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Training camp has changed for Giants, rest of NFL

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Let’s take a look through the history of training camp

Quest

The New York Giants are knee-deep in training camp practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, N.J.. If you haven’t seen this magnificent complex, it is quite a gem for the players and coaches.

But, it hasn’t always been first-class/first-rate with training camp facilities. Not even close.

One advantage with having training camp located at the Giants complex is that basically it is home and business as usual if you are a member of the Giants coaching staff, front office or a player on the 90-man roster. Friends, wives, relatives, church member and neighbors can all come out on certain days and watch practices or able to visit with their player or coach.

Up until 2011, the Giants trained somewhere else. Make that, out-of-town somewhere else. Which had its good and bad. The good allowed fans of the franchise to see their beloved athletes and also the isolated focus of the player’s attention to strictly football. The bad, well, the players were basically stuck for weeks on end in college dorm rooms without any of the comforts of home.

Origin of NFL training camps

Since the beginning of the NFL, teams have held some form of training camp. Of course, those camps don’t resemble anything close to what are in force today. The concept of each training camp was simply to get a player back into shape in order to get ready for the upcoming season. Most players had offseason jobs and other than doing some running on their own, there wasn’t such a thing as a weight room or “working out.” Depending on what employer the player had, if it was a banking job or one that was inside, most players did little to stay in shape.

In the past, most NFL camps were notorious for being brutal to players in an effort to weed out the weak and make the rest of the players strong for the upcoming very long season. For the most part, training camps were held at small college campuses where the club could isolate themselves and the players would build team unity. A lot of camps were held up north where the weather was not as hot and the humidity was low or non-existence. These campuses also allowed ready-use classroom activity for film study.

Enter the NFL Players Association. After Minnesota Vikings’ OT Korey Stringer suffered a heat stroke in 2001 and later died, the NFLPA began a campaign that would regulate what clubs could and could-not do during practice sessions during training camps. Over subsequent years this quest to bridge a protective wall for the players it represents all became a part of the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL owners specifically for training camps.

“I was 21 years old when Korey Stringer passed away due to complications from a heat stroke during training camp. I can remember exactly where I was watching the breaking news coverage,” said Scott Wright, NFL draft analyst for the site DraftCountdown.com. “Fortunately, some good came out of that tragic situation as it led to more rules and restrictions.”

An obvious plus was suddenly players were allowed – and encouraged – to drink lots of water and/or Gatorade during practice sessions. This was quite a contrast from say, Dolphins Hall of Fame head coach Don Shula’s approach that players could not drink any fluids or ice at all. In fact, he was famous among NFL circles for his “forget your thirst until you’ve gotten in shape” approach. With the new rules in place, players now experience “cool down” periods which include wet sponges and cold towels within practice sessions.

One of the most famous horrific camp regiments occurred in Tampa when the newly-formed Buccaneers were in their first-ever training camps. Freshly hired head coach John McKay had a roster comprised mainly of aging veterans and castoffs. He worked them so hard in training camp that almost a third of projected starters would become injured before the season even began. Being an expansion club was difficult enough as it was, but to lose players who were counted on to become the nucleus was frustrating. At one point, the injury list listed so many names that the Bucs hired several Canadian Football League players to fill holes.

And back then, most camps were run seven days a week and whatever amount of hours the coaching staff deemed necessary. In the 1950s and 1960s, veterans got $50 for each pre-season game and rookies got zero. Today, teams can only hold two-a-days after the third day, and then can only total four hours per day with at least a three-hour break between practices. Plus, one day off is mandatory per week.

Even travel to training camps has changed. Most players had to get to the team’s college campus on their own, and then the franchise would be responsible to house and feed them and then pay each player the same per week. Per the collective bargaining agreement, now each player is reimbursed “reasonable traveling expenses” for the trip to the training camp, and if a player is cut those guys receive payment for the trip back home. Per the 2016 agreement, veterans receive $1,800 per week while rookies make $1,000 regardless of playing time in pre-season games. This expires one week prior to the regular season when players who make the final roster begin receiving their contract game check rates instead.

