The area surrounding the practice field at an NFL training camp often looks like a dumping ground. Helmets, shoulder pads, stationary bikes, tape, blocking sleds, lawn chairs, tents, TV cameras and clipboards are strewn about as if a supply closet exploded. There is so much disconnected detritus that nothing would seem out of place.
So when Saints head coach Sean Payton arrived for an afternoon practice last week, it's easy to understand why he didn't notice his golf cart parked nose-first against a light pole as if it had crashed into it.
The fact he didn't see it at first made the prank even better, giving those watching Payton a long, slow, building laugh and forcing them to hold it in as Payton started an otherwise normal practice at the Saints' facility in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Behind the wheel of the golf cart was an elaborately prepared dummy, covered in ketchup meant to pass for blood, with its body hanging half out of the front of the cart. The prankster wrote "Sean Payton" on the dummy, the point being that as talented as Payton is at metaphorically driving the Saints' high-octane offense, he is not so adept at literally driving anything else.
A video on the Saints' website captured the moment Payton noticed the cart. He looked. He looked again. He started laughing and turned to face his quarterbacks.
They would be terrible poker players. Not one of them kept a straight face. Or even a straight body part. They shook with laughter, doubled over and pulled their jerseys up to their mouths to try to hide their smiles.
Drew Brees couldn't look at Payton without cracking up. The quarterback was the culprit, and this prank proved to be payback.
Earlier in the week, Payton had replaced the Chevron patch on the left shoulder of Brees' jersey with a patch from Rogaine, a jab at Brees' thinning hair. Brees posted a picture of the doctored jersey on Twitter and suggested the prank war was on. With the golf cart, he launched the next attack.
Laughing through the pain
Journalist George Will once wrote, "Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings." Training camp features both of those plus painful practices, intense study and endless repetition.
The weeks-long preparation for the NFL season manages to be physically exhausting, mentally taxing and mind-numbingly boring, all at once. Add in the pressure of competing for jobs, and the stress level for players never peaks higher than it does at this time of year.
Players deal with that anxiety with quiet meditation or hours spent in prayer and by humbly sharing their feelings of inadequacy with each other, all in a safe environme … Ha! Of course not! They deal with it by taping each other to goalposts, throwing rookies into ice baths and slathering IcyHot in random skivvies they find lying around.
If it's August, that means cars disappear from parking lots, helmets come up missing at the exact time players fighting for roster spots can't be without them, and grown men check their beds before jumping into them because who knows what someone put in there while they were gone.
Not all of the shenanigans are so surreptitious. Some are face-to-face.
When Tim Tebow joined the Denver Broncos as a rookie in 2010, veterans offered him a choice: lose your eyebrows or your hairstyle. "I said, 'Do whatever you want to my hair,'" says Tebow, now an analyst on SEC Nation. "They gave me a 'Friar Tuck.' We went out to a big scrimmage that night. It went viral. I've seen a few things on ESPN where they break it down as the worst haircut of all time."
As Tebow told this story, he threw his (full) head (of hair) back and laughed. He considers it a fond memory, though he was quick to point out, without being asked, that there is a line between fun among friends and bullying.
The location of that line has been a frequent topic of discussion since last fall, when reports of Richie Incognito's abuse of fellow Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin emerged. In April, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell convened a meeting with coaches, players, NFLPA officials and team and league executives to discuss the NFL work environment. Part of the reason for the meeting was that Incognito's bullying of Martin went on for months, and nobody stepped in to stop it.
"The line is when it becomes socially unacceptable," says Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who attended the meeting. "I tell our guys: The locker room is not yours, it's not mine, it's ours. If I walk in, or a coach walks in, Mr. Richardson (Jerry, the team owner) walks in, (GM) Dave Gettleman walks in, if we hear something that's not acceptable, we're going to let you know about it. And vice versa. If you're a player and you hear something that's not acceptable, you should say something about it."
Former players say playful hazing—the kind on the right side of that socially acceptable line—has declined over the years as the value of NFL contracts skyrocketed and as coverage, both from the traditional and social media, escalated.
Declined, not disappeared.
