Even 55 years later, players never forget those practices.

“We had extremely tough practices,” says Roger Staubach, a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback. “Our two-a-days were as tough as could be.”

Staubach played in four Super Bowls, won two of them, was named Super Bowl MVP in 1972 and won the Heisman Trophy playing for Navy in 1962, beating Army twice. But he wasn’t talking about Navy or the Dallas Cowboys and their famously tough coach, Tom Landry. He was talking about practices at Purcell High School in Cincinnati, where he graduated in 1960.

“Our coaching staff at Purcell was unbelievably disciplined,” he says. “It was like Coach Landry. Organized, tough. We got a lot done. The only thing that was kind of crazy was that it was illegal if you had a drink of water.”

Bring up practices and you will hear the same thing from anyone who played on Staubach’s team (1959-60) or the following year at Purcell. The no-water rule seems crazy-cruel today, but in those days it was Football 101.

“You couldn’t take your helmet off and you couldn’t have any water,” says Gary Henry, the quarterback who followed Staubach. 

Co-captain and center Jerry Momper remembers being so desperate for water, players would pass around a damp rag to suck on. “They handed out salt tablets like candy, but no water. I guess it was all about discipline and toughness.”

Their sweat-soaked, salt-caked jerseys turned into cardboard scarecrows when they were hung on a fence to dry. Stan Sheppard, a tight end, remembers it like yesterday. “If someone collapsed or fainted, the coaches would say ‘Move over,’ and we’d just shift the whole line over a few yards, leave him there and keep going. If someone threw up, move over and keep going.”

“I know this sounds crazy,” says running back Roger Thesing, “but we would be so desperate for water, in the morning we would lick the dew off the grass, just trying to get moisture into our bodies.”

“I guess they thought not having water breaks keeps you mean or something,” Staubach says. “It’s a different world today, and it’s better. There’s no question, you should stay hydrated.”

But for the Purcell Cavaliers who survived those practices, it’s a source of shared pride. Those scorching, parched two-a-days forged them into a team that has lasted a lifetime. Their success in life, they agree, started on the trampled, fried turf of their practice fields.

“After those practices, the Marine Corps was nothing,” says Henry, whose first stop after high school was Boot Camp at Paris Island.

Sheppard says, “I honestly believe the coaches we had and what we went through is key to every one of us. We didn’t quit. There is no quit in any of us.”

For 25 years, the group has stayed as close as a fourth-quarter huddle. Every year they gather at Staubach’s place northwest of Austin, Texas, for a week to 10 days of golf, dinners, games and memories. Once again, it is 1960 and they are “Staubs,” “Momps,” “Shep,” “Thees” and “Hens.”

“I think it’s a Cincinnati thing,” says Momper. 

As they gathered for dinner at the Thesings’ downtown home, none could think of anyone else who would vacation with their high school buddies for 25 years straight. “Why this group?” Henry wonders. “We have similar interests. We don’t have egos.”

“We have competitive egos,” Momper corrects.

“Right,” Henry nods. “We share the same faith and practice it,” he continues. “And our wives like each other.”

“Our wives have listened to our stories so many times they can probably tell them better than we can,” Momper laughs.

Thesing adds, “It’s the purest kind of friendship—no questions asked. If someone needs help, we’re there. Each one always had the others’ back. Each time we get together it’s the same. We gather in the kitchen and stand together holding hands and say a prayer. Nobody is embarrassed or uncomfortable.”

“Show me your friends and I will show you your future,” Sheppard adds.

After high school, they all watched in awe as Staubach blazed his path to national glory. They knew he was good. He had multiple letters in football, baseball and basketball at the all-boys Purcell. When he came home in the summer to work out with them, they saw moves they couldn’t believe. But his numbers at Purcell gave no hint of greatness.

It was Henry who set a passing record the year after Staubach left. That 1960-61 team went undefeated and won a state championship—a goal that eluded Staubach’s team, which is still one of his biggest regrets. 

“We lost to Bacon, 6-3, one of the worst losses I ever had,” he says.

Think about it. This is from an all-time greatest quarterback whose Navy team lost the National Championship to Texas in 1964, yet that game didn’t even make his list of worst losses. Instead, he ranks the Purcell loss to Roger Bacon alongside two Super Bowl losses to the Steelers and Navy’s loss to Army when he was a senior.

In the win column, he ranks his Purcell teammates No. 1. “That’s just special. Growing through the years, watching our children grow up. We look at Texas as our home, but we have a love for Cincinnati and Ohio. Our memories are very positive. Marianne and I grew up there together,” he says of his wife, who was Marianne Hoobler when she graduated from Mount Notre Dame.

The Staubachs celebrated their 50th anniversary in Cincinnati this summer with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “When we come back it’s very nostalgic. We went by her old house, my old house, grade schools. There’s just a great connection. And the guys getting together, that just furthers the connection. We definitely tell the same stories over and over. It will be sad when we forget we’ve told the same one.”

Two teammates who were regulars in the group have passed away: Jim Higgins and Vince Eyesoldt. Another, Tom Keihfuss, lives in Baton Rouge, La. A St. Xavier player, Pete Boylan, has joined the reunions.

Thesing says of Staubach what everyone says: “He’s been very successful, but he hasn’t forgotten his good friends.”

“I don’t think anyone expected him to achieve what he did, winning the Heisman Trophy,” says Momper. They rooted for Staubach and, “We went on with our lives.”

Momper played at UC, served in the Army and worked with Staubach’s successful real estate firm before starting his own tech company. He’s now retired. “We were all middle class or lower middle class,” he says. “We didn’t come from money. We were all in the same crucible, striving to do better.”

Sheppard played at Xavier University, when it still had a football team, then coached high school football, but finally gave it up to start Sheppard and Associates, an insurance and financial management company. Coaching did not pay enough to raise his children, “But I would give anything to go back to coaching,” he says.

Henry played for XU, served in the Marine Reserves and started his own jewelry business, Gary Henry Inc. “I don’t know that I would have gone to college if not for these guys,” he says. “Playing with them gave me a confidence that when I got into any situation I could handle it.”

Thesing played for XU, worked for IBM, and then went into real estate. He owns The Thesing Companies. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my friends,” he says. “Picture a line of really big guys who are trying to kill you. Run into it as hard as you can. They smash you down and push your face in the mud and step on your hands. And you go back in the huddle and they call your name again. Maybe you don’t want to do it, but you don’t even think of saying you won’t, so you do it again and again as many times as you have to. That’s life.”

Today, football seems more about concussions, egos, agents, TV and big money. But these players remember a time when it was pure. They played for the love of football, for their coaches and for each other. And by giving everything they had, they got something greater back.

“If someone says ‘Hike right, 26 on two,’ I still know my blocking assignment,” Momper jokes, calling out a standard play from Purcell. The rest laugh and nod. They’re all over 70 now, but they look fit enough to run it, and they still remember the Xs and Os as well as they remember those two-a-days.

There’s a book called Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner. He searched the world for the secrets of long life and happiness. One of his discoveries was the “moai” in Okinawa—where lifelong friends meet regularly and live active, happy lives well into their 100s. 

In Okinawan, the word means “meeting for a common purpose.”

In Cincinnati, the word is two-a-days.