Toolbox game a test of masculinity

BY BEN SCHUFF | OCTOBER 22, 2010 7:20 AM

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Tanner Miller still enjoys the concussion he suffered a year ago.

It’s a sign of the pride he takes in being an Iowa football manager.

But it wasn’t the result of a freak occurrence on the sideline while the University of Iowa junior was doing his job. Rather, it was the result of a hard-hitting flag-football game between his fellow Iowa football managers and the student managers from Wisconsin.

That sense of pride from injuries is shared by both sides.

“If you go down on a play and you’re giving it all you got, you can tack on a label of martyrdom,” Wisconsin manager Ben Anderson said.

The two staffs have played each other annually since 1991 in what is known as the Toolbox Game.

Tonight will see the 17th installment of the hotly contested series which takes place inside the Bubble; it is tradition to play the Friday night before Saturday’s Hawkeye/Badger game. The winning side is awarded the Rusty Toolbox, which is described by at least one manager as containing “pride.”

Spectators may be surprised to see that what happens between these two squads will likely resemble actual Big Ten football more than the typical flag-football action.

And as far as the Iowa managers are concerned, that’s just how they like it.

“I think there will be quite a bit of injuries,” Iowa head manager Spencer Bieri said. “It could get pretty violent towards the end.”

The Wisconsin managers won last year’s affair, 37-6. The loss wasn’t taken lightly by Bieri and the rest of his staff.

There is a white board inside the players’ locker room in Kinnick Stadium on which tasks are listed that the managers must complete. During fall camp, Bieri wrote last year’s score at the top of the board every day to remind the managers of last year’s loss.

He said the managers have been practicing since the beginning of August and they have a playbook for this year’s game — something they were without last year.

“Some of the managers have looked at last year’s game film,” he said. “They’ll look at the plays that they run and how many times they run the play. They’ll also look at their defense so we can get an idea of what plays we’ll want to run.”

Anderson, the captain of Wisconsin’s team, said he and his players have been preparing for the game by enlisting friends as a scout team. The senior also said the squad modified its playbook a bit to make necessary adjustments from last year’s game.

But as much preparing as the two sides will do for the Xs and Os of the game, managers from both sides agreed nothing can prepare them for the physical style of play except experience.

“These are two Big Ten football teams organizing a game,” Miller said. “The last thing they are going to think about is what rules can do to make it safe.”

His concussion last year was not a lone incident. Iowa senior manager Owen Crist dislocated his shoulder and knee cap in last year’s game. Bieri said he took an elbow to the face that cut his lip.

Wisconsin’s head manager Joe McKillip also has his share of injury stories. A four-year veteran of the Toolbox game, he said a Wisconsin manager suffered a broken nose in his first taste of the rivalry. He feels “absolutely fortunate” to have left games with only minor bruises, he said.

So why don’t the players exchange flags for pads given the rough style and history of the game? Crist said it would make the game less enjoyable because he thrives on the pain.

“If a D-lineman comes up and jams me with shoulder pads on, it’s not going to hurt,” he said. “With just a jersey on, he’s grabbing my skin, and that’s going to piss me off. So that’s just fuel in the fire for me to want to hit him the next time.”

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