With August at full burn, it might be hard to imagine that autumn or winter will ever come… unless you’re a diehard football fan, in which case one of the most important parts of the season—training camp—has already begun. Commentator Victor Wishna goes camping in this month’s edition of “A Fan’s Notes.”
Instead of jetting off to desirable, sunny destinations like Arizona or Florida before the season begins, NFL teams sneak away on decidedly less glamorous excursions—if not to obscure rural locales, as most used to, then at least to the margins of their markets.
For the Chiefs, that’s the campus of Missouri Western State University in St. Joe. Players schlep their own duffels into dorms for three weeks that promise few outside distractions, a distinct lack of luxury, daily activities, and nightly curfews. Like sleepaway camp, only with the potential for career-ending injuries.
In these dwindling days of another wet, hot American summer, there is—even in 90-degree heat—a distinct chill in the air: the tantalizing kind that fans feel at the prospect of another football season.
But first comes a different kind of drama. The Chiefs brought eighty-nine players to training camp, thirty-six more than they’ll have room for on opening day. Any week, another hopeful could be kicked off—yeah, like a reality show, which it already was. In 2007, HBO spotlighted Herm Edwards’ crew for its Hard Knocks series, making brief household names of long-shot strivers like Boomer Grigsby and Bobby Sippio. Well, at least in my household.
This year’s storylines opened with the inspiring comeback of All-Pro safety Eric Berry, cancer-free and cleared to play less than a year after his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An undrafted running back from Central Missouri made national headlines when he tweeted the Chiefs a highlight reel and the team signed him the next day, and cut him three days after that. Already, tempers have flared more than once on the field, as players fight their way up the depth chart.
And with each cut, or each great catch, the team’s potential takes shape. A single juggling, one-handed grab by new free-agent wideout Jeremy Maclin could be the tipping point between mediocrity and a likely Super Bowl run. I mean, come one, would the Chiefs post that play on their web site—in slow motion, set to bass-heavy, heart-pounding music—if it wasn’t important?
That’s why thousands of fans have trekked through blazing heat and blistering storms to St. Joe to grab an autograph and catch a glimpse of the future.
Because football, that game of inches—and short, weekly outbursts of action—leaves fans much less room to dream. Training camp is a rare opportunity for that feel-good sense of hope, before the familiar pessimism sets in with the first boneheaded—or bone-breaking—play of the regular season.
It’s no coincidence—of course—that the just-concluded Hall of Fame Weekend takes place as training camp hits its stride, and caps off with the first NFL pre-season game. Yes, a salute to greatness that included the induction of the Chiefs’ twelve-time Pro-Bowler and all-around mensch Will Shields, followed by a contest that is, at least in terms of the score, utterly meaningless.
Which is not to say it’s worthless, especially to advertisers and the fans they target. This year’s Hall of Fame Game, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings—or at least, wannabes wearing Steelers and Vikings uniforms—drew a TV rating higher than many baseball and basketball playoff games—higher than the final game of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Because, more so than for other sports, NFL training camp—in a weird, rather public, and highly promoted way—still represents that ideal that greatness begins… when no one is watching.
For a few weeks, at least, current and potentially future superstars are all living in the same dorm, suffering the same hard knocks. On that first day of camp, any of them could make the team. And every fan’s dream is still alive.