What's It Like to Be Part of an NFL Training Camp Battle?

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What's It Like to Be Part of an NFL Training Camp Battle?
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In the NFL, competition is everything. Training camp is the time of year when the intensity around position battles is ratcheted up.

Before I start, let me tell you a bit about who I am.

I’m a lifelong football fan who was fortunate enough to somehow make it to the NFL without any spectacular athletic ability, size or speed. I relished the experience of competing among the very players I grew up admiring.

Being able to stand toe-to-toe with the best football players in the world while trying to earn and/or keep a job is one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in life.

If you played football in high school, you stood a .08 percent chance of making it to the professional ranks, per NCAA.com. That alone should be an indicator of how fierce the competition is when you reach the highest level.

As we know by now, this league has a tendency to chew you up and spit you out if you’re not either incredibly superior or incredibly lucky. Having lasted no more than three years in the NFL, apparently neither trait applied to me—relatively speaking, of course.

Using a rare talent like the Miami Dolphins' Dion Jordan as an example, you can see what being utilized incorrectly can look like:

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Bad luck can also come by way of injury or being lost in a depth chart. Former Arkansas wide receiver Greg Childs and Texas A&M star Ryan Swope are two names that come to mind for being bitten by the injury bug.    

I was fortunate to make it as far as I did. Perhaps the greatest takeaways I have from such an unlikely journey now bear their fruit in other ways, such as being able to share these stories to those interested in getting closer to the game.

They say football doesn’t make a man’s character; it reveals it. To some degree this is true, but football also shapes the lives of the young men who play it. So, if we’re being shaped as we play the game, then competition is the force that pushes, pulls and stretches us over the course of time.

One of the greatest challenges related to competition in the NFL also happens to be one of the most underrated elements in shaping the final outcome of a training camp battle. To start, most training camp battles are heavily slanted in favor of a certain player by those in power rather than it being a fair competition for the spot.

Most of the time, players who are paid more or drafted higher are given every opportunity and resource to be the best they can be.

This environment reinforces their confidence, which in turn benefits their overall performance and growth. On the other hand, undrafted rookies, by comparison, are given very few chances to learn and even fewer chances to prove what they can do. From a psychological standpoint, they are being conditioned to feel lesser than the rest of the guys out there.

Even the level of one-on-one coaching a player receives during training camp is often significantly skewed to favor of veterans or high draft picks. Naturally, this is an enormous hole for anyone to climb out of, which is a big part of the reason there are so few stories like that of Tom Brady, who was a sixth-round pick.

In a previous article I wrote, I spoke about the plight of a low-priority rookie—here is an excerpt:

The utter lack of respect toward such low-ranking members by coaches, teammates and the organization can be enough to weed out several guys each year.

A good friend of mine from college was signed to the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. I recall stories about how he felt in camp that year—struggling to handle the feeling of being utterly worthless, cast aside by the coaches and players.

He described Patriots head coach Bill Belichick as a major (insert expletive here), as he was treated like a human sled dummy. It became obvious to him that any real opportunity to make the team was too much of a long shot while the bodily damage and torture necessary to see it realized was nowhere near worth it. He left camp after a couple of weeks.

It takes a special type of player to transcend such a limiting launching point.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Considering what’s at stake in the NFL, it would make sense to assume the relationships between players who are battling each other for a starting spot or even a roster spot would be marred with hostility. However, this is rarely the case from what I’ve seen or experienced.

Personally, I was rather surprised by how willing players in the NFL are to lend a helping hand to a guy they’re in direct competition with. In fact, direct competition with another player at the same position has a better chance of creating a unique friendship rather than an enemy.

I suppose it’s fitting that the men you spend the most time with on a football team happen to be the same men you’re likely to be competing against. But it’s that very time together in a challenging environment—with one goal in mind—which creates a bond between teammates stronger than any need to undermine the competition in a dishonorable way.

In a situation where I was fighting for a linebacker spot on the Oakland Raiders, we all seemed to look at each other as competition. Despite this, our interactions and willingness to work together never seemed to be compromised.

During training camp my rookie year in 2005, we had several veteran free agents who were brought in to help transition the Raiders defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. These men were not done playing and were fighting hard for another opportunity to prolong their NFL careers.

Having come from similar defenses to what was currently being installed, newly acquired veterans were expected to assist in teaching the nuances and techniques to the guys trying to make the adjustment.

It was shocking to experience such willingness to help from these guys, who genuinely seemed to enjoy being in a position where they could mentor and coach. At times I did wonder if their advice was trustworthy or if they were just trying to get me to screw up. But those concerns dissipated quickly as a pattern of altruism won out over time.

Hannah Foslien/Associated Press

Many people have no idea how helpful other players are even though they could potentially be assisting their eventual replacement. Stories like the strained mentor relationship between Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers are more of the exception than the norm.

However, there are limits to how much help you can expect from a guy whose job you’re looking to take.

If you plan to tap that well too often, you’re likely to be hit with a serious dose of brutal truth. A seasoned veteran will have no problem telling a rookie straight up “sorry, buddy, you’re gonna have to figure some of that out on your own, I got my own job to worry about.”

By the time I entered training camp in my second season, I suddenly found myself in the reverse role as a new crop of rookies, still wet behind the ears, would turn to guys like me for pointers and answers. Even though I was fully aware of the direct threat these rookies posed to the job I worked so hard to earn just a year earlier, I was compelled to help them out.

When you see a rookie stumbling around like a chicken with its head cut off, it’s like an instant flashback to when you yourself were in the same position. You can remember how much it meant to have a veteran help you. This awareness compels you to repeat the pattern set down before you, knowing how much you appreciated the help when you needed it.

Admittedly, though, as you do this, you are still fully aware that the advice and help you disperse can quite possibly end up biting you in the butt later on. I guess it felt more wrong to be unwilling to help than it did to aid the competition—unless, of course, you’re like Favre.

But for the most part, if you watch the relationship between the backup quarterback and the starter on the sidelines, you get a pretty good glimpse of what the dynamic is like. More often than not, these two direct competitors are working in harmony with the singular mindset to win the game. This common interaction seen across the league is not contrived or fake—it is genuine.

Personal photo.
Preparing for a kickoff.

With that said, when the guy you spent all summer helping is now receiving your paychecks while you’re busy working out for teams trying to get signed, you can’t help but be filled with some sense of regret.

But when you think about it long enough, you know in your heart that you did the right thing and that jobs are rarely lost or won based on how much help you give or don’t give to a teammate.

Position battles in training camp are absolutely intense. But it’s on the field where your spot on the roster is either won or lost. Being able to execute on the field is really what it all comes down to. This is your battlefield, and the spoils of this war are a coveted place in the National Football League.

In professional football there is no room for the timid or the weak, especially for those fighting an uphill battle. Every play must be executed with the intent to impress. As a late-round draft pick I was afforded little to no latitude.

Every day in training camp felt like a pivotal moment in my career.

 

Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played for the Raiders, Jets, Falcons and Ravens. Follow him on Twitter.

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