Bats, Turf and Cowboys Searching for an Early Preseason Home
As players show up to training camps around the NFL, they will begin to prepare for the 2021 season in glitzy facilities where everything runs like clockwork. Professional athletes, well paid for their skills and abilities, will put long hours to maintain their status as the best soccer players in the world, diligently seeking competitive advantage in an environment where many resources are at hand.
They will probably be not be, say, split the cost of a used car by $ 400 to drive on the nights off, then sell it for $ 200 when it’s time to get out of town (a really good deal!). No team employee will pay for the last minute turf installation on a training ground. No one will train in temperatures near freezing. And there will almost certainly be no bats flying in the hallways outside the rooms where players sleep.
But it all happened in training camps I attended while working for the Dallas Cowboys.
In fact, at this time of year, I often marvel at how different training camp is today than it was then. So as we prepare to enjoy the glorious return of training camp live coverage – starting with Indoor training camp on NFL Network Monday and highlighted by Training camp: back together on Saturday, which starts at 9 a.m. ET on July 31 – I thought I’d share a few stories from a much looser time in NFL history.
One big difference: When training camps open today, players – who are able to dedicate their entire lives training and honing their craft – are usually ready to go. This was not the case in the early days of professional football, when most players had to take on non-football jobs during the offseason; in fact, we had players working in a freight depot, earning about $ 4 an hour for freight. So when we started training camp, we didn’t start with practice or game plans or learning football or anything like that; we started by spending the first couple of weeks getting these guys in shape. And this started with something called The Landry Mile.
The way the Landry Mile – named after head coach Tom Landry – worked was that each player had to run a mile within a time frame allotted to their position group (i.e. receivers had to run faster than, say, offensive linemen). And if they didn’t hit the target they had to complete a number of penalty laps the next morning at 6 a.m. I still remember the first morning in a year a player ran a quarter mile , then ran right off. “It’s not for me,” he said. “I didn’t come here to run, I came here to play football.”
It would be shocking for a player to do that today. But then, back then, you didn’t have to spend years preparing for a career chance in the NFL – you could get in by showing up for an open try and expressing interest. Not that the immediate reward of participating is very lucrative. In fact, between the start of camp and the start of the preseason games, the players were not paid at all, just getting food and board and a pair of shoes. Once the games started, players would receive a check for $ 50 per week.
Another difference that I notice is that today many teams are do not travel to camp. This is in part due to the reality of dealing with COVID-19, but even before the pandemic, some teams were tendency to move away from hold camp in a separate location – like, say, a nearby college campus – and hold it in their normal practice facilities.
It was categorically not True from my experience – in fact, at one point Landry and I calculated that we have spent almost two years of our lives, in total, staying in dorms during training camps over the years.
We didn’t just play our preseason games on NFL venues. Instead, we were hosting preseason games in various locations, including many small towns and cities without NFL teams – as long as there was a promoter willing to pay us to host a game there – low.
Consider the travel itinerary for the Cowboys preseason games in 1960, our first year of existence. We played in Seattle (which did not yet have an NFL team); in Albuquerque, New Mexico; in Pendleton, Oregon; in Minneapolis (which did not yet have an NFL team); and Louisville.
One of my tasks at the time, in addition to recruiting players, was to organize the pre-season matches and find a place to hold camp. To facilitate the western part of our preseason program during this first year, we hosted the first part of the camp at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.
One of the best parts of this trip was the presence of a guy named James Baccelliari, better known as “Jungle Jamie”. Jungle Jamie was a character – a title of The Pittsburgh Press in 1976, he called him “King Gatecrasher”, for his ability to squeeze into sporting events – which has become a staple in our training camps after becoming well known to Landry and general manager Tex Schramm. That year, Jungle Jamie joined the team charter on our trip from Portland to Seattle, where we were scheduled to play our first preseason game. Our owner actually hired a band to play for us at the Portland airport when we left – and I still remember seeing Jungle Jamie walking past the band.
I came to like using the colleges for the camp, as they had the employees to run the place during the summer, in terms of maintaining the facilities. This meant that things were generally in good shape. And that was the case at the University of the Pacific. The place we went to for the second part of this year’s camp, however … not so much.