Commentary

Camp Kenosha provides football nirvana

Updated: August 26, 2009, 12:03 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

KENOSHA, Wis. -- It takes Arby Fields only one full day of work to understand the essence of the place Northwestern calls Camp Kenosha.

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NU Athletic CommunicationsCamp Kenosha is far from the norm, as the ice-filled buckets show.

"Look around," the Northwestern freshman running back says. "We're in the middle of nowhere. It's just us here."

That's exactly what the Northwestern coaches seek in bringing the team to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for a portion of preseason camp every August. Northwestern is one of two Big Ten teams that trains off campus (Illinois is the other), and one of just a handful around the country that do so.

The Wildcats come to the tree-lined campus at Parkside, which is mostly empty this time of year. It's a Wi-Fi not spot. Cell phone reception can be a challenge, and audible radio stations are few and far between (more on that later).

Located just beyond the sprawl of Chicago and that of Milwaukee, this is about as isolated as you can get.

Former Wildcats head coach Gary Barnett started the tradition in 1992. A year later, a freshman linebacker named Pat Fitzgerald arrived at Parkside.

Northwestern has made the 55-mile trip from its Evanston, Ill., campus, in each of the last 18 summers. Not much has changed over the years, especially the team's primary objective.

"It puts us in a football-only environment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Fitzgerald, entering his fourth year as Northwestern's head coach. "Being a player, the initial [reaction is], 'Where am I?' And then after that, you can't wait to get up here.

"It's football. You don't have to worry about school or any other distractions and really grow and come together with your teammates."

Northwestern opened its doors to ESPN.com last week for its first full day at Wisconsin-Parkside. We tagged along for two practices, position meetings, the daily staff meeting and other events as the Wildcats took another step closer to the 2009 season.

Welcome to Camp Kenosha.

MORNING PRACTICE (Full pads)

8:08 a.m. On a hazy Monday morning, light rain falls as players make their way out of the locker room, past several large plastic buckets used as makeshift cold tubs and down a hill toward the practice fields.

Things don't officially start until 8:30, but one of the football interns, known as FBIs up here, shouts out, "Two minutes, defense! Let's go!"

Linebacker Ben Johnson and safety Davion Fleming stop walking and start jogging, and safety Jared Carpenter hands Fleming his helmet and pulls on his practice jersey as he trots down.

The workout begins right on time, and music blares from the top of the hill as players stretch. Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" (Fitzgerald's choice) kicks things off, followed by T.I.'s "Bring 'Em Out" (players' choice).

9:06 a.m. Fitzgerald turns his baseball cap backward and crouches next to the defensive linemen, who are practicing tackling techniques by plowing through each other onto a huge blue mat.

"Corey, run your feet all the way through contact!" Fitzgerald barks at defensive end Corey Wootton, an All-America candidate. "Little sink to your hips."

Wootton repeats the drill.

"Good! Better!"

[+] EnlargeNorthwestern scrimmage
NU Athletic Communications The one-on-one battles can get heated.

9:19 a.m. The running backs, H-backs and linebackers shuffle through a pass-protection/pass-rush drill. Two linebackers position themselves several yards apart, then only one rushes the passer, forcing the protector to quickly position himself and make the block.

Linebacker Quentin Davie barrels through diminutive running back Stephen Simmons. Fitzgerald fist-bumps linebacker Kyle Petty after Petty wins his one-on-one battle.

The final matchup pits two freshmen, Fields and linebacker Tim Riley. Fields prevails, and the defense has to do push-ups before moving on to the next set of drills.

10:04 a.m. During a water break, Fitzgerald points toward one of the FBIs.

"Watch your leg," he says. "Bee."

The intern brushes the bee away.

"I'm here for you," Fitzgerald says. "Full service."

10:50 a.m. Practice ends, and the players kneel around Fitzgerald at midfield.

He calls out safety Brian Peters for high-stepping after an interception in seven-on-seven drills and reiterates that celebrations like that belong in the NFL and have no place here. He laments the NCAA's limitations on two-a-day practices during the preseason. He notes that the rain-slicked practice field will help players hone their footing for the Big Ten season.

"We're in Kenosha, men," Fitzgerald concludes. "Couldn't be better; 24/7 football."

The team breaks, and most players head toward the locker room and the cold tubs. The others meet with strength and conditioning coach Larry Lilja on the lower practice field.

It's time for the fun run, which belies its name. Players are put through a seemingly endless series of short sprints and pivots around four cones forming a square.

"You don't want to be in that group," Fitzgerald says.

Those who show up late to meetings or practice wind up in the fun run. Walk-on Steve Flaherty received fun-run duty after he overslept.

Fitzgerald takes one last look at the sweat-stained group.

"God I love Kenosha," he says.

STAFF MEETING

1 p.m. After lunch, Fitzgerald and his staff meet in one of the campus classrooms. The nine assistants and director of football operations Nolan Jones surround Fitzgerald at the main table, and support staff and FBIs fill the outer ring.

With a laptop in front of him, Fitzgerald asks associate athletic trainer Jen Brown for status updates on injured players and checks in with Lilja about rehab and weight-room progress.

After a quick overview of the afternoon practice, the coaches look ahead to the next day's workout. They decide to add a pass-rush drill in Period 6.

"Can't do enough of that," Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald wants to work on the kicking game and the 2-minute offense. He turns toward the FBIs, who handle the sound system during practice.

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NU Athletic Communications Camp Kenosha allows players to eat, drink and sleep football without distractions.

"If we kick field goals," he says, "I want noise. Two-minute, I want noise. As chaotic as we can get it."

