Traversing the U.S. over the last three weeks as I covered 15 NFL training camps and two preseason games, I logged 10,646 air miles and 2,935 on the ground. But for all those miles I was invariably met with one of just two reactions when I described my travels. "You're crazy; what a grind," said Jets G.M. Mike Tannenbaum from Cortland, N.Y. That's one. The other, expressed most recently by a fan I met at a Bills tailgate before last Thursday night's preseason game against the Redskins: "You've got the best job in the world."
Well, it's both—but it's more of the latter, really. The annual NFL training camp journey is my favorite time of the year. Pulling into Bourbonnais, Ill., at 5:26 a.m.... Eating nachos-in-a-cheesy-soup as dinner during a quick layover in Houston.... Typing on a computer perched atop a gas station garbage can during a leg-stretching stop.... Crazy? Sure. But that's the NFL in August.
If I had been doing pen-and-paper postcards, I would have written home about Drew Brees, unhappy that tight end Jimmy Graham wasn't hustling after a play in Metairie, La., zipping a ball at Graham and nearly popping him in the helmet, as if to say, "Sean Payton's not here—but I am. So knock it off." I would have written of lunch with Larry Fitzgerald in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he told me that his buddy Bill Clinton is such a big football fan that the former president had asked this summer, "Who's going to win your quarterback job?"
Off the field, I got a tutorial from coach Jim Schwartz on the Lions' new iPad playbooks, gawked at Jaguars linemen doing yoga in their spacious locker room and, in Renton, Wash., hard by Lake Washington, saw a bald eagle fly low over the west sideline at Seahawks camp.
On the field, I noted the impatience of Peyton Manning, who hardly believes the hype that he's all the way back from four neck procedures ("I hate it," he told me after a practice in which he threw mostly short and intermediate stuff); wondered whether a star was being born as I watched Seattle's Russell Wilson, a third-round pick, fire a deep completion on the run; and observed Robert Griffin III dashing five times on designed runs in a 20-play 11-on-11 drill at Redskins camp, dispelling the notion that Mike Shanahan will wrap the 218-pounder in protective cellophane and staple him to the pocket. These are the things you see and hear when you're up close and personal with the NFL in the dog days. Which is why I go.
And which is why I'll be happy to plow forward this week, when I see the Chiefs, Rams, Colts, Packers, Texans, Cowboys and another team or two. That's the third phase. Phase one (Cardinals, Chargers, Saints, Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers and Raiders) was conducted by plane and rental car. Phase two (Dolphins, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Falcons, Redskins, Giants, Jets, Bills, Lions and Bears) was in a luxury van provided by the protective-gear manufacturer EvoShield, and which included the company of Team SI: videographer John DePetro, reporter Matt Gagne, intern-driver Jack Ford and, along for the ride, ProFootballFocus.com writer Neil Hornsby, who won the Emmy for Best Road Sleeper in a Miniseries after he zonked out, motionless, for eight hours on the interstate between Flowery Branch, Ga. (Falcons), and Ashburn, Va. (Redskins).
Why the van? Summer storms, airline problems—you name the hiccup, I've encountered it. A few years ago I was stuck at Orlando International for eight hours and had to cancel a trip to see the Saints, and I've thought ever since how great it would be to get a van—and a driver—so that I could write in transit. Our 30-foot Ford features power outlets for our phones, laptops and wireless modem, plus a cushy black recliner from which I wrote portions of my Monday Morning Quarterback column, for SI.com, and concocted this list of awards from my first 19 days on the road.
Best Knowledge Gleaned, On Field
Randy Moss looks to me like vintage Randy Moss. At Niners camp I saw him make cornerback Perrish Cox tangle his feet and grasp at air as Moss blew past him for a catch.
Best Knowledge Gleaned, Off Field
In his office last Friday, Schwartz fired up his iPad and clicked an icon labeled PASSING GAME INSTALL #4, which unveiled all the Lions' plays from that day's installation of a segment of the offense. Behind him a hard copy of Detroit's 2012 offensive playbook, maybe three inches thick, sat on his cabinet. In cellophane. It's insurance, in case Schwartz ever wants to look at the hard copy. "This is the way our players live," he said. "Why not teach with it?"
Seattle. Loud music—Flo Rida, AC/DC, etc.—fills the air between drills, and Pete Carroll hops around in his trademark "Don't worry, be happy" way. "It's like a hippie commune," Hornsby observed. That's overboard, but it is a little different out there.
Brees told me that players don't trust Roger Goodell. Mike Westhoff, the Jets' special teams coach, told me about Tim Tebow's suggesting wrinkles for the punt team. And Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter, formerly of the Saints, admitted that it would be "rookie-ish" to remind new teammate Peyton Manning about his Super Bowl--deciding pick of Manning two years ago.
