As with most things in life worth anything, an NFL training camp comes with its own set of trials and tribulations. But the rewards and benefits that accompany this turbulent experience can vastly outweigh the hardships required to remain a member of such an elite group.
I’ve played in the NFL for several teams during my brief stint in the league and have amassed a wealth of experiences and memories that only a true fan of the game, like myself, can appreciate.
What follows are the best and worst things about an NFL training camp as told from a guy who simultaneously loved and hated it every step of the way.
Worst: The Heat
One of the first things that come to mind when I think about training camp is the intense heat. It’s bad enough that training camp takes place during the hottest time of the entire year, but for the Raiders, they make their annual pilgrimage from Oakland to Napa Valley, where the temperature goes up at least 15 degrees.
To make matters worse, players are expected to put on an added 20 pounds of equipment while they run around to the point of exhaustion.
Napa Valley might not have been a walk in the park, but the humidity in Maryland took things to a whole new level—especially for a guy accustomed to cool, West Coast weather, like myself.
During my first week of training camp for the Baltimore Ravens, I distinctly remember losing 10 pounds of fluids from a single two-hour practice. I know this because the training staff mandates players weigh in before and after practice to monitor for dehydration. Obviously my extreme loss of fluids caught their attention and they nearly force-fed me Gatorade for the rest of the day.
Best: Preseason games
Personally, I was never a big fan of the practice format in football because guys on defense were so limited—especially at the NFL level.
During practice, there are so many limitations. Even tackling the ball-carrier in practice is a rare occurrence. This leaves room for only isolated drills and situations to be rehearsed during practice.
Also, practice tempo is always one of the hardest things to figure out in training camp. Established veterans tend to practice at one speed, while rookies and fringe players trying to make the team are going as close to full speed as they can without upsetting their teammates.
This monotony of hitting the same guys every day for weeks at a time can really start to wear on the soul. So, playing against another opponent in a game-time environment is always an exciting experience.
Game days also help to break up the practice week and allow up-and-comers to show what they can do. Plus, who doesn’t love the opportunity to perform in front of a real NFL crowd at an actual NFL stadium? For guys like me, these are the moments that reinforce why you put yourself through hell and agony.
Ask any NFL player and he will tell you—never do you feel so alive as you do competing in a professional football game. This is even true in a preseason contest for the guys just starting out in the league.
Worst: Cut Days
As you can imagine, days when the organization has to reduce the size of its roster are always full of angst for nearly everyone involved. Even guys who are safe from the axe are still anxious about the loss of certain faces they’ve come to know and love over the years.
NFL cut days often mark the end of close friendships and relationships. These are teammates who have fought together through thick and thin for years, sharing in success and failures, and they must suddenly and abruptly say goodbye.
For the less fortunate, cut days take on an entirely new meaning. This is also the day many young athletes learn their NFL dreams are over. As rough as it is to batter and break the body, it can be 10 times worse to call your parents and let them know that you’re no longer employed by the NFL.
This emotional roller coaster is definitely one of the most overlooked aspects of life as a professional athlete.
For more on the harsh realities of being cut, read this article.
Best: Team Camaraderie
There’s a reason you always hear retired players expressing nostalgia for the bonding that takes place in an NFL locker room. It’s only natural that when you put a group of guys together in a challenging environment for months at a time, with a unified goal, some powerful bonds are formed. These bonds can last a lifetime, or they can be more temporary, but the memories and enjoyment that come from such interactions are extremely valuable.
During camp there are limited sources of entertainment. As a result, guys look inward and toward each other to help make the grueling days more enjoyable. Jokes, stories and guys just being guys quickly replace video games, television and cell phones.
In a way, the situation lends itself to a more primal state of existence—one that could help cleanse the soul and put us back in touch with elements of humanity diluted by the conveniences of modern society.
Worst: All-Encompassing Fatigue
Some say football is only for the strong. Well after playing the sport for over 10 years at every level of competition, this is undoubtedly true.
If there’s one way to weed out the weak, unfit and ill-prepared, it would be to put them through an NFL training camp. Camp usually begins with a challenge right out of the gate with a conditioning test administered to every player to see who came ready to rock.
I can easily say that training camp is one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever faced in my life. The toll it can take on the mind and body is severe. After the first week, the body is so bruised and sore that it’s nearly impossible to identify a muscle group that is unscathed.
By mid-camp, the body has been hardened so much that it no longer discolors from bruising. Everything begins to feel firmer but at the same time, completely exhausted. Trying to balance this conditioning process without wearing down or injuring the players is incredibly complex, especially when you consider each individual has their own threshold for wearing down.
But as tough as camp is on the body, the mental fatigue is just as real and just as debilitating. While the body is busy colliding into massive objects moving at incredible speeds, the mind is being tasked to memorize a new language, make split-second decisions and navigate a social environment that can send some players to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
As you can imagine, the stresses involved with performance, competition and expectations can certainly lead to burning the candle at both ends.
In training camp, the days can last from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Meetings seem to go on forever, and staying awake for one after another becomes a challenge in and of itself.
So many guys fall prey to the occasional doze off, that a list is collected of violators who must pay money into a pool that gets distributed to players based on performance in the preseason games. Every team negotiates this differently, but most seem to have some version of this system.
Best: Sharing the Field with Legends
Despite the pain and agony that is often described with training camp, it is easy to be reminded of what an honor it truly is to play in the NFL. It’s a surreal experience putting on the same helmet and wearing the same uniform as the legends you grew up watching and admiring.
I’ve been fortunate enough to call some of the greatest football players in history my teammates. With a list of names that includes Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Warren Sapp, Terrell Suggs, Steve McNair, Charles Woodson, Keith Brooking, Haloti Ngata, Jonathan Ogden and so much more, it makes the hardships and struggles well worth it.
In hindsight, when the money is no longer relevant, it is those names and the shared time in their presence that remain with you well into the twilight of your life. The legacy we take with us when the game has left us behind is that special piece of something bigger than ourselves—it’s the interaction and shaping of a tiny piece of history.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL football player who currently writes for Bleacher Report.