Rookies will always be forced to carry their elders' pads and to stand up in the lunchroom and sing their colleges' fight songs. Permanent markers will always be deployed when someone naps in a public area. And players will always find even more creative ways to needle their teammates and find fun for themselves, all in search of the best medicine to dull training camp pain.
All of this silliness often leads to an unintended result: The relationships that form through and because of these escapades can make bad teams bearable and good teams great. Nobody changes a teammate's cellphone language with the thought it will make the team stronger. But the team that laughs together wins together—or at least is less miserable when it loses.
To understand the bonds these adventures create, you have to hear the stories behind the laughter.
"FedEx" would make a great nickname
Two years ago, as wide receiver Brenton Bersin, then a rookie undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers, napped after a training camp practice, his phone buzzed with texts. First came messages from other rookies. Hey, are you good? What happened?
Then came a text from a friend who attended Wofford University, the site of the Panthers' camp, as Bersin had. This one contained a picture of Bersin's car covered side-to-side and front-to-back in plastic wrap.
"I thought, 'Oh, that's not that bad,'" Bersin says. "I went out to check it out. To above the dashboard, it was filled with packing peanuts."
He didn't have time to undo the prank, so he left the car as it was. The next time Bersin went to practice, wide receiver Steve Smith greeted him: What's up, FedEx? Are you shipping your car back to Charlotte? "I was like, 'Oh, that proves who did it right there.'"
When he finally got a chance to extract the peanuts a few days later, Bersin placed an empty box next to the door, opened it slowly and watched them fall out. For two hours, he filled box after box, and still a few inches worth of peanuts covered the floor of the car. He drove to a car wash, told the bemused attendants "Don't ask," and gave them a $50 tip after they vacuumed up the rest.
Two years later, Bersin still doesn't know how Smith got the packing peanuts in there.
"The Godfather treatment"
Bersin did not seek revenge on Smith because he didn't want to deal with the consequences. Every team has that guy, the player (or coach) who pranks so aggressively that only a crazy person would mess with him because the retaliation would be so severe. On the Cowboys in the 1990s, that guy was the late Mark Tuinei.
Team equipment managers Mike McCord and Bucky Buchanan knew this and engaged Tuinei in a prank war one summer during training camp anyway. They put one of those inflatable advertisements that are ubiquitous at training camps into his room—perhaps by stuffing it through a window while it was deflated.
After they inflated it, it filled Tuinei's room so much that he couldn't get in.
"We told them, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe you guys did that. Do you realize what's coming back at you?'" says Daryl Johnston, who was on the team and friends with Tuinei. "Bucky was like, 'I don't care, I'm leaving in a couple of days. I'll be back in Dallas.' I said, 'Eventually, he's going to get you back.'"
Did he ever. Tuinei came up with a plan Johnston calls "The Godfather treatment," after the famous scene in the eponymous movie in which a character named Jack Woltz climbs into bed and finds a horse's head already in it, retaliation from Marlon Brando's Godfather character for Woltz's refusal to do business with him.
Tuinei called a friend who was a butcher and asked him for two calves' heads. He put one in McCoy's bed at training camp. According to Johnston, McCoy came home late at night, pulled the sheets back and saw the head there. However badly it freaked him out, he was so tired that he merely pushed it aside and went to sleep.
Meanwhile, Buchanan returned to the team headquarters in Dallas. As an equipment manager, he often received big boxes in the mail. One of them contained a calf's head, with no skin and a gigantic eye staring right at him.
Dude, where's my bike?
A corollary to the Tuinei-inspired "don't mess with the crazy guy" rule is "don't mess with the rich quarterback." Randy Cross, a College Football Hall of Famer who played offensive line for the 49ers from 1976 until 1988, explains: "Because no matter who you are, they probably have deeper pockets than you, so they can hire people to put your golf cart on top of a building. Or they can have all of your bikes put in trees."
Those two stunts were among many pulled by Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana. "He had a lot of fun doing it," says Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, another member of the 49ers. "Everybody looked forward to seeing what he would come up with next. He enjoyed camp. One of the reasons he was such a great quarterback was because he was such a great guy."
One of the bikes Montana targeted belonged to fellow Hall of Famer Steve Young. But Young was not Montana's lone target. Nor did Montana act alone. Cross says Montana hired somebody to do his dirty work, though the accomplice has not been identified.
