Long days, hot summer sun, and trying to prove you were worth drafting (and all that cash). That’s basically NFL Training Camp for you as a rookie. The schedules are supposed to be a little more player-friendly after the NFL’s latest collective bargaining agreement, but it’s still largely torture for the new guys. It might even be the worst week of the year for most NFL players. If you’ve ever wondered exactly what goes down at NFL training camp, we’ll break it down for you with the ins, outs, schedules, and cold hard truths about those brutal few weeks in August each year…
While players might talk about being excited for camp when they speak to the media, it’s usually a different story completely when they walk into the locker room. For fans, this time of the year means hope. Football is back and anything is possible! For players, training camp is all about practice, pain, stress, and anxiety for many of them.
First off, some NFL teams actually seek out hotter places to train than their home stadiums. The Oakland Raiders, for example, head from the coast to Napa to practice in 90-degree heat without that lovely sea breeze to cool them down. Usually, teams will head to university practice facilities. The Panthers leave Charlotte for Spartanburg, South Carolina while the Redskins head to Richmond, Virginia.
Most days at NFL training camp start around sunrise at 6AM when players rise to pack themselves full of calories to make it through the day. Then, because the NFL keeps track of every potential injury on these highly-paid athletes’ bodies, they hustle off to the training room for mandatory treatment on any ailments they’ve reported.
Players train a lot in the offseason, but there’s no replicating training camp or the things that go down “live” on the field during practice. Early in camp, there are lots of injuries – sprains and strains to ankles, hips, calves, knees, glutes, and hamstrings are the usual suspects.
Next up? After they’ve received attention for any injuries, they head off to the gym for an hour of weightlifting, usually every other day, no matter how sore, stiff, or strained you are from the days and weeks before. They say it actually helps to revitalize the body from all that soreness.
Then it’s time for team meetings. The first is led by the head coach before players break off into special teams and quarterback meetings. During these pow wows, players watch footage of the previous day’s practice before splitting up yet again – into offensive and defensive team meetings for a few more hours to study plays. Afterward, players are sent off to the locker room to get ready for practice… well, the first practice anyway.
During the first practice session, teams usually focus on mental preparation – learning, memorizing, and walking through plays. New rules state players may practice in their helmets only, rather than forcing them to suit up entirely with pads and gear. After the first practice, players are allowed a few hours of free time for lunch, socializing, or treatment for injuries. (Or yes, relaxing.) But it goes fast. Getting motivated for round two of practice while sore, tired, and worn out is said to be a tough time for new players.
During the second practice, which usually takes place in the evening, everyone comes out in full gear and pads for the most physically demanding workout of the day – usually scrimmage games. Coaches make players focus on learning plays, practicing technique, and running full-speed drills. This is when rookies can show they were worth signing, compete with others in their position, and prove their worth to coaching staff. Because injuries occur when guys fall on each other, full-on tackling during training camp is discouraged.
But playing conditions can still be brutal. In 2001, Vikings player Korey Stringer died from dehydration and heatstroke during training camp. Due to strenuous conditions, the NFL changed the rules to require the team doctor, trainers, and an ambulance on site at each practice.
After the second practice of the day, the hardest part is over. But the evenings at training camp are still packed with meetings, during which the players must attempt to pay attention and not fall asleep despite being totally exhausted and over it. They’ll get an hour or two each night of free time before passing out and doing it again the next day. During the end of July through August, players only get a handful of days off.
Also included in training camp are several NFL Preseason games where the new guys do most of the playing (as opposed to the veterans). This gets them used to playing in full gear in front of crowds.
The worst part about NFL training camp, however, is that many of those guys who participate aren’t going to make the team! NFL teams usually have their roster figured out before camp starts, and no matter how well a guy plays, if he’s not been included in their scheme or depth chart beforehand, camp is unlikely to change that. Absent a sustained impressive performance and a coach or scout who’s willing to push hard for their inclusion, of course.
Another harsh truth? Drafted players have a huuuuge leg up. Mostly because the scouts and general managers who drafted them have a vested interest in seeing them succeed – ya know, so they don’t look bad. Draft picks get the benefit of the doubt. Other players who come in as undrafted free agents have a lot less of a shot, even if they do everything right. Even veteran players are at risk for being released or traded before the season starts. So training camp is pretty important stuff.
Players who are cut usually get let go with an impersonal and quick (if heartbreaking) phone call. Stuff is boxed up, playbooks taken away, and names removed from lockers at lightning speed. In July, there are 90 players on the field. By September, there will only be 53.
The good news for fans? You can often visit NFL training camps to check out new players and how your team is shaping up. Just check which practices are open to the public! Admission is cheap or even free, and the NFL often sells concessions and souvenirs at camps. Seats are usually first come, first served. It’s also a good time to get autographs. Just know that you may not be allowed to bring in cameras or take pics with your phones. (For an example of rules, check out the Miami Dolphins’ advice for fans attending training camps.) You’ll be in good company as lots of reporters and media guys attend training camps too. Sometimes celebs even stop by.
Ever been to an NFL training camp practice or preseason game? What’s it like? Is it worth it?