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Top five training camps (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday July 6, 2005 1:59PM; Updated: Thursday August 11, 2005 9:37AM
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3. Cardinals (Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Ariz.): My upset pick. No one knows about this place because no one goes here. The long shadows of the San Francisco peaks frame the pine-tree-lined practice fields. It's usually 30 degrees cooler up here, at 7,000 feet, than it is in the Valley of the Sun. I once left Phoenix on a 98-degree morning and motored two hours north-through towns like Deadman's Wash and Horsethief Basin -- and it was 67 degrees. The Northern Arizona campus is a gorgeous sight to see when you arrive. The fields are pristinely kept, and the tableau of the red-and-white Cards against the green trees and blue sky makes you want to get out an easel and your third-grade paint set. Terrific access too. The players can't get away from you. On Emmitt Smith's first day of practice as a Cardinal two years ago, a fellow from Pensacola took a few steps beyond the ropes on the sideline to where Smith was stretching and shook his hand. There might only be a few hundred people at practice -- there'd be more if the Bidwillians could sustain anything but an empty stadium -- but that works to your advantage. Meet a Cardinal? Heck, you might take one to lunch.

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4. Eagles (Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa.): Two things you need if you come to this picturesque place an hour north of Philly: Sunscreen (the early August sun in eastern Pennsylvania is relentless, and there is no shade anywhere near the practice fields), and good walking shoes (the tree-lined Lehigh campus is a red-bricked beauty, but it's nothing but hills). Don't let either deter you, because players are around. I've seen Donovan McNabb strolling the campus where the players and coaches live for three weeks each summer. McNabb, Terrell Owens and Dhani Jones shared a cramped on-campus apartment last summer. (I'm betting McNabb and T.O. won't be roomies this August.) Just off-campus, in struggling Bethlehem, is the best place I eat at any training camp (except for the quasi-gourmet dining halls of the Browns and Giants): Deja Brew, an artsy, down-home sandwich shop with superb lattes. Get the Kaiser Soze (Cajun turkey, honey mustard, lettuce, tomato, American cheese, bacon on a Kaiser roll). And finish it off with the best sweet thing I've ever had: a 29-cent peanut-butter ball, made by the owner's mom. Bet you can't eat just one.

5. Panthers (Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C.): Close call. Wofford barely nips the Bills' home (St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester, N.Y.) and Seahawks' site (Eastern Washington in Spokane, Wash.) because of the proximity to the players. There might be 500 or 600 fans at weekday morning practices, and before and after each session, depending on which of three practice pitches Carolina's using that day, the players walk along a roped path, at least 75 yards long, to the field. Shake the hands. Meet the players. Fans are no farther than 10 or 15 yards from the sidelines during practice, and if the workout is in Wofford's refurbished stadium, the seats are close. Wherever you are, you can clearly hear coaches coaching. After practice, five kids are picked out to be Panther Pals, and they team with a player to carry helmet and shoulder pads back to the locker room -- and to spend 10 minutes with the player. If you head to the student union to buy a T-shirt or bottle of water between practices, you'll see them all. Bottom line: If you're a 10-year-old kid with a fan-crush on Jake Delhomme, chances are you'll meet him before the day's out.