By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
In 1960, the small town of Pendleton, Oregon, with a population then of just 4,000 people, drew 11,000 fans to watch a preseason game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams. Unlike today, things were a little less…refined. The game was played on the Pendleton rodeo grounds, which had featured a rodeo the day before. The teams arrived to find not only an un-swept field, but no real facilities. There was a makeshift dressing area for the players underneath the stands. The officials dressed in the stock pens.
From the earliest days of the NFL there have been training camps; but as the game has evolved, so too has the training camp experience. In those earlier days, football was not the year-round job that it is today. NFL salaries were little more than a stipend so players all had to have other jobs in the offseason, many in a variety of sales jobs that they could leave for football season and return to once it was over.
Gil Brandt, currently the senior analyst for NFL.com, started his career in the late 1950s with the Los Angeles Rams, but may be best known for his years as the personnel guru for the Dallas Cowboys, starting with the team’s inaugural season in 1960 and continuing until 1988.
Brandt shared some of the realities from those early years. First and foremost he pointed out that as opposed to today, when camp lasts about three-and-a-half weeks, training camp then was six weeks long and teams played six preseason games.
“The regular season didn’t kick off until the last Sunday in September,” he said. “Our first year the veteran players were told they had to come 17 days ahead of the first preseason game. We had two-a-days (practices) up until Thursday before that game. You had three weeks of two-a-days. And the only thing that players got monetarily was when we started playing preseason they got $50 a preseason game, but rookies got no money at all.”
Unlike today, when the majority of teams now have state-of-the-art facilities and stay in their home environment for camp, most teams in decades past traveled elsewhere to ensure focus and foster camaraderie. And, especially for those teams in the south, it was a way to escape the heat.
“The great thing about the first year was that one of my jobs was to find training camp,” Brandt recalled. We went to Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. It rained every afternoon and they cut practice short. The players loved me.”
But, not so much the year when Brandt selected St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin where he received assurances from the school’s administration that their facilities would be fully renovated to accommodate their NFL guests.
“We had played in Oklahoma City the day before,” Brandt said. “We took a DC 6 and then got on this bus to get to Delafield. When we got there, there were 40 watt light bulbs, no screens and bats flying around inside. The players were not happy. I’m the only person ever to be hung there in effigy.”
Garry Cobb, who played linebacker from 1979 – 1989 for the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, and now covers the Eagles on radio and television in Philadelphia, never played on an un-swept rodeo field, but he does remember some recuperation tactics that are standard today, but were more do-it-yourself back then. All teams now have hot tubs and cold tubs, which wasn’t the case 30 and 40 years ago. Cobb recalls teammates hauling their own ice into their dorm rooms and putting it in their bathtubs to help rejuvenate their legs after a long day of practice.
Weight is always an issue for football players, especially in camp, and in today’s league, when it comes to linemen, bigger is generally considered better. In addition, everything players do now is closely monitored, but Cobb remembers a time when neither was the case.
“I was playing with Dallas and (head coach) Tom Landry said, ‘This line is getting too big, we need a smaller line. (Guard) Nate Newton and these other guys like (offensive tackle) Mark Tuinei decided they were going to only eat salad. You’ve got these 300 lb guys coming in, everyone else is eating meat and they’re eating salad. But they weren’t losing a pound. Turns out, they had ball boys going out and getting bags and bags of burgers at night. They actually started gaining weight.”
Steve Tasker, who was the Buffalo Bills special teams ace in the 1980s and 1990s, is now a game-day analyst for CBS Sports and noted the many differences between then and now, especially since grueling two-a-day practices were still the norm when he played.
“They used to bring in over a 100 guys for a 46-man roster,” Tasker said. “I was on the tail end of that. They gave a guy jersey number 115. They weeded guys out with physical punishment.”
Tasker pointed out that although practices are now limited to one each day, numerous changes at both the college and pro levels have created an ever higher level of complexity to the game.
“The game evolves subtly on the field every year,” he said. “Things are different every decade from the decade before. I think the sophistication and the way kids are coming out of college is more polished than ever. So the keys (in training camp) are on the complexities and getting those guys up to speed. There’s a lot more classroom and film study.
“They also have them working not only on the field but in the weight room. It’s all meticulously scheduled so guys have time to practice on the field, maintain strength, eat the right stuff, recuperate and still sit through an hour-and-a-half meeting. It’s pretty structured.”
Adam Thielen, a wide receiver now in his fourth year with the Minnesota Vikings, discussed today’s demands in the context of what he’s heard about the past.
“Older guys are always talking about how much harder it was,” he said. “Now it’s a mental grind, but it’s for the good. We get a lot of work in.”
Times have changed and things have come a long way. For players today it’s difficult to envision a six-week training camp, two-a-day practices, and playing on rodeo grounds for virtually no money. However, at the end of the day, one thing hasn’t changed: players playing simply for the love of the game.
As Thielen summed up, “Obviously the money’s nice and it’s been great to be able to do this for a living, but it’s something I love to do. I’d play this game for free.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.