"We're not talking about little trees that are 12 feet tall. We're talking about big, big trees," Cross says. "Bill Walsh (the 49ers head coach) would have put a hit on him if he caught him climbing trees and everything else. Plus, why risk it if you can give a guy twenty bucks and he'll do it?"
The lost art of sneaking out
When Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure played for the Bills in the 1970s, he and his teammates endured long and violent training camps—six weeks of two-a-days, with contact at every practice. "Guys just wanted to get the hell out of there if they could," he says.
That meant sneaking out at night for drinks. But when camp opened, coach Lou Saban warned the players that he would conduct a bed check every night, and he vowed that violators would be fined $100. "Back then it was a big thing," DeLamielleure says. "You only made $99 a week."
Saban revisited the subject during the last week of practice. "Coach Saban would say, 'Hey, look, I know that you guys think you got away with it. But I checked. I know who snuck out. I'm going to give you guys one chance. I want $100 for every night you guys skipped out—and I know how many nights you did. If it's not on my desk, I'm doubling it,'" DeLamielleure says.
DeLamielleure knew Saban was bluffing. But he didn't tell his teammates. He liked watching them squirm. Saban's ploy fooled even veterans into plopping wads of cash onto Saban's desk.
"It'd be $3,000 or $4,000, but he never checked once. Guys would be throwing money down, goddangit. But he never did check," DeLamielleure says. "He just scared the hell out of everybody."
The money was used to fund a party at the end of the season.
Rivera, the Panthers' coach, laments the lost art of sneaking out and sounds (almost) sorry that his players haven't tried to do so. The Panthers have 24-hour security on the Wofford University campus, so leaving the dorm undetected is hard enough. The ever-present horde of social media reporters at nightspots means even a player who eludes that first line of detection and shows up at a bar late at night could be photographed and exposed to the world.
"We haven't had anybody skip out on curfew like we used to have," Rivera says. "It was kind of like a challenge, like a red badge of courage of training camp, to get at least one time out."
Rivera tells a story from his playing days with the Bears in the 1980s when he and a few teammates broke curfew to knock back a few cold ones at a VFW. The waitress told them the next round had already been bought…by head coach Mike Ditka, who then joined them for a beer and shot a game of pool.
Rivera told The Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen he had a great time until he realized he would be busted not once, but twice: First by Ditka with a fine, and later by his wife when she saw the smaller paycheck. But Ditka never fined any of the players, even though he caught them beer-handed.
Ditka knew then, as Rivera knows now, that it's often a good thing when players take a break from pounding each other to pound a beer or two. Rivera told Sorensen there are eight or nine players on his team who wouldn't get in trouble if they sneaked out.
Mmm. Beer. Not.
Rivera sneaked out to drink beer with the boys, got caught and suffered no consequences. Bills players sneaked out to drink beer with the boys, didn't get caught and suffered the consequences anyway. Dave Washington was told to go out and drink beer with the boys, and he suffered the consequences too.
When Washington arrived at Denver Broncos training camp in 1970, he had an unusual problem: He didn't weigh enough. His 210 pounds sustained him as he played linebacker at Alcorn State. But to hold his place against NFL linemen, he needed to be bigger. All summer long, he ate and ate. But it didn't help.
"Everybody had a weight they had to not go over. I was the only guy in camp who had weight he couldn't go under. The Broncos decided they were going to fatten me up," he says. "All the other guys would be in their rubber suits, exercising, doing everything to try to get their weight down at the weigh-in. I would be the one stuffing my face trying to get up to the weight I was supposed to be at."
He needed to weigh 223, the team said, and Washington couldn't get there. He says the Broncos suggested a way to gain weight that works the world over: by drinking beer. The only problem: Washington didn't drink alcohol in general and didn't like the taste of beer in particular. But a few days before the first weigh-in, he gave in.
"All the guys went to this bar. They chugged me full of beer, chugged me full of beer," he says. "By the time we finished, as fast as the beer came in, it came out the same way. That wasn't going to work."
Finally, Washington figured out how to make weight: He pigged out right before he stepped on the scale. He went to McDonald's and ordered two chocolate shakes, two orders of fries, a fish sandwich and a chicken sandwich. "I'd be there at the weigh-in, stuffing my face," he says.