Not the otter near Bears camp. Or the feral cat that attacked me in the black Arizona night and made me scream like a seven-year-old. But the American Purple Gallinule, a hungry bird (left, I.D.'d by a Twitter follower, thank you) that stole a few bites from our appetizer at an outdoor fish place near Fort Lauderdale, en route to Buccaneers camp.
Walking through a parking lot before Bills-Redskins last week, I came upon Ken Johnson, who's seen every Buffalo game, home and away, for the last 18 years. "You've got to see this," he said, walking Team SI to the back of his Ford Pinto. From the trunk he pulled out a crumpled bag of potato chip crumbs. "This is from the Frank Reich comeback game. [Subbing for injured starter Jim Kelly, Reich led a record comeback from 35--3 down to beat the Oilers in the 1992 playoffs.] I said I would never throw it away, and every game, for luck, I eat one of the little pieces." With that, Johnson consumed one-twentieth of a two-decade-old chip. He offered me one. I declined.
In the 48 minutes it took for me to travel from the Phoenix car-rental area to a point 50 miles north on I-17, climbing toward Flagstaff, the temperature dropped from 106°F to 63°F.
Most Entertaining Diversion
Auburn Doubledays G.M. Adam Winslow invited me to throw the first pitch before a minor league baseball game in upstate New York. Gagne had purchased a football and suggested I throw that. Which I did—a spiral low and outside, to Doubledays catcher Craig Manuel. "Good arm," Manuel remarked. He was just being nice.
Stretch of Road My Traveling Companions Would Most Like to Forget
Somewhere in the middle of the 607 miles from suburban Atlanta to suburban Washington, D.C., while writing MMQB and running on fumes at around 3 a.m., I cued up iTunes. Team SI questioned my choice of artists (Ke$ha, Rolling Stones, Miley Cyrus, Springsteen, Linkin Park, Coldplay, R.E.M., Carly Rae Jepsen), and they recoiled at the sound of my karaoke. But, hey, anything to stay awake at that hour. Hornsby, naturally, slept through it all.
Last Saturday, a bit worn down and looking forward to getting home for a few days, I stood on the sidelines at Bears camp in Bourbonnais, where the sun was beating down. And just in front of us, newcomer Brandon Marshall was dueling cornerback Charles (Peanut) Tillman in one-on-one drills. One after another, receivers come to the line, corners line up opposite, a quarterback yells signals, and off they go. It's competitive, feisty.
Marshall is up. Across from him: Cornelius Brown, a camp corner fighting for a roster spot. Marshall steps aside and motions for another receiver to go. "Hey, Peanut!" he calls, waving Tillman in for the next rep. It's clear, if Marshall's going to be out here working as hard as he can, he wants to go against the best corner the Bears have. And that's Tillman.
Marshall stutter-steps at the line, dekeing right then left, and takes off, a step ahead of Tillman. Jay Cutler leads Marshall perfectly, and Marshall grabs it. Gain of 35. Marshall jogs back, smiling. And Tillman, head down, gets instruction from his position coach.
That's Training Camp 101. And that's what you travel 13,581 miles to see.
Pulling into town at 5 a.m., typing on a computer perched atop a gas station garbaga can.... Crazy? Sure. But that's the NFL in August.
Keep up with Peter King pictorially as he cruises across the country by following @sportsillustrated and @SI_mattgagne on Instagram.
Kings of Camp
The five players who've impressed me the most among the 18 teams I've seen so far
With a new offensive coordinator (Dirk Koetter) who loves to throw deep, Jones and QB Matt Ryan are making beautiful music.
Third-round pick from Virginia Tech played like a third-year starter, taking one INT back for a TD.
Completely healthy after a lingering foot injury plagued his 2011 season, he told me, "Nothing hurts. That's a great feeling."
Second-round pick from Clemson looks to be the missing pass-rush link the Jags have desperately needed.
Carson Palmer told me Jones is the fastest player in the NFL. He looked the part, exploding through holes the day I saw him.
And the five training camps whose meals deserve a cross-country drive (next summer, of course) for second helpings
FLOWERY BRANCH, GA.
Peach-glazed chicken with fresh Georgia peach pieces
Fresh vegetables and pasta stir-fry
Turkey burger, grilled outdoors, with tomato and lettuce
Fried scallops and fresh fish sandwich (A cheat: this one was savored with G.M. Mike Tannenbaum at Doug's Fish Fry)
Fresh fruit buffet, including monster-sized blackberries
JAKE ROTH/US PRESSWIRE