While Illinois players bob their heads to music before a game, offensive lineman Ted Karras takes a different approach: He pours two large bottles of water over his head and then yells like a Viking who just reached the shoreline.
This is the mellower, more relaxed Karras. Seriously.
“I’m definitely calmer now,” Karras said, without a hint of irony. “I would get so amped up before, I would get so nervous, and I wouldn’t perform as well in the first quarter. I’d just come out and try to kill someone on a block and completely miss.”
Karras’ friends and teammates agree with his “more relaxed” assertion -- or maybe they’re just too intimidated to disagree. The senior is still incredibly intense, but he’s no longer the crazy rookie who nervously threw up before every practice. He’s no longer the underclassman whom coaches and teammates worried about because he insisted on performing push-ups and sit-ups from the practice sideline -- when he was injured, in a boot. Now, he’s just the crazy vet who relishes playing in bad weather and learned to control his emotions.
As an underclassman, he often treated Friday nights like most of his teammates treated Saturday mornings. His mind raced quickly, his heart raced even faster and he wouldn’t talk much. Even in high school, on Friday mornings, his former coach remembers how Karras’ foot was constantly tapping throughout class.
“We talked a lot about controlling that anxiety and wasted energy,” said Karras’ high school coach, Mic Roessler. “But, on the field, he’d just go into a whole other level of intensity that I wish you could bottle up and give to more kids.”
Now, Karras says he’s a different player, a better player, because he’s able to channel all that intensity into game days and only game days. The four-year starter calms himself Fridays by listening to the same soft-rock playlist, and he takes deep breaths to combat anxiety. Experience and confidence have only helped.
“You don’t need to play Friday at 7 p.m.,” said Karras, the seventh member of his family to play Big Ten football. “You need to be ready to play Saturday at 11. I think that’s been the biggest transition of my career. I used to get so hyped up that I’d be tired after the first drive.”
Karras’ intensity was always his defining characteristic. In high school, Roessler swears Karras willed himself into becoming an offensive lineman. Karras drank a gallon of milk every morning, upped his calorie intake and gained 110 pounds between his freshman and sophomore seasons. During his junior season, a high school referee once approached Roessler to get Karras under control -- so the coach yanked him. But when Roessler questioned the ref a few plays later, he was told Karras was simply playing too rough. He was throwing around his opponents like tackling dummies.
“I can still remember that so vividly,” Roessler said, chuckling. “I’ve never heard of that before. I said, ‘You got to be kidding me!’ And that’s why I still love watching him play now. He still just gets after it.”
Karras may have learned to dial back the intensity before game days, but his friends and teammates say he’s as intense as he’s ever been on Saturdays.
In fact, besides “football” and “intense,” former Illinois center Graham Pocic wasn’t even sure what other adjectives to use to describe Karras.
“Well, you’re kind of describing Ted right there,” Pocic said. “I mean, he’s got a girlfriend. But, probably, the most important thing in life is family, football, football, girlfriend.”
Pocic still remembers a stoic Karras walking into his room at 9 p.m. and asking questions about the offensive line. And he can certainly still remember that odd pregame ritual. Early in the season, inevitably, one of the wide-eyed freshmen would stare at the odd, intimidating practice. “Don’t mess with Teddy,” one of the seniors would tease. But they couldn’t help it. Neither could Karras, who’s still not quite sure how or why he likes playing wet.
He just does it, twice every game day, before warm-ups and right after. It helps him flip on that “intensity” switch at the right time -- and no one’s arguing with the results. He was an All-B1G honorable mention last season, and he'll make his 38th career start on Saturday.
“Internally, I’m no longer amping myself up to where I’m losing energy,” he said. “I’ve definitely worked on that a lot. I’m ready to go two hours before a game now, and I think it’s paid off.”
“I guess I still do some crazy things. But that’s one thing that football’s always allowed me to do -- to be a little crazy and almost get rewarded for it.”