And unless you are Lawrence Taylor, coaches are always bringing in new guys to compete for your job – no matter how much tenure you have with the club.

New York Giants v St. Louis Rams
DT Fred Robbins #98
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

“I always felt I had to compete. Football is a business - no guarantees,” said Fred Robbins, defensive tackle for the Giants from 2004-2009. “I prepared well in offseason so I could go into camp strong, focused on staying healthy and getting better each day.”

And every training camp has its own feel and drills. The Cleveland Browns have placed boxing gloves on their defensive back hands. The Cowboys use giant exercise balls for their receivers and tight ends for passing drills. The Steelers require each player wanting to become a kick returner to catch up to five balls, all one right after the other.

Robots and feeding a village

Pro football is no stranger to experimenting with new gadgets and technology. In 2016, the Steelers, Rams and Ravens placed orders for several electronic tackling dummies, called Mobile Virtual Players, or MVPs. The MVPs were invented as a safer practice method to teach tackling. The MVPs can run a 5.0 second 40, make open field cuts and weigh less than 180 pounds.

Each MVP, manufactured by Rogers Athletic, is made of foam rubber, has an interior engine and is operated by a hand controller and resembles a vertical tackling dummy. Another function of the MVPs is to simulate opposing team formations thus the elimination of the scout team in practices. Of course, no machine can simulate the human aspect of shiftiness and field smarts so a Barry Sanders model is currently not in the works.

While the old school practice of getting in shape only during training camp doesn’t apply anymore, what still does apply is the mantra that players will lose weight once camp begins. The reasons are obvious: water retention and hard work. But don’t think that once an athlete is done for the day in camp that it is suddenly steaks, baked potatoes and dark chocolate-covered popsicles galore.

Training camp meal tables are full of what coaches believe each player needs to get themselves into prime shape in order to compete at the highest level. The food at these camps is pretty awesome. An NFL training meal table might consist of grilled chicken, eggs, greens, yogurt, fruit and brown rice as building proteins that will build lean muscle. The greens and fruit are designed to boost a player’s energy level.

And the food consumed can have more features than just a nurturing meal. If a player needs to bulk up they would be required to eat large quantities of carbs and protein, including pasta, then eat about 20-25 calories per pound. Players with too much beef on their frame would need to digest more fruits, veggies and fish and eat around 13-17 calories per pound.

Almost every NFL training facility has a plentiful salad bar complete with loads of fresh fruit.

Most clubs have on hand a food nutritionist. Meals are eaten as a team together along with the coaches and training staff. Usually for the Friday meals the franchise will offer something different and special catered by local restaurants such as cheeseburgers, seafood or bar-b-q. It is estimated that one NFL team will consume in each training camp week 1,500 eggs, 300 pounds of fresh fruit, 500 pounds of vegetables, 100 gallons of fruit juices and about 1,200 pounds of chicken.

Travel or stay home?

Traditionally, almost every NFL franchise held training camp at another location. The main reason was seclusion and isolation in order to strictly focus on the players, and the players to focus on making the roster. Another reason was weather. The New Orleans Saints would travel to Wisconsin every July for their camp; not that the state of Wisconsin wasn’t hot, but it was better than the swamplands of Louisiana where the humidity coupled with the sun’s warmth would stifle a player’s stamina.

“It was hard in the beginning of my career being away from everyone. But after a year or two, you realize it’s for the best,” Robbins offered. “To stay focused and better yourself as a player. It’s good to have that time away. You can just put all effort in football.”

Of course, this didn’t give the hometown fans anything to cheer about. Back in the day media coverage was sparse and it wasn’t until the clubs would finally arrive back home that hardcore fans would finally get accurate information on whom the team was keeping and who would be cut.

