By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
A long time ago (i.e. “before kids”), mid-summer trips to ‘Skins training camp were an annual pilgrimage. These were simpler times for me and better times for Washington’s football team. Dan Snyder’s ownership, or reign of terror if you prefer (and appropriately so), was in its infancy. Washington’s football brand was still strong and the burgundy and gold could be worn with pride. Snyder’s wild spending and impatience was considered youthful exuberance and not the fatal flaw that it proved to be. And brass tacks: the questionable decency of his soul remained unexposed.
But most important for this story, Snyder had yet to corrupt training camp into the paid event it was at the team facility or the polished, structured, political and no doubt profitable endeavor it now is in Richmond, Virginia. The camps I speak of happened west and north of D.C. – in Frostburg, Maryland and across the Mason-Dixon line into south-central Pennsylvania and the quaint little town of Carlisle. These far-off lands were technically within Darth Snyder’s empire, but they remained unspoiled or, to a use a modern term, “off the grid.”
The stories. Some are fit for print in this PG format, others I’d disclose only verbally after some liquid encouragement and with the express understanding that all of it would be denied if pressed. Protect your source, protect the innocent…and protect yourself. Splendid advice indeed.
Suffice to say late nights and spirited carousing were the norm. And why not? Constraints were minimal and it was good for the local economy. Spread the money, spread the love. Least I could do, eh? The morning practices though, part one of the old brutal two-a-day sweat-fests, were a challenging bell to answer. I observed most from distant bleacher perches while humbly nursing hangovers in the muggy July morning air. This is when I first realized that professional football players are not from this planet – or are at least a unique human gene pool. I watched many players practice, and seemingly well, despite being out very, very late the previous night and consuming a whole lot of non-performance-enhancing beverages. How were they doing this? A mere mortal, I could barely turn my head without feeling dizzy. Maybe superheroes are real?
There’s mercifully scant evidence from these excursions. I do have hats though, each filled with autographs. Even casual ‘Skins fans would recognize most of the names. Buy some are completely obscure, even unidentifiable. In this case, the unknown and forgotten are who matter.
There’s a “Rod S.” Number 51. Linebacker, I assume. Monte Coleman he was not. “Matt” something or other played quarterback and wore number 11. He wasn’t quite Mark Rypien 2.0. My favorite signature though is “Eric.” I think it is Eric Whitfield but can’t be sure. Nevertheless, the dude signed the hat right above the ‘Skins logo in big, bold cursive and ended with an emphatic “#36!”. He was announcing his presence with authority. He was going to make hay in the NFL…until he didn’t. Eric Whitfield never played a down in the league.
This isn’t a knock on those players; it’s just the opposite. While their names have been lost to history, their against-all-odds stories still stick with me. I think of them every year as July turns to August and another NFL season approaches. Training camp and the NFL preseason are loathed by established players, coaches and fans. But for many NFL hopefuls – literally dozens per team – it is the ultimate opportunity, maybe the last opportunity, to realize their football dream. No matter the odds or the sacrifices, they have it all on the line. In late August, final roster cut-downs deliver a harsh and absolute judgment. Some make it; many do not. None are failures. To a man, they dared to take a chance on themselves and pursue a dream. They boldly stood on that thin line between NFL player and obscure autograph on a dusty old hat. And all these years later, it’s the “Rod’s”, “Matt’s” and “Eric’s”, not the more famous autographs acquired, that I’m writing about. It’s the “Rod’s”, “Matt’s” and “Eric’s” who have provided the lasting inspiration.
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