drills on Tuesday and Thursday nights in Reese Court.
“That’s when you find your identity as a young guy,” Zylsta said. “We call it ‘night ball,’ the coaches are in the mat room with the heat cranked up and you’re doing bear crawls at 11 o’clock at night – in January and February.”
The next morning, Zylstra and his teammates drag themselves to class.
After a week off in late March between winter and spring term, it’s time for spring ball.
“Which really is just fall camp in the spring, with not quite as many practices, but we’re still meeting every day and scrimmaging on Saturdays,” Zylstra said.
Many football players try to take heavier loads in the off season, but it’s still a challenge. “My mother says I’m an overachiever on the field and an underachiever in the classroom,” said Zylstra, who early in his career endured some quarters with a GPA “in the 2s,” but has put up 3.7s the last two quarters.
Spring ball gives way at the end of April to voluntary off-season conditioning, which for most players extends into the summer.
“I call it voluntary-involuntary,” said Zylstra, who went home to Kent after his first year in the summer of 2011, “when I wasn’t sure about football.” Since then, he’s attacked summer conditioning with a vengeance, three to four hours a day, with the rest of the time spent at the lake, relaxing.
More than a game
They call it fall camp, but this year it began earlier than ever for the Eagles: July 31, which followed on the heels of summer conditioning.
Six of the 15 practices are two-a-days, starting at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and lasting two hours each.
That’s the idea, anyway, but on a typical morning, many players arrive at 8:30 and don’t leave until 11:15. “Being early and staying late, that’s the culture here,” Zylstra said. “If you’re not going above and beyond, you’re going to get passed up.”
This year, as a senior, Zylsta is going above and beyond by being a mentor to the freshmen defensive linemen. They know he’s a preseason all-Big Sky Conference selection, and they’re eager for tips.
Besides, he remembers camp in 2010, when he redshirted but was named the defensive scout team player of the year. “I have to show the young guys – that’s the circle of D-line life,” Zylstra said.
Once the season begins, the players’ routine is set. It begins with a four-hour session on Sunday, the day after a game. The entire team gathers, first all together with head coach Beau Baldwin setting the tone, before the units gather to watch film of the previous game.
Every player is graded on every play – “plus or minus, either you did your job or you didn’t – it’s pretty brutal,” Zylstra said.
At Eastern, Monday is always an off day. Zylstra shares a house with offensive lineman Clay DeBord and linebacker Miquiyah Zamora. Every chance he gets, Zylstra goes pheasant hunting or spends time with his girlfriend, Ariana.
This year, Mondays will be more crowded: Zylstra will take a night class.
For almost every player, Tuesday is hump day. Team meetings start early in the afternoon, followed by a two-hour practice that begins at 4.
“We call that our work day,” Zylstra said. “It’s a lot of popping and a lot of grinding, but what gets me through is the next game.”
On Wednesdays, the Eagles do all of the above – although practice includes less hitting – then lift weights. “Sometimes you don’t get done till 8 or 8:30, and then you don’t want to do anything,” Zylstra said.
By Thursdays, Zylstra can see the light at the end of the tunnel; there’s another unit meeting, but practice is mainly devoted to scouting the upcoming opponent. In other words, working the brain harder than the body.
“You get dialed into your reads, watch the other teams’ tendencies and master your technique,” said Zylstra, who spends hours watching film of the opposing offensive line.
Fridays are light, with a team walkthrough on the field, whether it’s home or on the road and “let off a little steam.”
And then it’s game day, the higher purpose that makes everything else worthwhile.
Parents Doug and Belinda drive from Kent, Wash., for every home game. His grandparents, now in their 80s, trek all the way from Whidbey Island.
“That means so much to me,” Dylstra said.