Home Away From Home

Holding Camps In Out-of-the-way Spots Lets Top Teams Focus On Football, Camaraderie

August 16, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

For nearly a month each summer, Ravens players move from their luxurious homes to a two-story hotel, where they share a room that is smaller than some of their man caves.

Instead of fancy dinners with significant others, they eat in a cafeteria with 80 of their closest (and largest) friends. Nighttime trips to clubs are replaced by evening meetings.

As a result, their thoughts are squarely on football. Their circle of friends during training camp is composed of teammates.

It's the ultimate in team-building. And the road to winning Super Bowls increasingly has been starting in small college towns surrounded by rolling hills and not much else. The past four champions - the Pittsburgh Steelers (twice), New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts - have bucked the league trend, opting to keep their training camps in isolated suburbs rather than their regular-season headquarters.

Can keeping players away from everyday distractions during camp, as the Ravens do in Westminster, bring them closer to a title?

"I don't know whether it correlates to being a Super Bowl champion," coach John Harbaugh said. "But I know this: We believe in it very, very strongly."

The Ravens' goal at McDaniel College each year has been to improve the offense and maintain excellence on defense. But the purpose has always been to build focus as well as form a family.

For much of August, players' days begin at 7 a.m. (when they must check in for breakfast whether they eat or not) and end at 11 p.m. (mandatory bed check).

There is a full-contact, two-hour practice in the morning and a shorter, noncontact version in the afternoon. Players are constantly moving throughout the hotel with playbooks in hand because there are meetings in the afternoon and at night.

During players' brief free time, some try to grab a quick nap. That is, if their roommate isn't snoring or talking in his sleep. Only a handful of veterans get their own room (which is the only change in Harbaugh's camp this year), so most players fight over the remote for a television that gets about 30 channels.

Others convene on "The Porch," the bench outside the cafeteria. Between dinner and the last meeting of the day, cornerback Samari Rolle and quarterback Troy Smith are the ringleaders of a group that kicks back there and makes fun of teammates who walk by, joking on what everyone is wearing.

"The only thing missing is an old lazy dog," Rolle said of The Porch.

It is these types of bonds that forge team chemistry. And team chemistry often leads to winning.

If the players needed a reminder about how this is a family endeavor, even Harbaugh got a roommate this year - his father, Jack.

"I'm not a big fan of [training camp], especially since last year I didn't have to do it," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who skipped last year's camp because he played under the franchise tag. "But this is a good time where it's just us up here. You get to become a team."

Making sacrifices

This is the time for the football family, not loved ones at home. New Ravens center Matt Birk estimated that he saw his four children for a total of two hours the first week of camp.

"It's a sacrifice for guys with families and a sacrifice for their families," Birk said. "It's hard to be on the phone with your kids and they're crying, asking when you're coming home. I think mentally, it tears you up."

Along with the mental strain, there is a physical one, too.

Since the full team reported to camp July 31, there have been practices for 13 straight days. Players in the 30-and-older club get every third day off from practice, but they still have to run and lift weights.

On most mornings, the Ravens suit up in pads to block, tackle and knock helmets. Defensive end Trevor Pryce said the Denver Broncos had only four full-contact plays (a goal-line session) for an entire training camp. The Ravens equaled that in the first 10 minutes of camp.

It was an adjustment last season in the inaugural "Camp Hardball." After the first two weeks, more than a quarter of the Ravens' roster - 21 players - had missed at least one practice because of injury. This year, the total is 16 players.

Harbaugh said the difference is that fewer players came to camp this year with an injury.

"Our philosophy is, 'The harder you work, the healthier you stay,' except for the fluke injury," Harbaugh said. "I think our guys are in much better shape. There's nobody in the league that goes live more than we do, and yet they take care of each other."

Going against the trend

By practicing at McDaniel College, the Ravens are going against the migration of NFL teams to their own facilities for training camp.

During the past five years, four teams (the Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) have shifted training camp to their team headquarters. That means 16 teams - half the league - relocate to prepare for the regular season.

By not taking camp to a remote location, teams can cut costs and draw more local fans to practices.

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