- Elizabeth Merrill
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RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- The old men say that training camp once lasted eight weeks, in the sweltering heat, near cornfields and miles of nothingness. Those summers seemed like they'd never end. Teams bonded over blood, beer and rookie talent shows. The stench of a sweaty dorm room was the smell of a winner come January.
It is just after noon on another unrecognizable day of training camp, and Eddie Kennison parks his loaded white Ford Expedition in a lot near McMillan Hall. A turn of the key in his 12-by-18 dorm room is an assault of the senses.
In one corner is a Glade plug-in. He thinks it's Fresh Linen, but it could be colliding with the Febreze, or maybe a candle. Cinder-block walls give way to a flat-screen TV, a DVD player and a plush brown rug underneath a pair of soft slippers.
"Have you ever stepped into these things?" Kennison says. "They're from Brookstone, and they were like 60 bucks. Aw man, it's like walking on cotton."
History is dying, past the 3-foot-high wooden fence that separates a training-camp workout from the superfan with the face paint, and most NFL veterans will not get misty over it. Football players, generally, hate camp.
They say it's unnecessary, almost archaic, with a shrinking offseason and a growing list of minicamps and voluntary -- wink, wink -- workouts. They can't even fathom doing what Kennison and the Kansas City Chiefs do every summer, traveling nearly 1,000 miles out of state to knock helmets in one of the last of the NFL's old-school training camps.
"What do I like about it?" Kennison says. "The last day."
But do not weep for Kennison, a millionaire with a tired and sore 34-year-old body, a father who misses his kids but has the means to videoconference them. Just close the door on the first floor so he can catch a nap in between practices, under the comforter he brought from home.
In today's NFL, this is the closest thing to roughing it.
"The most important thing is we're all here together doing the same thing," Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson says. "It's the same routine in the same dormitories that the president and everybody else is in. Does it make us a better football team? I sure hope so.
"There aren't any privileged souls here."
The first thing to know about River Falls is that things rarely ever change.
Walk down Main Street, and it's still the same movie theater that plays just one flick, still the same tuxedo shop/tanning salon versatile enough to sell ice-cold pop for 50 cents, still the same smiling teenagers who say "Yeppers."
At The Route, they still rent out about 40 bikes a summer to oversized men who want to tool around town on two wheels. Occasionally, one of the bikes comes back with a busted wheel from a 300-pound kid.
"I've never met anybody who hasn't been really nice," says Kate Henry, a clerk at the bike shop.
In the big city, life moves fast for a young man in his 20s with new money and a city full of worshippers. They kick it on the Plaza, in ultra-trendy clubs like Blonde, and sip wine at restaurants with linen tablecloths. They live in condos and retreat to mancaves with 60-inch plasma TVs.
In River Falls, the closest to fancy is at the Copper Kettle, across the street from the practice fields, where the waitresses call you honey and pork chops are a delicacy.
But it's for the best, really, because who has time to unwind? The breakfast buffet, cafeteria style, blurs into the morning practice to weights to lunch to meetings to practice to dinner and then more meetings before the lights are cut at about 11.
The meals, for some, are the best part of the day. That was part of River Falls' clever marketing pitch in 1989, when it tried to lure an NFL team to the hamlet of about 13,000. The way to a football player's heart, inevitably, is through his stomach. They'd serve the best meals, in mass quantity, with a top chef. Variety would never be an issue. Today's chow line offers roughly 20 different kinds of juices, milk and power drinks alone. And that's just lunch.
"I was always excited to come back to River Falls because of the food," says linebacker Donnie Edwards, who's back with the Chiefs after a stint in San Diego, where he went home and slept in his own bed at camp. "I like the cafeteria food, actually. You can ask my wife."
In the early '90s, the Chiefs' migration north seemed simple. They were canceling practices in the oppressive Missouri heat, and needed some competition. In Wisconsin, the Saints, Packers, Bears and Vikings were already camping nearby. So they formed the Cheese League.
Suddenly, a town with an identity crisis -- nobody knew where it was -- was hopping. Red banners were printed up that said, "Welcome to River Falls, Summer Home of the Chiefs." They still twist, washed and worn, along Main Street.
"Back in 1990, in late July and early August, you could just about pitch a tent south of Main Street and wouldn't get hit by a vehicle," says Mark Kinders, the director of public affairs at UW-River Falls. "The Chiefs obviously livened it up."
There are no class systems at McMillan Hall, just a division of steps. If you're a veteran like Kennison, a longtime starter, you bunk on the first floor. If you're a rookie, you walk 45 stairs to the top.
To a finely toned athlete, four flights might not seem like a big deal. In two-a-days, it's a mountain by Day 3.
"It's the hike of shame," rookie tackle Herb Taylor says. "You're going straight uphill. You think you're there, and then you look and you're only on the third floor. You take a break and go up the next flight."
