As July draws to a close and the days get just that little bit shorter, there is a buzz among NFL fans around the world. Across the USA, vast teams of moving guys haul equipment into trucks. Groundsmen paint lines on freshly mown fields. Players, returning from breaks with family and friends, pack their bags and prepare themselves for what will be a grueling few weeks, both mentally and physically. That’s right – training camp is here and football is back.
Training Camp in the NFL signifies the start of preparations proper for the upcoming season. Sure, there’s been OTAs (Organised Team Activities) and Minicamps, but this is the real deal. Training Camp can broadly be defined as three weeks of intense training, conditioning, practicing and studying. Often on location at a local college or training complex, players will find themselves sharing a room with a teammate. The camps will include classroom time where plays will be discussed and dissected. Film will be watched and guys will be shouted at. Days are rigid in their organisation, with set times for getting up, eating, practicing, studying and a curfew when it’s time to turn off the lights ahead of the same thing tomorrow.
Although called Training Camp, it’s often been equated with military boot camp. It’s when those players who may have partaken in a few too many cheeseburgers over the summer are found out and hammered by both their coaches and the team’s fans, aided by daily camp reports on message boards and social media. It’s where rookies may be subject to a hazing ritual – like being sellotaped to a goalpost or, if they’re lucky, just being made to carry their teammates’ pads. It’s where ‘fringe’ players – late round draft picks and undrafted/cheap free agents – literally have to battle for their livelihoods, knowing that a mistake could result in them being cut and out of work for the coming year – maybe even the rest of their careers.
While not many players relish the prospect of training camp, for NFL fans it’s mana from heaven. After what feels like a lifetime since the confetti dropped on the Super Bowl winners, the sound of pads thundering into each other and the sight of tight spiraling footballs arcing through the air once more brings excitement, relief and anticipation. Who will be the standout players in camp? How will the new additions look? And please don’t let anyone get injured. With the first preseason games occurring as camp is still in session, it also marks the return of competitive football between teams and the chance to see how all the hard work is paying off, or not in the case of some teams and players.
Many NFL clubs, such as the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills, will hold sessions open to the public and often these represent the best chance for fans to get up close and personal with the players. Standing just yards from their heroes as they practice, it’s an opportunity to see players doing the gritty work and repetitions that sets them up for performing at a high level during the season. The teams will often cordon off areas made accessible for younger fans to get memorabilia signed and training camp has been embraced by the teams as a way of engaging with fans and strengthening the bond with them.
If you ever have a chance, a trip to your team’s training camp is well worth it. Although not delivering the same experience as a regular season game day, it presents the opportunity to inexpensively view your heroes and likely be closer to the action than you would at a game. It shows your team working on fundamentals and gives you an insight into what it takes to make it as an NFL player. And it gives you that first taste of contact football after five long months without it. Yes, football is back and it feels good.