Full Contact: Happy Campers 7/24/06

Boy is it hot! Can you imagine being out there in this heat? NFL training camps are here and man I'm glad I'm not there! A lot of crazy things will happen this summer in these camps; some good and some bad. Because of the constant threat of injuries or the negative, pressure-cooker environment for young rookies trying to make the team, it's not as much fun for some, as it's made out to be.

I think the old Redskin offensive lineman, captain of the Hogs, Jeff Bostic, said it best to me as we lay there stretching on the first morning of training camp. "Eric, you know, right now, this will be the best we will feel for the next 6 months." I laid there in that summer heat, with sweat dripping off my brow, thinking, what a profound statement he made, especially since it came from an offensive lineman.

The biggest difference in the transition from the college ranks to the pros, is the training camps. Training camp, though very physically demanding, is much more a tax on your mental and psychological toughness.

Before I got to the pro's, I truly believed that football, and especially training camps, were about 90% physical and the remainder was split up on the mental/psychological; man was I mistaken!  It was the complete opposite. So many athletes think to prepare for the physical, but are unaware that it's the lack of the mental muscles that will get you cut or shorten your career.  I already can hear your comments, "What are you thinking O' Heavy One--it's mostly physical!"

Being football players, we're all physical, some more than others. Taking that as a standard prerequisite, it's the variables that can make or break ya; injuries/pain being the worst of them. Playing with and working through pain is all mental. Sometimes it's the doctor that needs to determine if you should play; that's physical. For the most part, it's up to you and how well you can mentally challenge your current pain paradigm without affecting your performance.

If a player is constantly injured or not on the field playing, the team will need to hire another person to make sure the position is consistently filled. Because NFL teams have salary caps, having an extra salary on the books for one position hurts the team's financial flexibility throughout the year. Players, who do not push their mental envelopes to play with injury, will soon be released. Plus, the only way you can lose your job to another player, is if you let them in there. Being injured opens the door for that chance. Big' E's tip of the day, "Never let your backup play in your spot!"  NFL teams are prohibited from releasing injured players 'til they're fully healed. Over my years I've seen injuries being leveraged by both management, as well as players, to further their own objectives.

Have you ever wondered why, right before the end of training camp, a third-string backup quarterback, with a lot of potential, will somehow pull a hamstring during practice, when he was rarely seen wearing a helmet? Someone within the organization will approach the young player all concerned about an old hamstring injury, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Sometimes, if the rookie is really slow, it might take an older veteran to take the kid aside to explain what just happened and the acting job he'll need to perform during the next practice. In the end, it's pulled off without a hitch, all in front of the beat reporters who will write about the injury. "Can I get a witness?"

On the other side of the coin, I've seen guys fake and prolong their injuries, just to make a team or collect a few of those coveted paychecks. There is at least one player every year that tries to work the system. Believe it or not, I've even heard a player try to explain to the trainer that he has a "twisted sternum." I know I'm not a doctor but I had to call BS on the TS.

My most memorable story is of an offensive linemen, when I played in Detroit...This rookie saw the handwriting on the wall and knew it wouldn't be long before his job was placed on the chopping block.  A week before the final cut of training camp, he somehow developed a serious back injury that kept him in the training room and away from the field.

In the locker-room, we don't hand out Academy Awards for all the acting, but on occasion we do hand out a "Dairyman Award." I guess this kid liked his new daily routine of sitting in the hot tub and drinking Gatorade, because he milked this "injury" well past half the season. He milked it so long, the coaches even started to make snide comments about him.

Because of real injuries caused during the season, our offensive line was depleted with some starters being put on injured reserve.  The head coach approached this particular player and told him that his team needed him that week. And, if he could practice and get prepared, he would be the starting guard this weekend against the Chicago Bears.

What a miraculous recovery! This kid was recovered, out at practice and about to fulfill a childhood dream of playing against "Da-Bears."  The older vets knew it was coming, the younger ones, like me, couldn't believe how cruel this business could be. As the O-line was warming up, running through the bags and hitting the sled, you could see the head coach gesture to the cameraman in the tower to film the kid running the drills. The cameraman then gave the coach the thumbs up and the axe fell. After just five minutes into practice, the coach went over to the player and informed, him he was released at that moment and to return his playbook.

Like I said in the beginning, training camps are tough. It's just tougher on some players more than others. Every so often, I'll have night time dreams of being in camp again. Just the thought me abusing my body, quickly turns those dreams into nightmares. Currently, truth be known, the thought of touching my toes in the morning sends shivers down my spine.

So players and fans, get ready! The summer is in full bloom and training camps are upon us. Strap it on, it should be an interesting next couple of weeks.