As recently as 1999, only three NFL squads held training camp within eyesight of their local area and everyone else traveled to some remote location - usually a small college campus. In today’s NFL, very few clubs travel to college campuses for their camps. The Dallas Cowboys go to Oxnard, California, the Houston Texans visit White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia while the Carolina Panthers use Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Every other NFL franchise stays close by; such as the Oakland Raiders train in Napa, California, a mere 48-mile trek north or the Kansas City Chiefs’ camp in St. Joseph, Missouri, one hour north.

The Rams used to travel to Illinois. The Bears, Saints and Chiefs to Wisconsin. Rhode Island was the Patriots temporary home.

The New York Jets and the Giants have decided recently to keep their training camp regiment local.

So, why the latest trend to keep their camps in the general area of the playing stadium? Did more and more colleges refuse to rent their campus, practice facilities and dorm rooms? Did the players’ moms complain? Was the expense unjustified? Labor intensive hauling all that equipment from state to state perhaps?

“I’m sure the distance and living in hot dorm rooms probably doesn’t go over as well these days as it did in the old days,” Wright suggested. “Plus, the (teams) have more control at the new facilities and can maximize profits. As the saying goes, the answer to all your questions is money.”

With the Giants and Jets, the 2011 lockout mandated that going off to another location was not going to happen that one year and jeopardized where they would hold their future camps. Suddenly, both clubs realized that staying closer to home wasn’t such a bad idea at all. The Giants did return to Albany in 2012 for one year, but it appears like both clubs are content with hosting their own training camps from now on.

New York Giants Training Camp
S Antrel Rolle and DE Jason Pierre-Paul cool down during training camp
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Since training camps are no longer a vehicle to get players back into shape, clubs have OTAs that keep players relatively close to their facilities year-round. Over the years, the transition to remain close just came about. And back in the day, teams also used medium and small cities within their geography to increase their fan base into areas that would normally not become fans of that team such as when the Buffalo Bills held their camp in Rochester, N.Y.

And yes, there were the costs involved in the relocation of an entire football team, their coaches, support staff and the like, from one location to sometimes a whole other state. The housing, the food preparation, equipment, laundry and on-and-on has made more sense to remain where they have always been. Usually, an NFL club has paid to have upgrades made to the host college either in their practice facilities or dorm areas as a good neighbor symbol.

Add to this, nobody actually likes to move for eight weeks - except the Cowboys. They feel that holding their camp in some other part of the country suddenly endears that area of the planet to precipitously become Cowboy fans.

Paying to watch training camp

If you have ever been to an NFL training camp and they charged you admission, blame Washington Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder.

Shortly after Snyder paid a record $800 million for the Skins in 2000, he also paid $1 million to break a contract to host training camp from Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland so that the club could be closer to home in Ashburn, Virginia. Training camps are something fans will travel to see their beloved team, examine which players might impress, see the star players fairly up-close with a chance to actually meet some of them, and get an eyeful of what kind of nucleus the team has of winning. And this fan experience has always been free.

But this one year, the Redskins charged $10 a head.

Snyder had just built a spanking new complex called “Redskins Park.” It was built strictly as a training facility. In 2013, that facility was moved from Ashburn to Richmond, Virginia. It is located about 105 miles south of Washington, DC. And with new facilities come added costs. Snyder assumed the public would help him pay for his new digs, so adults and children 12-up could pony up 10 bucks to see their cherished Redskins practice.

This same year parking was added at $10 while food, beer and other beverages were sold along with special T-shirts. Advertising banners dotted the practice fields.

Shortly thereafter, the St. Louis Rams made rumblings about charging for training camp practices. Other clubs expressed an interest whereas others made it known they would never charge fans. The most vocal were the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year the Carolina Panthers began charging $5 while this year the Falcons followed their lead and began charging $5 per person. The Dallas Cowboys train in California and don’t charge. The Colts have stayed true without a charge. The Minnesota Vikings allow 4,000 free seats and another 1,000 reserved at $20 a seat. The Giants have 11 practice sessions open to the public all at no cost.

