|A pit stop for Camp Seahawk|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Miles, 483 (268 to Cheney, Wash., 215 to Missoula, Mont.); moving violations, 0 (one state trooper pulled out and followed me briefly, then turned off -- whew!); hours driving, 7 (includes gas station stops); hours of sleep, 4; Diet Pepsi, 3 units; Tootsie Roll pops, 2 units; "Grapes of Wrath'' cassettes, 2 (Tom Joad returned home to find the bank kicked his family off its farm); miles to go, 2,700 (approximate) ...
CHENEY, Wash. -- I was tired and hungry and the Krispy Kreme exit beckoned, but I ignored the sirens' call and instead took another gulp of Diet Pepsi and piloted my Mitsubishi Galant toward the sun rising over the Cascade foothills. Despite my cravings, it was time to treat my body as the temple it is. It was time to stay fit, stay strong and stay disciplined.
I was heading to football training camp.
Or more specifically, to the Seattle Seahawks training camp on the Eastern Washington University campus in Cheney, Wash., a dry little town about 270 miles east of Seattle and Monday's stop on my I-90 tour.
Baseball and football hold their training camps in different seasons, and it seems as if they hold them on different planets as well. Baseball holds spring training in tony resort towns such as Sarasota and Scottsdale, drawing fans by the hundreds of thousands from the frozen north. Football holds training camp in remote, sun-blistered college towns such as Cheney, drawing fans by the dozens.
In football, two-a-days means a light day of work before collapsing on a thin dirty mattress in a sterile dorm room. In baseball, two-a-days means finishing practice early enough to squeeze in two rounds of golf before happy hour at the beachfront condo veterans rent for $7,000 a month.
Luxury? I still remember the spring morning in Fort Myers when a fan shouted to Kirby Puckett as he walked to the batting cage: "Hey, Kirby! I own the local beer distributorship. Any time you want free beer, let me know!"
That pretty much sums up the difference between football and baseball training camps. Football players are not offered free beer on their way to the tackling dummies.
Consider defensive tackle Chad Eaton's typical day in Cheney.
Eaton had fluid drained from his knee Sunday night after practice and was in bed by the mandatory curfew at 11 p.m. Someone knocked on his door with a wakeup call at 6:45 Monday morning, and he crawled out of bed and went to the cafeteria for breakfast. Then he went to the locker room and pulled on his 26 pounds of equipment and practiced with the team until about 11. He received treatment from a chiropractor ("to get my hips back in line") and returned to the cafeteria for lunch. From there he received painful (though very effective) deep muscle therapy, followed by four to five hours of meetings. The day ended with another bed check at 11 p.m.
He does, however, have his own room with a TV, microwave and refrigerator.
A maid? Somewhere, Vince Lombardi is spinning in his grave.
Camp is so regimented that the players must sign in for breakfast, lunch and dinner or face a $3,000 fine (which explains why those offensive linemen are so big). It's so regimented that when I arrived at the field for Monday morning's workout, a colleague warned me that even reporters are forbidden from kneeling on the ground. I kept expecting to have Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren shout in my face, "Drop and give me 20, maggott!!!"
I'm told Holmgren has been in a good mood most of this camp, but such was not the case Monday. His angry shouts of "@#@$&%" had better hang time than the punts during special teams drills, and he ordered his players to neither speak with reporters nor sign autographs for fans while they left the field.
While he did not mention anything specific about stopping for a free keg of beer, we can safely assume that would not have been a good idea for a rookie, either.
"They treat us like children," Dilfer said later after the Cone of Silence had been lifted. "I have four kids and a wife, and it pisses me off that I can't see my family for 19 days. But football is the ultimate team game, and you have to make that kind of sacrifice toward a greater purpose, and the greater purpose is the team. The system does work. There is reason to the madness."
I hear that a lot from football players. They complain about training camp and agree that it can be humiliating and degrading, but none can imagine a different way.
Well, some can.
"Every year my wife asks, 'Do you really have to go?' She's joking but every year, you really question it," veteran linebacker Chad Brown said. "You know, you can get a lot of stuff done at practice and still sleep in your own bed at night."
"As far as the bonding part of camp goes," Brown said, "you can stay at home, and if you still spend from 7 in the morning until 10 at night with your teammates, you're still going to bond. You don't have to sleep in the same dorm to bond. The whole process is fairly silly."
And remember, modern camp is a vast improvement over the old days when coaches withheld water from dehydrated players. Former Vikings coach Les Steckel is an former Marine who took this to an extreme when he turned training camp into an actual boot camp, complete with obstacle course and rope climb. What worked for Lou Gossett Jr. in "An Officer and a Gentleman," however, did not translate onto the gridiron. The Vikings finished 3-13 and fired Steckel after the season before he could install barbed wire and land mines for the beach landing drills.
What with year-round conditioning and frequent mini-camps, Eaton says one week of training camp would be sufficient and three weeks is excessive. Brown says two exhibition games would be plenty. "College football seems to do just fine without playing any exhibition games," he said, adding that he would play football forever if it weren't for the toll training camp takes.
"I don't really see the benefit," Brown said. "It makes you sloppy. You're so worn out that you make mistakes.
"Every year a major player or two misses the season because he gets injured in training camp. Would those injuries not happen if we weren't having two-a-day practices? Would they happen if we weren't so fatigued? You can't say for sure, but as a player, I say, No, they wouldn't."
Still ... "I get an itch for training camp when July comes. But I also get an itch for mini-camp," linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski said. "It's like going back to college and hanging out with the guys, except the only thing you have to focus on is football. I don't have the extra load of chemistry homework."
Monday's afternoon special teams practice did not offer the most exciting of spectacles, but about 150 fans enjoyed it anyway. The price was right -- free -- and there is something to be said for relaxing in a folding chair while watching your favorite millionaire athletes sweat in the sun and get yelled at by angry coaches.
But a little of that goes only so far. If the Seahawks trained in Scottsdale or Palm Springs, I probably would have found sufficient cause to stay the night. But they don't and with an enormous drive across Montana facing me the next day, I saw no reason to linger in Cheney. Needing to get to the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. by Wednesday, I decided it was best to get back in the car and drive as far east as possible.
When I mentioned the Sturgis trip to Eaton, his eyes lit up. He is a huge motorcycle fan and owns a $75,000, 10-foot custom chopper. "Take me along with you," he said.
Sorry. It was tempting, but I didn't think I could get Eaton back by bed check.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.