In the hinterlands of the Lehigh Valley, where the milk is pure and the prices are controlled, each August a ritual is performed known as Eagles training camp. In the past, the Eagles also held it in places such as Hershey and West Chester. The locale is always bucolic and what is more important, far from the Babylonian temptations of the big city.
Football players are known to be particularly susceptible to the temptations of the flesh. As far as the training camp ritual, the Eagles are not different from other NFL teams, except others are more likely to have won a championship more recently than 1960.
Training camp is the NFL version of basic training in the military. The highly paid athletes are sequestered away from wives and girlfriends (sometimes both) in order to keep them focused on preparing for the coming season. Instead of five-star hotels, the players live in the relatively Spartan atmosphere of college dorms. They get to engage in manly contact under an August sun, sign autographs for their adoring fans, and answer questions from the media about Michael Vick. The players also are subject to curfew (reference the temptations of the flesh, available even in bucolic surroundings). In short, they hate training camp with the same intensity I reserve for disco.
The Eagles own a state-of-the-art training facility in South Philadelphia. It has everything one could hope for to get ready for the season. You might ask, “Why does the team choose to seclude itself in Lehigh where the players live like juveniles at summer camp (you can almost hear Allan Sherman singing, “Hello Mudda. Hello Fadda. Here I am in Camp Granada …”)? How many times do I have to remind you about the temptations of the flesh?
Football, as you know, is essentially a cold-weather sport. Yet, pro camps are held in humid, 90-degree weather. Players in pads and helmets sometimes suffer heat stroke during camp. Occasionally, one will even die.
Baseball is a warm-weather sport. In February, teams travel to places in Florida and Arizona to prepare for their season. Why don’t football teams hold their camps in cold-weather sites, such as Maine and Canada? Football players consider themselves tougher than baseball players, but guess which ones are smarter?
Today’s professional athlete no longer has to sell suits or automobiles in the off-season. He comes to camp already in shape. There really is no need for contact drills and four pre-season games unless your goal is to injure as many of your players as possible before the regular season.
In pro football, injuries during camp are considered part of its macho charm. Some veteran players are not charmed. These players are more interested in self-preservation. They avoid camp at all costs. Former Eagle Mike Quick used to invent salary disputes each August just to stay out.
Brett Favre has come up with a unique solution. He retires at the end of every season and then un-retires at the beginning of the regular season. Favre is so smart, he should have been a baseball player. Another charming quality about football is this is a sport where a 350-pound head coach screams at his players to get in shape. Sometimes he even fines them. No one thinks this is at all unusual.
Getting players away from their families to avoid distractions hasn’t always worked. At night some players get bored and look for action. One year an Eagles player got drunk and exposed himself to a barmaid. She wasn’t impressed and went to the cops.
Last year, a couple of Eagles got caught trying to sneak women into their dorm room after curfew. Did they think they were back at college? They made a wrong turn and got stopped by the local police. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but the police found some of those funny, hand-rolled cigarettes in the car. It didn’t help that one of the players was married. Maybe coach Andy Reid should run his camp like any kids’ camp: He can keep his guys occupied by singing songs around a campfire. Anyone for s’mores?
To be fair, Eagles fans love training camp with an unexplained passion. They find there is nothing quite like sitting under the hot sun, munching a $4 hot dog, drinking a can of lite beer and watching players practice. Perhaps it is the 90-minute drive to Lehigh that attracts them or the fun of wearing their favorite player’s jersey and having him ignore your pleas for an autograph.
Sal Paolantonio once wrote a book, “Why Football Explains America.” I don’t pretend to understand either one. SPR