JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The first time is always memorable.
Or, in the case of the Jacksonville Jaguars' first training camp, miserable.
It lasted 31 days. It was held in such severe conditions that animals nearby fell over dead and players were brought to their physical and mental limits. Those who experienced it described it as brutal, insufferable and insane.
Some of the players who suffered through it laugh about it now, but there’s also a sense of pride when they talk about what it was like. Pride because it set the tone for the organization’s early run of success. Pride because they survived something that could never happen in this era of the NFL. There’s no way any coach could put a team through what Tom Coughlin did in the Jaguars’ inaugural training camp in 1995.
“First of all, they’d throw him in jail right now,” said Tony Boselli, the No. 2 overall pick in the '95 draft and one of the greatest players in franchise history. “The CBA [collective bargaining agreement] would literally throw him in jail if he tried to do what they did in ‘95. There’d be a revolt. All 90 guys would be picketing outside of TIAA Bank Field. It would never happen. You can’t even fathom it.
“And by the way, I don’t want anyone to have to go through that.”
As the Jaguars continue their 25th training camp and open their preseason schedule Thursday in Baltimore, some of the people who did experience it (except for Coughlin, who declined multiple interview requests) recalled what it was like.
Joining the Cheese League
The Jaguars had planned from the start to hold training camp out of state because the finishing touches were still being put on practice fields in Jacksonville, and Coughlin wanted to sequester the team to avoid distractions. They also wanted to get away from the intense Florida summer heat.
The team looked at several locations, including Savannah State University in Georgia, before settling on the University of Wisconsin campus in Stevens Point. That made them the sixth member of the Cheese League, the informal name given to the group of teams that have held training camp and scrimmages in Wisconsin.
The logistics of moving everything the team would need for camp more than 1,300 miles away were significant, and they were compounded by the fact that the Jaguars started their camp two weeks earlier than nearly all of the other teams. The Jaguars and Carolina Panthers were allowed to start a week earlier because they were playing in the Hall of Fame Game, but Coughlin wanted an additional week.
The team opened camp on July 10, though the first week was technically voluntary because league rules prohibited the team from forcing veteran players to participate before the league’s mandated report date. Nearly every player showed up for the start, with the exception of defensive linemen Jeff Lageman, Joel Smeenge and Kelvin Pritchett.
The team was scheduled to break camp on Aug. 9 -- the day before its third preseason game in Detroit. The players had an inkling that they were in for a rough 31 days after participating in a pretty rigorous offseason program.
“I like to put people in uncomfortable situations, see who can do the job, see who the leaders are,” Coughlin told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “This is all very planned.”
Added Lageman: “He [Coughlin] didn’t say anything about it to prepare us mentally or warn us. We knew. We had an offseason program that we utilized every single day and every single minute that we possibly could."
Camp was even worse than they thought it would be.
A heat wave ravaged parts of the Midwest that July and produced temperatures in the 100s and heat indexes in the high 120s. It started the day the Jaguars reported (July 10), and the worst of it lasted five days.
Per the Chicago Tribune, the heat killed an estimated 718 people in 10 states (including 85 in Wisconsin). The Wisconsin State Journal reported that on July 14, 850 cows in Wisconsin dairy herds died, and milk production dropped by 25%. Highways and road joints buckled. So did railroad tracks.
"Keep all the animals inside. If you're young or old, don't go outside. Cows were dying. Yet the Jacksonville Jaguars and the 90 guys were out there twice a day for five hours a day in the heat and beating just the crap out of each other."Former Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli on the 1995 training camp
The National Weather Service reported that in the three-day stretch from July 12 to July 14, the loss of livestock due to a heat wave in Iowa approached $6 million and included 4,000 head of cattle, 370 hogs, 1.25 million chickens and 250,000 turkeys.
Yet the Jaguars’ practice schedule didn’t change.
“[There] was a heat advisory,” Boselli said. “Keep all the animals inside. If you’re young or old, don’t go outside. Cows were dying.
“Yet the Jacksonville Jaguars and the 90 guys were out there twice a day for five hours a day in the heat and beating just the crap out of each other.”
There was no air conditioning in the locker room or athletic training room. Mike Ryan, then the Jaguars head athletic trainer, had huge barn fans brought into the training room to move the air around.
“There was a thermostat in the athletic training room, and the temperature went up to 90,” Ryan said. “The needle was buried. I couldn’t even see the needle.
“... We had guys almost every day go down with heat illness. And we were doing IVs faster than we could count.”
Making matters worse was what Ryan referred to as “an ice controversy.”
Not surprisingly because of the intense heat, the Jaguars kept running out of ice. NFL teams need a lot of ice. For physical therapy, to put in coolers for drinks, to put in water coolers on wheels for drinking. Because the UW-Stevens Point facilities didn’t have cold tubs, the Jaguars also needed ice to put in 50-gallon garbage cans for players to jump into after practice to cool down and help with swelling.
Every day, there was an ice shortage, Ryan said, and he got grief because of it -- ice costs money, and the additional demand was getting expensive. Ryan said he even had colleagues from other NFL teams tell him that members of the Jaguars’ football operations staff called them to find out how much ice they were using with their teams.
“Football operations were getting pissed because we going through so much ice,” Ryan said. “They kept fighting us. ‘You’re doing something wrong. You’re using too much ice.’