Fitzgerald also decides to have the fun run continue all week.

"Guys were hurting today," Lilja says.

"It's only Monday," Fitzgerald replies.

The coaches review the morning practice.

Fitzgerald wants to follow up about the high-stepping Peters did in seven-on-sevens.

"We celebrate with our teammates," he says. "I don't know what Brian did [to intercept the pass] but put his hands up."

"We need to emphasize [minimal celebration]," Fitzgerald says.

Some recruits are discussed, then the meeting adjourns.

"Let's play two," Fitzgerald says, referring to the afternoon practice. "Ready, break."

As the assistants exit for meetings with the offensive and defensive coordinators, Fitzgerald logs on to Skype. It'll be one of his only chances to check in with his wife and three sons back home in Evanston.

TRAINING ROOM

1:45 p.m. Entering its fourth year, The Last DJ Standing has become a Camp Kenosha tradition.

It started after years of frustration for players and athletic trainers, who spent hours in the training room each day in virtual silence.

"You can't get any radio stations here," head athletic trainer Tory Lindley explains. "We're separated from planet Earth."

Players started bringing their iPods to the room for pre-practice taping and treatment, but finding tunes to satisfy the entire room wasn't easy. So a competition was born.

The Last DJ Standing pits players against each other, with each picking two songs from his iPod to play for the room. The judges are Lindley, his three assistants and the group of players in the room at the time, who serve as "America's vote."

Matchups are held throughout Camp Kenosha leading up to the finals, and the champion is selected by a players-only vote sent to Lindley by text message. It's all in fun, although there is a practical incentive for players to stay healthy.

"If you have to go for an MRI, it's tough to stay [in the competition]," Lindley says.

The field started with four players and has since expanded to 17, with a play-in game to be held on this day.

An NCAA-tournament-style bracket is displayed on the training room message board. Starting right tackle Kurt Mattes, the defending champ and a two-time winner, is the No. 1 overall seed, followed by starting quarterback Mike Kafka, who won in 2007.

2:32 p.m. The play-in game finally begins as walk-on cornerback James Kurzawski hooks up his iPod. A country song fills the room, eliciting boos from just about everyone.

Kurzawski tries to recover with a Chris Brown number, but he's definitely in trouble.

2:40 p.m. Kurzawski nearly wins by default as his opponent, linebacker Will "Big Walnut" Studlien, shows up late. After some debate over whether to let Studlien play, Lindley gives him the go-ahead.

The lone true freshman in the competition, Studlien starts strong with Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me." He has some technical difficulties loading up the next number, but safety Brad Phillips saves the freshman by plugging in his iPod, which contains the same song.

Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel," a timely pick, blares through the speakers. It's no contest. Studlien advances to the next round.

POSITION MEETINGS

2:58 p.m. Before the afternoon practice, players meet with their position coaches for film review. Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall sits at a table with the team's four quarterbacks, using a red laser pointer on a large screen.

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NU Athletic Communications Mike Kafka steps in as Northwestern's starting QB.

They examine plays run during team drills at the morning workout.

"He's inside the hash," McCall says, pointing to the safety on one play, "so you know where the rotation's coming. Where do you think you should go with the ball?"

"Maybe back side," backup quarterback Dan Persa replies.

"Right."

Kafka earns praise for stepping up to avoid a sack, then completing a crossing route. McCall likes Persa's speed in taking the snaps but notes that he didn't cut inside soon enough on a rollout scramble.

McCall also gets players' input on certain plays. After all, there's still time to tweak things before the Sept. 5 opener against Towson.

"Is the loop [route] taking too long to get there?" he asks Kafka, who nods. "What throws do you have?"

"The only thing maybe is a dig [route] coming across," Kafka replies.

"Right," McCall says. "And you never throw across your body."

They move on to the afternoon practice. Third-string quarterback Joe Mauro, who has been limited by a shoulder injury, learns he'll get 20 throws in the session.

McCall tells the quarterbacks they'll be working in third-and-long and what to anticipate from the defense.

"Expect man [coverage]," he said. "Expect [Cover] 2 man. Expect a little robber [Cover 1], too."

AFTERNOON PRACTICE (Shoulder pads and shorts)

4:45 p.m. The second session is a bit more subdued and less physical than the first, when players were in full pads.

After some struggles in the morning, Northwestern's wide receivers pick up their play. Andrew Brewer outjumps a defender for a long completion, and Sidney Stewart makes several nice grabs.

During a water break between periods, Phillips fumes to his fellow defensive backs: "Seven-on-sevens was terrible. We have to turn it up."

5:56 p.m. The defense responds in team drills. Carpenter and Caleb Harper both record interceptions. They heed Fitzgerald's warning from earlier, so there's minimal celebration.

Fitzgerald's motor continues to run high as he cheers on the offensive linemen and yells at the linebackers to sit down in their zones.

6:36 p.m. The second practice ends. The team's first two-a-day session of the preseason is in the books. Players reconvene for position meetings at 7:30, followed by dinner at 8:15 and a team activity before lights out about 10:30.

"It's a whirlwind," Fitzgerald says. "No doubt."

But even the players going through camp for the first time recognize its value. Fields had heard some horror stories about Kenosha from teammates, but he came out of Day 1 with a smile.

"I'm from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., so I never in a million years thought I'd be in Kenosha, Wis.," Fields said. "I'm enjoying every bit of it. It's definitely not easy, but we're all pretty tough kids. We knew we were coming into the Big Ten Conference, so we didn't expect it to be easy.

"I wouldn't rather be anywhere else."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com