People envy NFL writers at this time of year because we get to see teams at camp with less of a filter than during the season. It's also fun to see teams go back to their roots at some of the college campuses they use. Here are my favorite training camp sites among the teams that go away from home.
1. Steelers (Latrobe, Pa.) Why do I love thee, Latrobe? Let me count the ways: 1. Rolling hills of Laurel Highlands make the place look a little Scottish, and occasional morning fog adds to it. 2. I once saw Joe Greene, alone, smoking an evening cigar at dusk while overlooking Chuck Noll Field. 3. I once saw the Bill Cowher Steelers practicing on a dry field with no fans, with a huge cornfield on one sideline, a few long spirals from the main field. Looked like Field of Dreams. 4. Fans on top of the action. Must be a Latrobe rule to wear black and gold to camp.
2. Cardinals (Flagstaff, Ariz.) About 15 feet from fans on the sidelines, Larry Fitzgerald was tiptoeing and catching sideline balls on Thursday. No fence. No rope. Just trust that fans will respect the lines. I once saw a fan, during calisthenics, walk up to Emmitt Smith and shake his hand. If you love majestic pine trees, cool afternoons and the San Francisco Peaks range of mountains overlooking the field, you need to visit this underrated spot.
3. Bills (Pittsford, N.Y.) Classic old-style football camp at a small college in a Rochester suburb. Fans on top of players in modern bleachers at St. John Fisher College. Because the fans treat the players like community treasures, the Bills treat the fans with the same respect. Great vibe there. And a very nice souvenir tent.
4. Eagles (Bethlehem, Pa.) If you like hills, you'll love the campus of Lehigh University. And though the practice fields are just flat fields with no great view, the feel of many practices are perfect Philly -- chants ("E-A-G-L-E-S! EAGLES!!!") and catcalls that make it clear these fans are in midseason form in late July and early August.
5. Panthers (Spartanburg, S.C.) I've always loved the feel of this place, in part because of the way the Panthers treat the fans who attend. Ten or 12 players sign until the last autograph, and you can walk around the Wofford College campus and see players if you pick the right time. Oppressively hot most of the time, but a postcard of a place.
6. Vikings (Mankato, Minn.) Another classic college campus hosting a team, with players who are accommodating, an hour south of the big Minneapolis airport. The real treat is Jake's Stadium Pizza across the street, with local Mankato beer on tap. The pizza's so good that players come in before curfew regularly.
7. Chiefs (St. Joseph, Mo.) I have always loved the Wisconsin-River Falls site, so this one, on the campus of Missouri Western State University, will take some getting used to. But practices are fan-accessible, and you can catch players around campus too. Good line of sight on the main practice field. For the team, rainy days are no issue because of a classy, modern indoor facility the Hunt family helped build.
8. Cowboys (Oxnard, Calif.) Weather's great on the Pacific coast, 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. Site's OK, a Residence Inn that's roomy and convenient for the players. Fans get good access and sightlines to practice, except if the team is working on a far field.
9. Bears (Bourbonnais, Ill.) It's usually roasting on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, with little chance of shade. But the Bears do a good job of taking care of families with kiddie activities, and the fans are close to the action.
10. Giants (Albany, N.Y.) Weird, corporate-building-laden campus at University at Albany. But if you want to see position coaches fairly up-close and personal working with individual players, this is a good camp to do so. The players are friendly and reachable here also.
The week ahead, as EvoShield joins our merry band
Should be a fun week. On Wednesday, I change from a flying to driving journey, and we christen the 2012 SI-EvoShield Training Camp Trip and begin to ride around America in a cool van owned by the Georgia-based athletic protection company EvoShield. It's a five-year-old company that makes protective apparel and gear for more than 250 college and pro teams. Robert Griffin III will continue to use the ultra-light EvoShield padding this year in Washington. They've shown me the stuff, which is beyond what I ever thought I'd see players protect themselves with -- gel pads that mold to different bodies in minutes, then become part of what the players wear.
My buddy Will Carroll, the injury-expert maven, put me together with EvoShield's chief innovation officer, Justin Niefer, and EvoShield generously agreed to let us use its state-of-the-art van as we tool first around the southeast, then the northeast and midwest, over the next three weeks. We'll have a couple of SI staffers helping with the driving and the reporting, so stay tuned to Twitter and SI.com for the fun. Here's how this week stacks up, tentatively:
|This Week's Travel Schedule|