“I had to write out a document to justify how much ice we used each day.”
The NFL now has strict rules about how training camp practices can be conducted. Two-a-day practices are allowed, but only one can be in pads, and it cannot last longer than three hours. The second practice is limited to walk-through instruction. Total time on the field allowed each day is four hours.
Those limitations did not exist in 1995.
“Tom Coughlin could put us in full pads every day if he wanted to -- and he did,” Lageman said.
The Jaguars were in full pads for both practices each day, though Lageman said Coughlin wouldn’t consider the second practice fully padded because the players didn’t wear their football pants and knee pads. But they still went full contact, six days a week until the preseason began. Then they got a break: The day after games, they weren’t in full pads.
The next day they were, though.
“Guys were not prepared for the intensity of camp,” said Brian Sexton, the Jaguars’ play-by-play broadcaster from 1995 to 2014 and now the senior correspondent for Jaguars.com. “Tom put together a tough camp because he knew he was going to have to have a tough team. So his mentality was, ‘I’ve got to get them ready right now because they’re going to have to be tough because they’re not going to be talented. So they'd better be tough.’”
"We still fought tooth and nail and fought and scratched and probably won some games we should have lost and were in some others that we probably shouldn't have been."Former defensive end Jeff Lageman on the 1995 expansion Jaguars
Meetings in the morning, two tough practices, meetings in the evenings and at night, with the final meeting ending about 15 minutes before bed check, Boselli said. One day off per week.
Not surprisingly, the players wore down quickly.
“One day had 13 guys out of practice with injuries,” Ryan said. “All we needed was a kicker over there, and we’d have had a whole team.”
Injured players didn’t get much of a break, either. If they were out on the field, they were wearing helmets -- completely snapped up. That included Boselli, who went to a practice on crutches one day after he suffered a dislocated knee cap and cartilage damage.
The only time the players didn’t have to wear helmets was when they were doing medicine ball exercises as part of their rehab. Ryan got Coughlin to relent by telling him it was a safety issue. Helmets restricted their vision while exercising, and Ryan didn’t want guys losing sight of the medicine balls -- which can weigh more than 10 pounds -- and getting hurt.
After 19 days of camp, the Jaguars finally played their first game. They lost to Carolina 20-14 in Canton, Ohio. Lageman said he didn’t play well and blamed it on the grueling camp.
“I had literally the deadest legs I’ve ever had in my career,” he said. “We practiced in full pads two days prior to the game. Then we got on a plane. And I remember watching the film after the preseason game, and I was embarrassed, but I knew what it was.
“I almost felt that I was so fatigued and so tired that I almost couldn’t protect myself, and I’ve never felt it before.”
There is one thing that Lageman and Boselli both remember fondly about that camp: It was the best camp food they’ve ever had.
“Whoever was the chef at Stevens Point, Wisconsin, should get an award,” Boselli said. “They should open a restaurant because they were outstanding.”
Lageman played his first six seasons with the New York Jets before signing with the Jaguars in 1995. He said the food at the Jets’ training camp was pretty much standard dorm cafeteria food (they held camp at Hofstra University), so he wasn’t expecting anything different with the Jaguars.
“It was amazingly good,” Lageman said. “We had a chef. If you wanted something cooked, they would do that. I was gaining weight. Hardest training camp ever, and my fat ass is gaining weight because the food is so good.”
Ryan said Coughlin wanted the players to be fed well because they were going through such a grueling camp. It might have been one of the smartest things Coughlin did in that camp.
“I used to joke the food saved riots,” Ryan said.
That was the only time in franchise history that the Jaguars held their training camp outside Jacksonville. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Jaguars paid Wisconsin-Stevens Point $50,000 to get out of their contract to hold camp there, and though Coughlin wanted to return to the Cheese League, owner Wayne Weaver wanted the camp to be held locally so fans could attend.
Twenty-four years later, there is a grudging appreciation for what Coughlin put his players through in that first camp. It certainly made the team tougher.
Ryan believes the Jaguars’ five-game winning streak to close out the 1996 regular season and surprising run to the AFC Championship Game in their first playoff appearance might not have happened without that immensely tough first training camp. Rallying from a 4-7 start didn’t appear so overwhelming after what they went through in Stevens Point.
“Any time you get a group of men together that have extreme challenges and overcome a lot of it, when you come out of the backside of it, [you feel like you can overcome anything]," Ryan said. "That training camp in '95 built the foundation for a great run in '96.”
The Jaguars also might not have won the four games they did in 1995 without that grueling camp, Lageman said.
“I think we were very united in that we went through a lot together,” Lageman said. “Tough offseason. Tough training camp. We were a tough, physical, try-hard football team, but we weren’t going to win a lot of games [in 1995]. If people are being honest with themselves, they probably knew it.
“We still fought tooth and nail and fought and scratched and probably won some games we should have lost and were in some others that we probably shouldn’t have been.”
It's likely that nobody thought that at the time. They were elated when the team finally broke camp and returned to Jacksonville after the Aug. 10 preseason game in Detroit.
“I still remember sitting in the back of the bus in the parking lot across from the dorms getting ready to leave to go home,” Ryan said. “I said, ‘If I never see Stevens Point, Wisconsin, again as long as I live, I’ll be a happy man.'”