Training camp locations

The Giants have used 16 different sites for their training camps. From 1935 to 1940 (with a break in 1939), the club used Blue Hills Country Club in Pearl River, New York; just a short boat ride up the Hudson River into New Jersey. The golf course is still open today and features a competitive back nine. In 1949 through 1951, the team trained at Saranac High School Field in Saranac Lake in upstate New York.

In 1939, 1941 and 1942, the Giants traveled to Superior, Wisconsin and held camp at the sports complex at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. The entire state of Wisconsin has always been a hotbed for NFL and American Football League teams to hold their training camps. The Giants have also used other locations for only a few years such as Willamette University (Oregon), Long Island University (Brookville, NY), St. Michael’s College (Vermont), Gustavus-Adolphus College (Minnesota), and Monmouth University (New Jersey).

But there are four sites that the franchise kept going back to:

Fairfield University

Is the state of Connecticut Giants country or part of Patriots nation? The Giants used this college in Fairfield, Connecticut from 1961 to 1969. The years 1961, 1962 and 1963 were the final years of success for the franchise with Y. A. Tittle at QB and Allie Sherman as the new head coach. With these three teams the club went 32-8-1 and played in the NFL Championship Game all three years, losing every game.

Fairfield was considered a lucky charm for the team and players loved going there. By train you could get there in about an hour. The University was only 20 years old when the Giants began using their facility so the dorms and other buildings were all nice with then-modern amenities. In 1964, however, this officially began the “Wilderness Years.”

Pace University

The Giants used Pace University from 1975 until 1987. Located in Pleasantville, New York, this 200-acre campus is designed for undergraduate degree programs with a strong nursing lineup. Bill Arnsparger was the first head coach to use this facility followed by John McVay, Ray Perkins and finally Bill Parcells.

Fairleigh Dickinson University

From 1988 to 1995, the Giants held their training camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. Three head coaches trained their squads here: Bill Parcells, Ray Handley and Dan Reeves. The reason the Giants quit using FDU was that the institution underwent major reconstruction and suddenly could not accommodate the franchise, so the team had to look elsewhere.

SUNY Albany

The State University of New York at Albany was known in Giants circles as the unofficial second home of the New York Football Giants. From 1996 to 2010, the club held its training camps there.

“We were looking for a location after leaving FDU, and several schools came to us. We considered Monmouth seriously, “explained Pat Hanlon, Senior Vice President of Communications for the Giants. “Ultimately, Albany offered us the best accommodations in terms of housing, practice and meeting facilities. Their effort to get us there was really a community effort with the city and school partnering up to make it extremely attractive for us and for our fans.”

If it weren’t for the lockout in 2010, no matter that the franchise had built the Timex/Quest Training Center, the club may still be holding training camps there. Head coaches who used this site were Dan Reeves, Jim Fassel and Tom Coughlin. Established in 1844 but formed most of its history in 1948, the school is quaint and quiet. The locals were hospitable, friendly and came out in droves for practices.

“Being away you don’t need all those distractions,” Robbins added. “It’s best to prepare for camp beforehand - make sure all is in order so you don’t get those calls during camp. Especially for young guys.”

Looking ahead

The Giants are excited about this year’s training camp roster. They have attempted to build Eli Manning a team that can hopefully give him one last hurrah before he hangs up his cleats. There will be some close position battles because after all, camp is where jobs are won and future game checks are secured.

Gone are the dog days of wearing players out in practices without adequate hydration.

“Modern players train year-round and most are already in peak physical condition or close to it,” concluded Wright. “Plus, in today’s game the players are such valuable commodities. I certainly don’t see the wisdom of running them into the ground before the season even starts.”

Especially this season, when the Giants are going to need everyone to remain healthy.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association