By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

I'm lying on my back and stretching my leg. I grab my calf and pull my knee slightly toward my chest. I feel the pull on my hamstring. When the strength coach yells "Over!" I pull my leg across my body and let it drop to the turf. My body's in the shape of an "L." I feel my hip being stretched.

Ravens training camp
Cappy Jackson/WireImage
Training camp sounds awfully tough, but there are benefits, too.

What I remember most about this stretch is the sun. It's a little after 3 p.m., so the sun is still high overhead. And in this position, I'm staring directly into it. It doesn't matter where I am -- Anderson, Ind., Rocklin, Calif., or Georgetown, Ky. The sun shines in August. So I shut my eyes. But I still feel it. It's burning through my eyelids. Making matters worse, one side of my shoulder pad is cutting into my collarbone, and on the other side the small space between my shoulder and the sweaty fiberglass pad has created a vacuum of sorts. So when I breathe, I inhale a cloud of stale, funky fumes.

I can't help but remember something Brent Jones said to me. Remember Brent, the wonderfully sure-handed tight end for the 49ers? I think it was around dinnertime when he said it. "Training camp makes you appreciate what you have in life," he said. "You love your wife more, you love your kids more, you appreciate your home, your furniture. You just appreciate your life more."

He wasn't trying to be melodramatic, nor did he overstate the sentiment. He was talking about a few weeks of running around playing a game for pay. He wasn't talking about Israel and Lebanon, with rockets reducing a world to rubble. He was talking about practice. But he had a point.

I've waxed sarcastic about the farce that is training camp in this space before. I've said it's overrated and outdated, and wholly conducive to fatigue and injury. On a clinical level, I still believe those things to be true -- especially in light of Raiders coach Art Shell's statement that "these guys, with all the mini-camps and organized team activities, are ahead of the game."

But just the other day, I recalled Jones' words and thought to make a philosophical addendum. Training camp actually does make you appreciate the life you're living. There's nothing like a traditional rite of passage to do just that. If you're paid a princely sum, live in a nice building and sleep next to a good woman, you don't fully appreciate it unless you're forced to part with it for a time.

Inconvenience, even the slightest inconvenience, gives us pause to reflect on our blessings.

I know it's comical that the source of this particular inconvenience is football. And it's ironic that training camp inundates you with the very thing you love until you can't stand it anymore. When it's all football, 15 to 17 hours a day, and you're constantly surrounded by football players, you appreciate the times when you're not playing football and not surrounded by football players.

Maybe that's why I'm thinking about Jason Taylor's divorce right now. Since Taylor's estranged wife is Zach Thomas' sister, folks are wondering if that will be a "distraction" for the team. I'd say that Taylor probably needs some distraction right about now. I'm sure that, at one time, his marriage provided him a haven from the business end of the game. Having a life outside football is what sustains anyone in the heat and uncertainty of training camp. Well, there's no work-related uncertainty for Jason Taylor. At least not yet. He's still got skill so he's not fighting for a job. But still, I wonder what life is like for him this summer. Maybe camp will be a welcome distraction from what's real.


How others deal with inconvenience is also quite illuminating. I remember, while playing for the Redskins, walking by the reception desk one day at team headquarters and overhearing this conversation:

"Hello, Washington Redskins," said B.J., the long-time receptionist.

"No, there aren't open tryouts," she said. "All of our players got here either through the draft or free agency."

"OK, thanks for calling."

"How often do you get those calls?" I asked her.

"Oh, every once in a while," she said.

A few weeks later I spoke to Bobby Mitchell, then the assistant GM for the Redskins. He told me how, during the strike of 1987, they set up a training camp for all the would-be replacement players. Mitchell chuckled during the re-telling. "Man, after just one day, we couldn't keep people from climbing over the walls."

I don't bring that up to make light of those who fled the camp. I mention it because that story makes me appreciate what I did. Eleven years removed from my last camp, I can't believe I ever did it. The human body isn't engineered for football, and it most certainly isn't engineered for twice-daily sessions of it. Sure you can run miles of sprints -- around a track, up a hill, through cones. But nothing prepares you for the specific rigors of running and banging into bodies in the heat. Once it starts, some part of you will break down. It's inevitable.

And for what? If you're not a starter, then you're fighting for a job. Actually, "fighting" is too strong a word. The depth chart that's posted at the first mini-camp may not be cast in stone, but it ain't written in pencil either. That's pretty much the team. If a guy's a high-profile free agent to whom the team has given some exorbitant amount of guaranteed money, it isn't messing around with that investment. He's there for a while.

And if you're not he? All this could be for nothing. Well, not quite nothing. In camp there's always someone worth impressing. Maybe it's a scout from another team who made his way into an open practice. After seeing you make a play, he might go back and tell a coach who saw you play in college. Or maybe your best bet is getting a solid recommendation from your position coach. All those guys know one another anyway.

Wait. Forget all that. Training camp is valuable in another way. All those things you've been thinking about? None of them is about you. You can't control if, or when, you're getting on the field, or how long you'll stay once you're there. That's someone else's decision. What you determine is your intensity. Your passion. Your pride.

As I'm lying on my back, sun beating down on my forehead, I contemplate these things. I decide to always compete against myself. I decide that I am the standard. Stretching done, I leap to my feet and sprint to the first drill.

Alan Grant is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.




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