More First Days
(Steelers Training Camp Blog – 2010)

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The first day of anything is awkward. One has to spend time getting used to a new environment, people and regimen. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the first day of camp is an adjustment, even for veteran players who have done first days many times, such as a Hines Ward.

The first thing that sinks in about the first day of camp is the reality of facing an itinerary that you have absolutely no say in whatsoever. There’s a time, place and pace that requires you to focus for extreme lengths, and the down time is very small. I’ve often joked that I have made a career out of following the man ahead of me. That’s what camp is all about. Whether it’s trudging off to another infernal meeting, rising early for a pee test from the NFL testers, or standing in line to get your ankles taped, it’s all in following the herd.

For the married with children man, the first night is missing the kids. Not being around to tuck in the little ones always made my stomach ache. The normalcy that you get to experience in your home life gives way to saying goodnight over the phone to the wife and kids and suffering through a snoring teammate. I realized not too long into my career that Ilkin, translated from Turkish (Turkey is where Tunch was born) into English means “Sucks the paint off the walls.”

First days always come with awkward comfort ability in equipment. Just putting on the shoulder pads after an entire off-season used to make the skin crawl on the back of my neck. That’s no longer a problem for today’s modern player, in essence, with all the OTA activities teams go through in the off-season anymore. Ditto for the helmet, which used to get my ears rubbed raw. And heaven forbid that you might need a new helmet. You’ll end up with “wrestlers ears” faster than you can say Kurt Angle.

Today’s players don’t wear all the accouterments of their predecessors of days gone by. Knee pads, thigh boards, hip and tailbone pads have gone the way of the hula hoop and the 8-track. Chuck Noll would rip you a new one if you ever got hurt and didn’t wear proper equipment. Tony Parise, the equipment man back in the 80’s used to keep hip pads handy so that when a vet might’ve popped something and didn’t wear the right gear, he could just slide some pads in before Chuck became aware of the injury. First days in the pads (which really were everyday in the pads), was an excursion into the past when women got cranked into tight fitting corsets, leggings and all kinds of uncomfortable stuff.

Though the players pad up somewhat out of season, training camp means tape, tape and more tape. The older you get, the longer it takes to “unwind” after practice, so to speak. And the lines can get long in camp. Not only that, if your trainer had a sadistic streak in him (like Ralph “The Plumber” Berlin), then that first tape job would leave you raw and subsequent tapings made it worse. From the tops of your ankles on down your skin would resemble the pelt of a dog riddled with mange. You could be sure a blister was on its way at some point and walking to the field before practice became more like a Tony Robbins “You can do it!” fire-walk over burning coals.

First days meant extremely sore muscles that made you wonder what you were doing the entire off-season wasting your time training. The supple and stretch-i-fied leg muscles you checked into camp with suddenly have refused to cooperate and a stilted running gait made for a lot of laughing. I used to have a ball walking on stilts as a kid, but there was nothing funny about coming up the hill to the locker room after the first day of practice on legs that didn’t want to bend at the knees.

First days meant trying to get your seas legs under you, and getting dusted on your keester a few times because you didn’t quite have the timing that the gazillions of repetitions of more practices would bring.

But most of all, first days meant the last day of feeling great. From the opening day of camp forward, you knew that it would be sometime in late February or March before you started to feel normal. Just in time to get ready for the next first day.

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READ Craig’s “Training Camp” blog stories (Link)