Taylor is a thoughtful Texan, a kid with glasses who's a shade under 300 pounds and probably wouldn't get picked on if he went by his full name of Herbert. He stared out the window on the bus ride from Minneapolis to River Falls, when steel turned to lush green countryside, and wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
First night in the dorm, he was a big man trying to pull two pillow-thin, single cots together. He sunk somewhere in the middle. But unlike the GM, who brought his orthopedic pillow but still has a backache, or most of his buddies, Taylor can get a decent night's sleep at camp.
He doesn't mind the communal bathrooms, where he shares three toilets and three showers with a hallway full of relative nobodies. Maybe it's because Taylor's not too far removed from college.
Maybe because in August, there are two kinds of campers: those fighting for a starting job and those clawing to hang on. And Taylor is among those trying to get a grip. He was drafted in the sixth round, and has essentially three weeks to impress and make the 53-man roster. He knows history isn't on his side.
Down a floor or two sleeps Will Svitek, the next great offensive lineman from two years ago. Svitek is still struggling. Two seasons, and he's played in one game. His neck and shoulders have been hurting since about the second day. When somebody calls his name, he can't turn his head. He has to shuffle his entire body around.
The Chiefs have a day off soon, and some of the rookies are thinking about catching a movie. Svitek will probably stay in his room.
"Fifteen minutes, lying in your bed, is the most glorious thing in the world," Svitek says. "If you can put your feet up for 15 minutes, it feels great."
One of the best things about camp, the linemen will say, is that the undrafted rookies are eating the same chicken primavera and mashed potatoes and as the diamond-studded veterans.
The team, essentially, is in this together.
But in the old days, their guards were down even further. Peterson remembers when they used to have a rookie talent show at the end of camp. Nobody was off limits, and the impersonations had the room in stitches.
"We don't have those anymore," Peterson says.
"I'm afraid to say it, but I think it's because people don't want to be embarrassed in front of their peers, so they refuse to do it."
The first night of the 2007 camp comes on a Thursday, with thunderstorm clouds swirling, and cameras and microphones waiting for the buses. The Chiefs are about an hour late.
Coach Herm Edwards is already here, holding up a sign that says, "Welcome to training camp." He makes a sarcastic remark about how it took him forever to make it, meaning the sign was probably a prop for an HBO series that focuses on camp life. He smiles anyway.
Engines stop, skinny doors flip open and about 100 hulking men stumble out with pillows, backpacks and PlayStations.
Defensive end Jared Allen heads to a table where a handful of young men in freshly pressed white shirts and ties are renting cars for the players. Allen, a fourth-year defensive end known for his happy-go-lucky demeanor, isn't quite so chipper. He wants a car, but thinks the rental company is gouging the players. He bargains for a few minutes, then decides he'll rent a car, drive 45 minutes to Minneapolis, then ditch it for something cheaper. Like most of the veterans, Allen doesn't want to be here.
But he generally makes River Falls a little more interesting.
Last summer, he showed up in a speedo and a fake mullet, just for laughs. In 2005, he showed off Elvis glasses and sideburns in the cafeteria. But this offseason was full of contract disputes, and that has clearly affected his zest for everything River Falls.
"I hate coming up here," Allen says. "Honestly, I don't like it at all. The food is horrible. There's little things."
There is the strict diet he's on and the fact that he can't eat anything fried. There is the sore back that comes from sleeping sideways on an air mattress.
Allen stops and realizes he's ranting. But it's natural. It's training camp.
"Even if we were at our own home, we'd be complaining about wasting gas driving, even if we were located right by the stadium," he says. "It's part of coping with working your butt off, bitching about the little things."
There are varying opinions on why the Chiefs are still here, in River Falls, when everyone else is gone.
The Cheese League has long since been disbanded; the Chiefs are reduced to an annual workout with the Vikings, who camp two hours away in Mankato.
The idealistic will say that it's part of the team-building process, that in a fast and fluid business like the NFL, it helps to slow down and get to know your neighbor. But even Peterson will say that they don't force guys to like each other, and certainly won't be singing Kumbaya in front of a campfire.
Most years, he says, it takes until Week 3 before he knows if a team is coming together.
"You can tell after being together for a few weeks whether guys like each other or not," he says, "and that doesn't have to be something that coincides with winning. I think it's more respect that our game cries out for. Because you can't hide on a football field."
Or in the country, on fields where simple farmers worked in dirt to make a town. This, Peterson and Edwards will say, is what they love about River Falls: the simplicity of it. Last year, a transformer blew on campus and knocked out power in the dorm rooms and the cafeteria.
While millionaires fumbled in their boxers without air conditioning, Edwards quietly cackled. It was like boot camp. It was the way things used to be.
"I am of the old school, right or wrong," Peterson says. "I think you need to get your football team together, players, coaches at one place for a certain period of time away to focus on what we do. And we play football."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The old-school training camp is a dying breed in the NFL. ESPN.com senior writer Elizabeth Merrill spends a few days with one of the last holdouts, the Kansas City Chiefs, at their summer home in River Falls, Wis.