Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Wednesday, August 29, 2001
Updated: August 30, 9:23 AM ET
Camp messes with your mind

By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. He is the author of two books, The Crunch and the novel On Any Given Sunday.

Training camp makes mush of your mind. It's the routine. Day after day, week after week, the same drills are run on the same fields, at the same times, with the same players, in the same stinking, filthy uniforms. ... It's the routine, all right. The relentless repetition of the routine.

Camp workout
The routine of training camp gets painfully monotonous.
To what else can one attribute the mysterious agitation that stalked Raiders linebacker Dan Birdwell as he strode into the training room one morning early in camp, that prompted him, upon finding guard Wayne Hawkins cleaning out his ears with a swab stick, to launch an open-palmed roundhouse right that crushed the swab stick into Hawkins' head?

To what else can one attribute the aberrant behavior of Big Ben Davidson, who, after every two-a-day practice, would collect the husks of discarded tape and mash them into a ball -- a ball that by the end of camp would become so large that the equipment manager, to move it out of the locker room, had first to cut it up with a chainsaw?

And how else to explain the fog-head that caused some forgotten Tampa Bay rookie, when asked by an Adidas rep what size shoe he wore, to reply, "Anything from nine to 13 will be fine."

Or the altered state of consciousness that one misty pre-practice morning prompted Cowboys defensive tackle Bob Lilly, in helmet and full pads, to sweep the vacant playing fields with a mine detector?

It's the routine that short-circuits their synapses and makes mush of their minds, the relentless repetition of the routine. Breakfast at seven. Practice at nine. Lunch at noon. Practice at three. Dinner at six. Meetings at seven. Bed at eleven. Every day.

And how those days drag by. Minute by minute, second by second -- it seems they will never end; while the nights, once you close your eyes, simply vanish.

Camp drills
Camp features the same drills on the same field with the same players at the same time day after day.
So you never willingly close your eyes. As you lay exhausted in bed, you read, or watch television, or drink beer. But even those moments are not entirely pleasant, for though free of the routine itself, you are never free of the effects of the routine -- you are never free of the pain.

A rigid ache toward the rear of your neck, with the slightest movement, descends suddenly into your arms and shoulders like a railroad spike. Your knees, aching and swollen, throb like great drums. Your ankles, when rotated rhythmically, snap and crack as though the marrow of your bones has turned to kindling wood. And if for a time the aching subsides, you will notice other, more subtle sensations -- the itching demanded by fungi growing in every damp crevice of your body, the amoebic rumblings in your gut as your stomach churns in protest against the continual ingestion of training camp food.

And what happens when you go seeking relief? Inevitably, you stumble into a training camp mush-brain. Like the fungi growing on your body, mush-brains are everywhere, in every nook and cranny of camp, and they occupy every conceivable human form. Male, female, black or white, if a person has a connection to training camp, he most certainly has a training camp mush-brain. Even people with responsibility. Like the trainers.

I remember staggering into one NFL training room on the second day of camp, already in the throes of terminal nausea. From a case marked Maalox, I grabbed a bottle marked Maalox and, unscrewing the cap, took a long gulp -- and gagged. The bottle contained not Maalox, but warm, premixed Mai tai.

Practice T-shirt
Every part of your body starts to hurt after a few two-a-days.
"Sorry," said the trainer. "I, uh -- I just changed 'em out. It gets pretty dull back here, you know what I mean. ... This case," he said, "is Mai tai. The Maalox is still in the back room."

The training camp mush-brain. It's the routine that does it and everyone is afflicted. Even, sometimes, the head coach.

To what else can one attribute the sudden shift in mental processes that caused former Bills coach Lou Saban, while delivering a more or less standard pregame speech, to abandon his native English for the unintelligible grunting of Chinese.

"I apologize," Saban said when finished. "For a minute there, I thought I was back in Burma with Stillwell ..."

And to what else can one attribute the stultifying optimism of John McKay who, during his first professional training camp, upon viewing film of a Cowboys-Rams exhibition game, announced to his fledgling Tampa Bay Bucs that "our personnel is as good as anybody's. Why, I just finished watching two of the best teams in the business and hell, fifty-four for the Cowboys couldn't make our traveling squad!"

No. 54 for the Cowboys, of course, was the Manster, Randy White -- the finest defensive player in the game. Tampa Bay, incidentally, went 0-14 that year.

And speaking of the Cowboys, how else to explain the baffling inability of Tom Landry to enunciate the names of players on opposing teams? He just couldn't do it. Among the football players running around in Tom's mind were Mick Tinglehoffer, Buck Buckcannon, Fred Dyer, Jerry Philmore, John Brockingham, Gale Gilliam, Joe Scarpeter.

Tom was not unaware of the problem, and I will never forget the day when, after looking over a Detroit roster filled with multi-syllabic ethnic names, he shook his head, rolled his eyes and said: "Geez, these names -- you guys are gonna have to bear with me on the pronuncilation."

The training camp mush-brain. For most coaches and players the condition begins to clear with the opening of the regular season and is usually gone altogether by the second or third league game. Not so for Charles Philyaw, a 6-9, 325-pound Oakland Raider whose first exposure to training camp french fried his frontal lobes. It must've. How else to explain what Charlie said to fullback Mark Van Eeghen two years later, as the pair filed out on the field before an AFC title game with the Denver Broncos?

"Hey, Van," said Charlie. "How come you got your first name on the back of your jersey when the rest of us don't?"