PULLMAN, Wash. -- During Gabe Marks' first few years on Washington State’s campus he had a bit of a problem.
“When people were winding down around 10,” Marks said, “I was starting The Lord of the Rings or trying to blast through Harry Potter.”
He’d start a book or a movie (or a trilogy of movies) around 10 p.m. Before he knew it, the sun had risen and he needed to leave for class. So he would head off to classes and then try to sneak in a nap before football practice. It wasn’t optimal but it worked, in some ways.
“Sleeping is not fun,” Marks quipped. “You’re missing stuff. ... but you’ll die if you don’t sleep.”
Marks wasn’t missing his sleep hours to that extreme. More so, it was the little things -- how his body ached before, during or after a game; how recovery took longer, that were affected. So rather than missing out on things because he was sleeping, Marks was falling short of other things because he wasn’t sleeping.
Toward the end of last season Marks’ body began to ache a bit differently than it had before. He had been hit a lot during his first and second years but not as much as he was last season. The redshirt junior was targeted 151 times and caught a conference-best 104 receptions. That means he was likely hit more than any other receiver in the conference (which is what tends to happen being a receiver in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense).
So this past offseason Marks and Cougars strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo had a very serious conversation. The two have always had a very candid relationship, one that Loscalzo said is rooted in their similar competitiveness.
Loscalzo made it very clear to Marks: He needed to make a lot of changes. Not only for himself, but also since so many players were now looking up to him. Marks’ physical edge wasn’t just going to come from gaining weight, it was going to come from all the little details that would help him maintain his best playing shape -- diet, sleep patterns, and commitment to recovery.
“Getting strong is the easy part,” Loscalzo said. “Taking care of yourself is the hard part.”
So when Loscalzo laid this out to Marks, he returned to their shared bond -- their competitive nature -- and explained that Marks could be competitive about this, too. Not only could he be the best wide receiver on the team, he could also be the best eater, the best sleeper and the best in the recovery room.
There were easy fixes for each of Marks’ issues with those minutiae.
When it came to eating Marks needed to focus on getting his meals at the football building. The chefs there made food that tasted good, which ensured that Marks would be getting what he needed nutritionally.
“They want me to put weight on,” Marks said. “But they don’t want it to be McDonalds weight or Taco Bell weight -- it doesn’t work, you can’t breathe.”
When it came to recovery, Marks needed to start making time to ice his knees and get massages. He needed to do it before he went home for the night, because once he left, the chances of him returning just for treatment were slim.
And when it came to sleeping, Marks needed to be honest with himself about not turning on Netflix or opening a book (his current read is Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”) after 10 p.m.
Marks admits that he hasn’t been perfect, but he’s working on it. Wide receivers -- more than most -- know that the split seconds in a route can be the difference between a touchdown and a drop. Now he understands that those split seconds aren't just built in the weight room. They’re built when he chooses turkey over Taco Bell, or when he gets to his treatment on time. Or -- in those very difficult times -- when he says no to eight-hour documentaries of Netflix, instead turning off his light and going to bed.
“He has learned that football is not just practice and games,” Loscalzo said. “Football is the preparation, the learning how to take care of yourself, learning how to be ready for the next week -- that comes with maturity.”