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(Left to right) Signal Callers for Ohio University Football Stef Walker, Brett Brice and Townsend Colley work during the first Mid-American Conference of the season at University at Buffalo in Amherst, NY on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

'It's pretty much a game of charades': Meet the student assistants who act out each play call for Ohio's offense

Brett Brice receives the text messages all the time.

They’re usually something similar to “Hey, you were on TV!” or a video of him on the sidelines donning a headset and making a complete fool of himself.

Brice understands the messages, but he always has the same reaction: an eye roll.

That’s because Brice is on a team of four student assistants whose job is to stand out the most on Ohio’s sidelines whenever the offense is on the field. The crew does all it can to relay playcall signals from coaches in the press box to Ohio’s offensive unit before each play on the field. That’s done by flailing their arms and acting out certain actions or words to a huddle of players 20 yards away.

The group doesn’t wear a green and white Ohio polo either. Instead, their shirts are bright orange and complemented with a bright-colored arm sleeve.

Brice and the rest of the group get it. They’re easy targets for TV cameras. They look silly doing their job. They make fans laugh.

But they don’t care.

“It’s pretty much a game of charades,” said Brice, a senior in his fourth year with the group. “We always laugh about it. It’s really cool.”

Before each offensive play, the group acts out a set of actions connected to one word that corresponds with a certain play for each position group. Those words can be animals, movies, people — anything.

To relay the plays from the press box to the field, the group acts out the word on the sideline. Some of those actions include jogging in place, pretending to slap themselves in the face or mimicking the swing of a lumberjack.

At least that’s what they appear to be doing. They can’t really talk about the specifics. They don’t want to give any hint about a play to a visiting team, which is why they switch arm sleeves and the roles that come with them after halftime.

The brunt of their signals are coordinated in the offseason and throughout fall camp. That’s when they sit down with players to attach a word with each play, and the assistants will come up with as many actions the players feel could help them connect the word with the play.

“It’s awesome to be able to have those guys,” quarterback Nathan Rourke said. “It’s awesome to have those guys give so much effort to that, which is a really critical part of how we run our offense.”

In practice, however, things aren’t always smooth when the group occasionally forgets a play or botches the order of the playcalls. The players forget the signs, too, and that often leads to one of the assistants shouting the word to a player before they smooth things out between breaks in practice.

“It’s a learning curve,” said Stef Walker, a junior who primarily works with Rourke. “When you get to this level, it’s playing chess, not checkers.”

The mistakes can often lead to coaches becoming upset with the assistants. The majority of the frustrations from coaches flare throughout fall camp when everyone is still learning the system.

That can sometimes lead to a coach shouting at an assistant just as much as a player. Those are typically the hardest days on the job, but the group understands the heavy emotions. If they don’t do their job right, the play typically fails.

“Some days, there’s a lot going on, and it’s a little mentally draining,“ said Townsend Colley, a sophomore in his first season with the group. “Sometimes, you could be signaling the wrong thing, and then you get three coaches looking at you.”

To ensure those mistakes are limited, the group often spends as much time on the job as they do in the classroom.

A typical day for the assistants consists of meetings in the early afternoon, a two-hour practice and then an additional hour or two spent reviewing and editing film for coaches and players. 

It’s not quite the standard 9-to-5 job, but it can feel that way. They do it without pay, too, except for the small stipend they receive to pay for textbooks.

Still, they don’t have many complaints. All the assistants played football when they were in high school, and they wanted to find a way to stay on the sidelines in college.

“I always had a hard time just being a fan,” Colley said. “Everything I do, I like to jump into it and do it at the highest level.”

For the assistants, performing odd gestures and actions on the sidelines is the highest that level can go. 


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