A fake snake, a real alligator and an au naturel coach
There are no advanced stats to measure these things, but there appears to be a direct correlation between the severity of training camp and the audacity of the pranks. Such was the case when Don Shula served as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. In the stifling South Florida heat, he ordered two full practices plus two walkthroughs every day.
"He literally was putting us through a situation where you were no longer concentrating on making your position, you were just trying to stay alive," says Hall of Famer Larry Csonka, the Dolphins' fullback. "He was going at it with the intensity of a madman."
That summer, the team installed new goalposts at its training facility. They came packed in green, spongy material shaped like a snake. One morning, Csonka found a piece of the material and jokingly threw it at Shula. "He took off like a bullet. I thought, 'This hard-nosed drill sergeant is afraid of creepy-crawlers.' I thought, 'That's some handy knowledge.'"
Later in camp, Csonka went fishing with teammate Manny Fernandez. They saw a full-grown alligator along with a few smaller ones. Fernandez jumped out of the boat and chased them into the brush. He returned carrying a three-foot long alligator, which he threw into the boat. It immediately tried to bite Csonka, who jumped out and wouldn't get back in until Fernandez taped the gator's mouth shut.
Fernandez wanted to take the gator back to the training camp facility and put it in a pond there. Csonka proposed a better idea. "I got to thinking about Shula and that alligator, and how scared he was of that green piece of foam," he says. "I thought, 'An alligator in the shower would really stir him up.'"
He plotted how to do it. "Shula had his own private shower in his office," Csonka says. "I knew that because I had been in (the office) to be reprimanded several times."
Players gathered to vote about whether to remove the tape from the alligator's mouth. By one vote, they decided to leave it taped. Someone created a distraction to get Shula's secretary away from her desk. Csonka sneaked in and put the alligator in Shula's shower.
As Shula told ESPN.com: "After practice, I couldn't wait to get into the shower. So I get undressed, I open the show door, put my foot down, and there's a live alligator there looking at me. So I go running out, bare-assed past my secretary, and into the locker room.''
There, he confronted Csonka and running back Jim Kiick (who wasn't involved). Csonka did not pretend to be innocent. "I said, 'Coach, there was a vote on whether to leave the tape on the alligator's nose or not. You may be hollering at the guy who was the deciding vote who kept you from being bit instead of just being scared.'"
Where the sun don't shine
Good training camp stories involve beer, like Washington relieving himself of it and Rivera sneaking out to drink it. Better training camp stories involve nudity, like Shula running through the office to get away from an alligator. The best training camp stories involve beer and nudity.
Steve Wright wore five NFL uniforms in his NFL career (1964-72), but one of his fondest training camp memories came on a day he didn't wear any of them. He joined the Bears before the 1971 season after a trade from the Redskins. The Bears held training camp that summer in tiny Rensselaer, Indiana, on the campus of even tinier St. Joseph's College.
Cornfields surrounded him. Pain and exhaustion filled his waking hours. Humidity engulfed him, the helmet and pads creating a prison of sweltering heat. Wright, an offensive lineman, needed to escape. So one Saturday, on a rare day off, he and a couple teammates piled into a car and drove 30 minutes to Naked City, a nudist colony in Roselawn, Indiana.
"We pulled in, and I guess a couple people recognized us. We saw Miss Nude America, and they said, 'Do you want your picture taken with her?'" Wright says. "We passed on that one."
As Wright and his friends poured drinks poolside, they peeled off their clothes. They spent the day wearing only the uniforms God gave them. "The people there were about 30 years older than us. We laid up there, just drank beer, laid by the pool, had a big time and laughed and giggled," Wright says. "Until we got up to put our clothes on. When you're laying out in the sun, and the sun is hitting areas of your body that have never seen the light of day …"
Wright was so sunburned in so many delicate places that putting clothes on top of those areas hurt, bad.
What hurt even worse: putting on a jock strap the next morning and going to training camp.
Matt Crossman is the author of more than 30 cover stories in national sports magazines. He has written for Sporting News, SI.com, CBSSports.com and many others. Read more of his work at mattcrossman.com.