Ready for some Hard Knocks…or Not

In the sweltering heat of the Summer comes this week the first sign of fall.  NFL Training Camp opens for all of the leagues’ 32 teams this week.  Training camp, and the professional game has evolved over the years to the point where it’s less important than it used to be for the veteran and established players and is now really for the rookies and those trying to earn a job on an NFL Roster.

Some of the old timers will tell you that you used to go to training camp to get into shape.  Of course most of those guys worked off-season jobs as well as the money was not what it is now.  Now, you’d better show up to camp in shape or you are in real trouble.

Back in the day, NFL teams would take their training camps on the road.  In my television career I went to the Washington Redskins Training Camp when it was held in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on the Campus of Dickenson College, a small Division III school in the middle of Pennsylvania.  The Skins held camp there because then-owner Jack Kent Cooke was a graduate of the school just the same as if I ever owned an NFL team (which I won’t but it’s cool to dream isn’t it?) that my players would be spending two weeks in Carbondale, Illinois on the Campus of Southern Illinois.  It was ridiculously hot in Carlisle,  Pennsylvania, but it didn’t hold a candle to the heat and humidity at the Carolina Panthers Training Camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  WVVA dispatched me there and gave me one day to crank out 5 or 6 stories in the Panthers first year in 1995.  I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know half of the players, but I did come back with an appreciation for what these guys were going through.  Full pad two-a-day practices in 95 degree heat with humidity in the 80s.  When we got there on the morning of practice, the first practice was at 9:00 a.m.  We’d been riding four hours in an air conditioned car and when we got out of the car, the humidity hit you like a brick.

Going away to “camp” has largely become a thing of the past.  Only 13 teams now leave their home facilities to train and next year, that number drops by one when the Cowboys open “Jerry World 2” in the form of new training facility in Suburban Dallas.  Some keep their camps in their home region like the Chicago Bears who head south a few miles to Bourbonnais, Illinois and the Washington Redskins who for some reason go to Richmond.  But, others still take their game on the “road” like the New Orleans Saints who go to the Greenbrier.  It’s good for West Virginia, but doesn’t make a lot of sense otherwise.

Also gone are two-a-days. Full pads and contact are also mostly a thing of past in training camp and in the NFL for that matter.  Player safety has become a primary concern over the years after several former players report damaging and debilitating head injuries.  The common injury – called CTE – is apparently responsible for several player suicides including that of former San Diego Charger linebacker Junior Seay, one of the hardest hitters on the planet in his day.  When the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011, the players were successful in negotiating that there be no more two-a-day practices in Training Camp. All that is allowed is one full contact practice per day and one walk through period.  The full contact period can last up to three hours and the walk through period can last up to one hour.  The number of full contact practices during the regular season was also cut.  Teams are now only permitted a total of 14 for the entire 17 week regular season.  11 of those full contact practices must occur during the first 11 weeks of the regular season, leaving just 3 available for weeks 12 – 17.  As a practical matter, some NFL coaches will use full contact for training camp, and then shelve it for the rest of the season.   There are now off-season programs so this is the players’ full-time job (although they only get paid during the season), but those off-season programs have been reduced from 14 weeks to 9 weeks.  What are called Organized Team Activities – which are voluntary workouts – have been reduced from 14 to 10.   The average NFL salary is now over Two Million Dollars per year and the owners have obviously made a business decision that their assets – meaning the players – must be protected to keep butts in the seats.

I’m all for player safety, but this seems a bit extreme to me.  After all the players hit and tackle in the game and I have no idea how you work on tackling when offensive lineman are tasked with pushing a large guy across the line from them for 40-50 plays per game, and all they practice all week is pushing air.  Can you imagine Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters pushing around air all week or how about the famed fearsome foursome of the L.A. Rams of Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen and Rosie Greer basically playing footsy all week in practice and then be expected to turn it on and act like maniacs on Sunday?  I can just see Art Donovan shaking his head at this stuff.  This is a guy who once said on the David Letterman show that back in his day when someone was injured, they picked them up and they continued playing and now, they bring out two trainers, a doctor, a priest and the pope.

But it is still live actual football which is the only sport that captures the imagination of everyone.  Some like golf and baseball appeal to more limited audiences, but not the NFL.  And with the start of training camp comes one of the best produced shows on television in HBO’s Hard Knocks.  It’s a basic look behind the curtain of an NFL training camp.  It’s the only reason I have HBO and it’s must see TV for Tuesday night in my opinion.  The show first aired in 2001 featuring the Baltimore Ravens.  This will be the 11th edition of the show.  It did not air from 2003 – 2006 and in 2011, after a players’ lockout.  The Dallas Cowboys have appeared on the show twice, as has Cincinnati.  Kansas City, the N.Y. Jets, the Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans have all be featured on the show.  Like any show some years are better than others and some teams have characters.  The N.Y. Jets at the time had head coach Rex Ryan who the cameras caught in 2010 in a team meeting chewing his players out for acting like “jackasses” at a public practice and then telling them: “Now let’s go eat a goddamn snack.”  It also caught the very pathetic scene of Defensive Back Antonio Cromartie who has fathered 9 children with various women struggling to remember his kids’ names.  True reality television, forget this pre-canned crap like Survivor.  This is why I’ve always said Sports is the true reality television.

With Cincinnati in 2013, Defensive Lineman James Harrison hated the concept of the show so much he continued to flip the bird at the camera each opportunity he had.  Last year the Texans featured massive offensive lineman Vince Wilfork holding a field-goal kicking contest with a member of the U.S. Womens’ National Soccer Team and you got a glimpse on what makes players great.  J.J. Watt is arguably the best defensive player in football and after practice he spent an additional hour on the field working on his individual game, and then 30 minutes signing autographs.  Clearly, a player that gets it.

This year features the L.A. Rams, fresh off their move from St. Louis back to Los Angeles.  The Rams don’t have the most-exciting coach in the world in the respected Jeff Fisher, but expect the story line to feature heavily first round draft pick quarterback Jared Goff from California.  Let’s just hope the shots of the owner are minimal.  Owner Stan Kronke has the worst bowl cut toupee in the history of the world.  It might be as scary as seeking Falcons owner Arthur Blank wearing shorts in the 2014 show.

The show has received some criticism in that it shows scenes of a player’s dream being shattered when he’s cut from the roster.  Some think that shouldn’t be shown, but I could not disagree more as it is part of the reality of the NFL game and the show.  The NFL may not have all the contact it used to have but it still has the captivation of the American public, and thankfully for 5 weeks in the late Summer HBO gives us a look inside.

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