As we count down the hours to training camp and, hopefully, get a few more draft picks signed Tuesday afternoon, I was just thinking of some of my favorite or most memorable stories of training camps past. Apologies to Atlanta and New Orleans fans –- I’ll try to include a story or two on your teams, but most of my newspaper days were spent covering the Panthers and Buccaneers, so I might be a little heavy on them.
Let’s start with an Atlanta tale while I’ve got one. If there was an omen for the Falcons in 2009, it might have come on one of the first days of camp as the Falcons were coming off an 11-5 season. For reasons beyond me, a bird flew into the closed glass door to the media room. It did not end well and some suggest that set the tone for an up-and-down season by the Falcons.
Sam Wyche was probably the most colorful coach I’ve ever covered. Lots of coaches like to yell out situations -- “It’s fourth down, there are five seconds left in the game and we’ve got the ball at their 32-yard line." Generally players go out and run the play and that’s the end of it. Wyche, who coached some pretty horrible Tampa Bay teams, had a knack for yelling things like “Wait, there was a penalty. Let’s try it again." He’d do that until the play ended well and that made for some very long practices.
I believe I witnessed Tony Dungy getting as mad as he’s ever been. It happened one day during a practice at the University of Tampa where linebacker Hardy Nickerson got into a fight with a team the Bucs were scrimmaging (I believe, but am not entirely certain, it was either the Dolphins or Redskins). Dungy, who usually looks very placid, dashed over to Nickerson and said something. He didn’t yell. But Nickerson quickly was on his way to the locker room and got the rest of the day off.
At Panthers’ camp, if you stand on the wooded side of the field that George Seifert used to refer to as the jungle, insects can be a problem. Carolina’s public relations staff is very generous in sharing insect repellent with members of the media. But there was a morning a few years back when the repellent couldn’t be found. A wise former co-worker I’ll call “Stan’’ gave this bit of advice: “The first line of defense is to pull up your socks." Of course Stan, who I believe parked cars at Woodstock, is one of those guys who always wears his socks just below his knees.
Fights are common in training camp, but the one I saw in Carolina two years ago was far from common. The offense and defense had just finished a session and the special teams came onto the field. Suddenly, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked and saw coach John Fox and quarterback Jake Delhomme jumping into a pile to try to pull the participants apart. If the coach and the quarterback are jumping in, you know it’s got to be bad and I knew right away Steve Smith had to be involved. He was. He had just slugged Ken Lucas.
The most painful moment I ever witnessed in a training camp didn’t take place on the field. It took place on the way to the Carolina locker room. Former Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who had various times weighed more than 350 pounds, somehow commandeered a golf cart and decided to back up. Carolina security director Gene Brown, a very pleasant man, happened to be standing behind the cart. Jenkins accidently ran him over. Luckily, Brown recovered and I haven’t seen a Carolina player get near a golf cart since.
This one actually happened before my time in Carolina, but it’s the stuff of legend. The life of a sports writer isn’t as glamorous as you might think. We spend a lot of time standing around and that can get the creative juices flowing. That’s what happened in Carolina when Dom Capers, a coach who did not believe in the shotgun formation, was still there. One day, a writer I’ll call “Newt’’ missed practice because of some car trouble. The other writers got quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who is as good a guy as you’ll ever meet, to play along with a prank. When “Newt’’ arrived, the other writers happily detailed how the Panthers had spent the entire practice installing the shotgun. One of the writers then handed “Newt’’ a tape recorder that had Beuerlein talking all about how the team was looking forward to the shotgun. “Newt’’ hurriedly began listening to the tape and writing his story. Seconds before he was about to send the story, the other writers finally informed him it was all a joke.