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Like most everything in life, the value of any thing lives in your perspective. And on the subject of NFL training camps, which I endured for six summers, I live with two valuable perspectives.
They're valuable to me, anyway.
First, the veteran's view: Training camp is a horrible time, a six-week period of hot, secluded monotony.
From this perspective, it's pointless.
It's especially pointless after the third week. This is normally after the first exhibition game has been played. After that game, though it's still preseason, the veteran's mind has already shifted into regular-season mode. He's ready to play football, not practice twice a day and sleep in a stupid, cinder block-walled college dorm room 6 feet away from another grown man.
By then, it is extremely difficult to manufacture the false enthusiasm required to get through the rest of camp. And that's what it takes: pretending to be excited.
The rookie's view of camp is pure. It's full of the possibilities offered by the rite of passage into professional football. Sleep in a dorm? Why, of course. Where else would I sleep?
The rookie has too much on his mind to notice the drudgery of it all. While he toils in the heat and tries to apply all the stuff he learned at mini-camp, he's barreling toward something else. He's headed toward something he might not even know he wants -- and probably doesn't realize how much he wants -- until he gets it.
I'm talking about that moment in which he understands he belongs.
I remember my moment. It occurred in the first week of my first camp with the Indianapolis Colts. During a full-team contact session, I was playing cornerback and we were in cover two. I dropped into the flat and read the quarterback's eyes. When the quarterback locked in on receiver Jesse Hester, I took off.
The second the ball hit Hester's hands, I hit Hester.
The ball rolled toward the sideline, Hester dropped to the turf, and the place erupted. Linebacker Duane Bickett high-fived me, along with the rest of the secondary.
"That was perfect!" Bickett yelled.
It was perfect. It was a perfect moment. It was a moment of acceptance. I belonged. I had yet to play in a real game, let alone finish a full season. But at that instant, when the field was buzzing because of something I'd done, none of that other stuff mattered.
That one play, and the reaction that ensued, still counts as one of my most cherished memories in competitive sports.
But after that, I've gotta tell you: The rest of my training camps were awful experiences. The veteran's perspective took over. Every summer, I'd get depressed when the Fourth of July rolled around, because it meant that camp was coming. In fact, it was several years after I left the game before I could really enjoy the best day of the barbecue season.
The futility of it got to me the most. The prospect of going through the pain, the heat, and the angst about my shot at making the team -- it left me emotionally frazzled. It also made me feel stupid. Once you've proven you belong, the novelty of just being around football wears off quickly. And you need the novelty, don't you? You need it to keep you connected, as with anything in life.