SINGING FOR YOUR SUPPER NFL’S MEAT AND POTATOES

We are talking about embarrassment. We are talking about nerves. We are talking about the moment of truth in pro football training camp.

We are talking about rookies singing.

“Dinnertime, lunchtime, whenever we feel like making them do it,” says William Gay, the Lions’ defensive captain, who need only bang his glass with a spoon — like an uncle at an Italian wedding — to make a rookie stand up, open wide and say, “Laa!”

“Are they any good?” he is asked.

“Some are good, some are bad,” he says, rubbing his chin slowly. “And some
. . . are real bad.”

Not that it matters. If you are a rookie, you will sing. It is a haze job by veterans that has gone on forever. Soldiers have boot camp. Fraternities have rush week. Football has the cafeteria. Sing.

“I was one of the first ones they got,” says Jerry Ball, the third-round draft pick from SMU. “I was sitting there eating and I hear the glasses and Bill Gay goes, ‘We want some singing!’ “

“What song did you choose?” he was asked.

“It’s called ‘Trudy.’ “

Right. Yeah. That’s a nice one.

Trudy? Good or bad, you can’t win Well. Times have changed. Years ago, most rookies relied on their college fight songs, as this was often the only song they knew.

But now, anything goes. Willie Nelson. Tina Turner. Already the Lions’ veterans have heard such hits as “Tiny Bubbles,” “Always and Forever” and “My Girl,” none of which will ever be confused with the original artists’ renditions.

“What one did you do?” Reggie Rogers, the Lions’ first-round draft pick, is asked.

“I did . . . uh, um, sheez. I can’t remember.”

See?

No matter. We are talking tradition here, the tradition of keeping a rookie in his place. The tradition of breaking tension. The tradition of fighting boredom. After all, how long can you just beat each other up?

So we have Garland Rivers, from Michigan, who tried his fight song and was booed before he started. And Karl Bernard, a free-agent running back who brought down the room with a smoking rendition of “Truly” by Lionel Ritchie.

And then there is poor Ray Brown, a receiver from South Carolina. No vocal cords. He wound up singing something he heard on the radio, although he doesn’t remember what, and neither do his teammates. They do remember he was bad. As in sit down, Ray. That’ll be enough out of you.

“I’m not a singer,” he says, shrugging.

What’s a rookie to do? There is no way to win here. If you sing terribly, they will boo unmercifully. And if you sing well, they will clap and scream things like, “OOOH, BABY! HOW SWEET IT IS!” And make you sing at every meal.

The best way to avoid singing is to avoid the cafeteria. This can be tough, however, because it also means you never eat. “We tried sneaking in early,” says Danny Lockett, a sixth- round linebacker from Arizona. “Then one day, just as I was leaving, I heard Bill Gay yell: ‘HOLD UP!’ “

That was it. Lockett, who will never be confused with Michael Jackson, tried his fight song: Bear down, Ari-zona,

Bear down, red and blue,

Bear down, Ari-zona,

Hit ’em hard and let ’em know who’s who!

“How long did you last?” someone asks.

“Not long,” Lockett says. “Coach (Darryl) Rogers was booing me right from the start. I forgot he used to be at Arizona State.” The Saleaumua shuffle? There is no telling when the call will come. Could be lunch. Could be dinner. Could be if a rookie gets a veteran mad by tackling too hard.

“What if they don’t sing?” comes the question.

“Oh, they’ll sing,” says Gay, 6-feet-5, 260 pounds, in a way that suggests they most certainly will. “These guys are lucky. If they stink, they just get booed. When I broke in nine years ago in Denver, they didn’t like you, they threw eggs.”

(By the way, you may wonder why Gay gets to be in charge. Obviously, you never stood next to him. Not everyone can turn to a nasty, bald, muscle-bound rookie and say, “You sound like my dog.” Bill Gay can do that. Also, he has the eggs.)

So a great tradition continues. The only saving grace for these rookies is if they make the team, they get to do it to somebody else next year.

Which is not to say there are no surprises left this season. Consider Danny Saleaumua, a hefty rookie nose tackle. Danny’s family is from Samoa. He knows this traditional Samoan chant and dance. He is saving it for when he makes the team.

“It’s a participation thing,” he says. “I yell something, they repeat.” He demonstrates, raising one foot, then the other, stomping. “U-eee tong-ey al-u-mey! U-EE TON-GEY . . . AL-U- MEY!”

“What does that mean?” he is asked.

“I have no idea,” he says.

Should go over big.

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