NFL training camps have changed over the years, becoming a player-friendly experience...at least that’s what the rules in the latest collective bargaining agreement would lead you to believe.
Still, there is plenty of overlap between now and back when I played six years earlier.
Each year the fight to survive another season begins under the sweltering summer sun. The days are long, the pain is real and the pressure is incredible.
Why most teams elect to torture their players in such horrendously hot weather is beyond me. After all, most of the regular season takes place in fall and winter months when it's colder. This should eliminate much of the need to get players acclimated to the extreme summer heat. Yet you still see organizations seeking out hotter places to practice.
For the Raiders, training camp is not at their facility with a nice ocean breeze to keep you cool. Instead, each year the team packs its bags and drives inland to wine country. The 90-degree temperatures provide an ideal climate for the grapes but certainly not for the athletes running around draped in 20 pounds of protective gear.
To put it bluntly, training camp has to be the worst month of the year for most football players at the college and pro ranks. As much fun as it can be to play and compete in this sport, training camp has a way of nullifying nearly everything special and enjoyable about being in the NFL during August.
Of course, hindsight brings the positive elements back to balance the mind and allows you to repeat it all over again next year.
In front of the cameras and media, players are frequently heard talking about how excited they are to be out here working and how much they love training camp. Inside the locker room, the narrative is completely different.
Days in an NFL training camp seem infinite. They typically begin around 6 a.m., not long after the sun rises.
The first priority of the day is to eat breakfast. I was always so tired and sore from the day before that eating breakfast felt like a chore. Oatmeal, eggs and lot of juice become the early-morning answer before rushing off to the training room for mandatory treatment on all reported ailments and injuries.
The team trainers keep tabs on every bruise, strain or ailment reported, and players become obligated to attend treatment sessions during the few windows of downtime that exist during the day. This serves as a great incentive for guys to not report any injuries that are otherwise manageable.
After treatment, it was time to head over to the gym for an hour of weightlifting. Lifting weights in training camp was always difficult to get motivated for. The body feels like it has been in a car accident and is incredibly worn out, yet you have to find a way to push through the stiffness, strained backs and, of course, bruises.
As torturous as this felt in the moment, once you got your body going you could feel the benefits of the lifting session instantly. It was almost as if the weights were being used to refortify the body’s natural layers of protection.
After lifting weights, which was usually done every other day in training camp, it’s off to meetings.
A team meeting usually starts us, which is relatively brief and is led by the head coach. Afterward, the players remain seated for a special teams meeting. The only guys who can leave at this point are the quarterbacks, who head off to their own meeting.
After an hour of watching tape from yesterday’s practice, the special teams meeting ends. From there we break up into offensive and defensive meetings, which will go on for another hour or so before we are sent to our lockers to get ready for our first practice of the day.
Typically, there are two practices averaging just under two hours each. The first involves more mental preparation, such as walking through the plays we just discussed in the earlier meetings. Under current rules, these practices are generally in helmets only, but when I played they would alternate between full pads and helmets every other day.
When this practice ends, players are given a few hours of leisure time, which includes eating lunch, taking a short nap, getting more treatment on injuries or socializing with teammates.
These are a few hours of freedom around noon that just so happen to be when time moves the fastest. Before long, you have to head back to the locker room to put your gear on for the second practice.
Trying to motivate yourself for a competitive and physical practice while you’re already worn out and beaten up is definitely the worst part of training camp. I remember vividly what it’s like to sit on the stool in front of your locker and dread the idea of putting those shoulder pads and pants back on. This was always an emotionally fragile time for me, and there was no other point where I’d fantasize about quitting more.
Keep in mind, it’s not as if I would actually just walk away from it all, but if I ever decided to, it would have been during these moments.
The second practices in the early evening are intended to be more physically grueling and heavy on the contact. This is the time when players and coaches can really work on technique, play execution and full-speed drills. This is also the time when players compete against each other and look to catch the eye of the coaching staff.
Although these practices are physical, players are encouraged to stay on their feet and avoid any form of tackling or falling to the ground. The theory behind this is that most injuries occur when guys fall on each other’s ankles and knees.
So, to prevent injury, there is rarely any full-speed tackling during an NFL training camp. In fact, you can probably go through an entire training camp with fewer than 50 snaps of live contact in practice.
This is why tackling in the NFL is frankly not very good, especially in the first quarter of the season. It usually takes a few games before defenders can really acclimate to game speed and shake the rust off their underdeveloped technique.
Knowing that the second practice of the day was over was always a great feeling during training camp. This is the time of the day when everyone’s spirit and morale are significantly lifted. The hardest work of the day was finally behind us, but it was still far from over.
Evenings during training camp are nearly completely filled by meetings. The biggest challenge here is trying not to fall asleep in the meeting room after a day that demands so much from a guy both physically and mentally.
By the time you get back to your room for the night, there is maybe just an hour or so left to watch TV, call your family or fall asleep, only to repeat the day all over again.
When I was in the NFL, we would only have three days in the entire month of August completely off. This endless grind is a huge part of what makes training camp such a challenge. Few things in life will ever test one’s attrition like an August in the NFL.
So remember: Training camp is not fun, no matter what anyone tells you. Every single player who ever played the game was always happy when training camp was finally over and the regular-season practice week began.
Being able to make it out of training camp in one piece is not something to take for granted.
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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