Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper knew all about “Take the Rope,’’ the Stanford version of “Tug-O-War” reserved for Cardinal freshman football players. Essentially, six veterans pull against one freshman, who must stay within a boundary and hold them off until all six let go or are dragged across the line.
“All the older guys try to get in your head throughout the course of the week,” said Hooper, who along with Cotton and the other nine members of the freshman class successfully completed the exercise last Friday. “Thursday night, I didn’t go to sleep until 2:30 in the morning.”
The drill is designed to test strength, stamina and toughness, and is not for the meek.
“It was tough,” said Cotton, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound tight end prospect from Nampa, Idaho. “I was in there for 15 minutes, just working away. All of our hands got torn up. You just go one after another and have to get through it.”
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Hooper grew up in San Ramon and played for nationally-ranked De La Salle, which won 151-straight games from 1992-2004. He was among the first players to “Take the Rope,” mainly because he wanted to finish as quickly as possible.
“I didn’t really want to think about it,” he said. “I figured if I was last, that would put more negative thoughts in my head. I just tried to turn my brain off and go first. It’s tough, but it’s kind of like a right of passage to be part of the program.”
Among the players Hooper pulled against were Ryan Hewitt, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Tyler Gaffney, meaning there was no weak link.
“There are a few rules that go along with it; you have to stay in the squat position and stay in your little area,” said Hooper. “If they take the rope from you, you have to start again. There’s no way for you to win it. It just tests your mental toughness. Your body is done after about the first two minutes. After that, it’s just your will to keep going or quit.”
The drill also brought the small freshman class closer, not that they haven’t already bonded in the four weeks they have spent together training and attending summer school.
“We basically do everything together,” Cotton said. “We’re staying in the same dorm and just kind of hang out during our days off and during breaks. On the weekends we play video games, go to movies or explore the area. We’re the little fish again. We stay together and make sure we have each other’s backs and keep each other motivated to do the work.”
The multi-talented Cotton attended Columbia High School, where he played three years of football and also lettered in basketball and track. He was an all-conference player and four-year starter in basketball, and triple-jumped 43-5 and finished fourth in the state championship.
Playing mostly at wide receiver in a spread offense, Cotton caught 33 passes for 747 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior, and hauled in 39 catches for 715 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. ESPN selected him the 19th-best Y-tight end in the country, and he was named Idaho’s top prospect by 247 Sports.
“The summer before my senior year, I went to a bunch of football camps,” Cotton said. “Before I even went out – I went to the Missouri camp first – my dad came in and put a map on my wall and posted a tack where Stanford is located and said, ‘Go get it.’ Stanford was the last camp I attended and I did well here, got the offer, and knew this was where I was going to go.”
Hooper was a four-star recruit by 247 Sports and ESPN, the latter ranking him the 25th-best overall prospect in California. He played defensive end and tight end and lost only one game in three years, helping lead the team to three-consecutive CIF Open Division state titles. In 2012, De La Salle went 15-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN and MaxPreps.
“Without question, they have the best coaches in California,” said Hooper, who was also heavily recruited by Oregon and Washington. “They have over 100 years of high school experience and know what they’re talking about. I got lot of attention just based on the system we were in. You listen to what they have to say and execute on the field, you’ll find success.”
Winning became second nature.
“You hate to lose more than you wanted to win,” Hooper said. “When we won, you didn’t really feel anything. You were kind of conditioned to the point where you know what it takes to win.”
Hooper, whose father Michael played football at San Diego State and uncle Greg was a fullback at Stanford ’02, learned an important lesson in 2011. De La Salle was riding a 27-game winning streak when it traveled to South Florida to play powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas and lost 30-6.
“We just got demolished,” said Hooper. “We weren’t putting our nose to the grindstone. Once we lost, it shocked us and let us know that we have to bring it every week. That really taught everyone in our program to stay humble and hungry for each game.”
Hooper and his fellow freshmen were recently reminded of that fact by hard-nosed senior defensive end Ben Gardner.
“The other day we had kind of a lackluster (weight) lift and he let it out and said, ‘Hey, this is a championship year. If you want to mess around, just leave now and do us all a favor.’ He translated everything this team is all about.”
Cotton said everybody got the message.
“Even though they’ve had all this success, the vets are very humble and let everyone on the team know that you have to work hard and nothing is given,” he said. “They really try to instill the fact that you earn everything you get.”
Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.