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Star struck

Excitement abounds in the air-conditioned Alamodome

Posted: Sunday July 28, 2002 12:44 PM

  Peter King - Training Camp Postcards

This is the fifth in a series of postcards Sports Illustrated's Peter King will e-mail from his annual NFL training camp tour.

Saturday, July 27

Team: Dallas Cowboys

At the Alamodome in San Antonio, site of the Dallas Cowboys' training camp that seems anything but a training camp. They've installed a surface called Real Grass, an indoor artificial turf (Rod Smith tells me it's the best surface, including grass, he's ever played on) on the floor of the dome, with big areas in one end zone and sideline for the necessary training-camp things like blocking sleds and drills.

Weird environment at the two Saturday practices. Things like a DJ-type announcer saying things like: "Give it up for YOUR TEXAS FORD DEALERS!!!" (Right in the middle of drills.) And medium-loud soft rap and pop music drowning out the sounds of practice. Isn't that why people come to camp? They don't come to hear Nelly or Michael Jackson or that old song that has the funny lyrics "Chickenachina, Chinese chicken." I bet there was a crowd of 12,000 at the afternoon practice, held in delightful 72-degree comfort. Outside it was 97.

One more note: At the Saturday morning workout, I'm standing on the field and Jerry Jones walks out of the tunnel, sees me, and comes over to talk. As I shake his hand, the crowd sees him and begins chanting, "Jer-REE! Jer-REE! Jer-REE!" And the Cowboys' ace PR man, Rich Dalrymple, has the line of the day. "Sounds like the audience at The Jerry Springer Show."

Also, while the team practiced Saturday afternoon, the Austin Powers-Briteny Spears Pepsi commercial played on the big screen. Loudly.

They don't make training camps like they used to, I guess.

1. I think I can safely say that there has never been a training camp like this one. The players are housed in the comfy downtown Marriott Riverwalk, and Friday night there was a pep rally inside the dome for the team, and 20,000 people showed to hoot and holler for the Cowboys. I told Roy Williams, the vaunted rookie, that he was pretty lucky to have avoided the type of gruelling environment most teams (all teams, really) have for training camp in favor of this air-conditioned dome. "Don't tell me that," he said. "I've still got to work hard out here."

2. I think, watching Chad Hutchinson, the ex-Stanford quarterback and three-year St. Louis Cardinals farmhand (see below), that Quincy Carter could have a battle on his hands for the starting quarterback job. Not now; Carter will start the opener unless he takes an awful pill in camp. If Hutchinson continues to shake off the rust the way he started to do this weekend, Dave Campo could have a dilemma on his hands at some point this season. But that's a very big "if" for a guy who's gone almost five years between having the pads on.

3. I think players aren't supposed to go full-out and nail teammates on the first full day of camp, but cornerback Mario Edwards spied former Bengals tight end Tony McGee running free across the middle in the Saturday afternoon practice. As McGee reached up and caught a Carter pass, Edwards shouldered him square in the ribs, each going 100 mph. The crowd went nuts. McGee went down with sore ribs and no breath.

4. I think you'll see Williams line up at free safety in the base defense this year. Then you'll see him blitz from the weak side, cover wideouts and tight ends both, blitz from inside, and, quite possibly, sell popcorn. "I know he gives us something we really need," Campo told me, "and that's someone who makes plays."

5. I think I am not to proud to steal a great stat, and I stole this from assistant PR man Brett Daniels' exhaustive bio on Emmitt Smith: In 185 NFL games, he has averaged 87.5 rushing yards per game. In 190 games, Walter Payton averaged 88.0. If Smith gets Payton's record in five games (he needs 540 yards), he and Payton would have identical per-game career rushing averages.

Andre Gurode, the second-round pick from Colorado, is well on his way to winning the center job here. The Cowboys can't say enough good things about his quickness and versatility. He showed a little boxer-jab type of mean streak on a few defensive linemen Saturday.

At tight end, which is the job of Bengals import McGee, and at corner, which was bypassed in the draft in favor of Williams. Look for Bryant Westbrook (coming off a disappointing Detroit career and an Achilles' tear) and Edwards to win the jobs there. Do not confuse this tandem with Madison-Surtain, or even Bailey-Smoot.

I saw something today that I've never seen in 18-plus years covering the league: an official team roster with a 400-pound player. The Cowboys list Aaron Gibson at 6-foot-6 and 410. When he walked past me after one of the practices here, I can tell you it's not an exaggeration.

The Cowboys' training table, regrettably, is off limits to the media this year. I guess there's just too many of us vermin. It's always been one of the best. So I tried to do the next-best thing -- eat the lunch buffet at the Marriott Riverwalk's coffee shop in downtown San Antonio, in the hotel where the team stays. It compared quite favorably to the Giants' fare the other day in Albany. The goods:

Appetizer: Chicken noodle soup, small bowl. Mediocre. Lousy dark meat, overcooked and soggy noodles. The Milwaukee Brewers of chicken soups. D.

Entree: Chicken breast in a light alfredo sauce. Very nice, with a touch of mushroom. Accompanied by a moist wild rice. A.

Vegetables: Steamed cauliflower and broccoli. A tad overdone, but nice and nutrient-filled. B-plus.

Dessert: Pecan tort. Just small enough that I didn't feel guilty. B-plus.

Drink: Iced tea. Iced tea. And more iced tea. With lemon. B-plus.

Grade: It helped that I hadn't had a meal Saturday until this, but it sure tasted good. B-plus.

Smith burst through the Dallas offensive line Saturday afternoon in a padded low-contact 11-on-11 scrimmage and broke outside. The crowd cheered madly. "YEAH!" the weirdo PA man yelled. "Get ready to see a lot of that this season, you know what I'm talkin' about?!"

Everywhere here it's Emmitt this and Emmitt that, and rightfully so. Autographing right next to him after the morning practice, to a much less voracious crowd in the Alamodome end zone, was Hutchinson, the most intriguing player in any training camp this summer.

"They probably don't know who I am," he said with a straight face after he finished signing.

A couple of us -- me, Buck Harvey, the fine local columnist -- sidled up to Hutchinson after practice. Along with the HBO Hard Knocks cameras, of course, which, I do believe, have recorded everything here so far except Emmitt's urinations.

"It's the first time I've thrown the ball in pads in five years, and it felt great," Hutchinson said.

The 6-5 Hutchinson turned down a huge signing bonus out of Torrey Pines High north of San Diego to play quarterback at Stanford. After his mediocre 1997 season there, he split for baseball, for a second-round deal with the Cardinals. His 95-mph fastball couldn't overcome wildness. Though he was promoted to the big-league roster in April 2001 for a cup of coffee (Darryl Kile took the kid under his wing), Hutchinson decided to trade baseball for a seven-year term with the Cowboys less than a year later.

They've started something like 11 different pitchers this year, I told him. Haven't you regretted your decision, even for a day?

"I'm surprised how little I've thought about baseball," Hutchinson said. "I would have had a good shot to make it up there this season, but it really hasn't crossed my mind one time."

I asked Bruce Coslet, the new offensive coordinator, about the kid. "He throws a rocket, and he's accurate as hell," he told me.

["Accurate as hell." Wouldn't that be a bad thing? Shouldn't "accurate as hell" mean you're not very accurate, and shouldn't "accurate as heaven" mean you're supremely accurate, which is what Coslet was trying to convey? Just curious.]

"He's got a presence about him," Coslet said. "He's rusty as hell, but I really like what I've seen so far. He can make all the throws."

Rusty as hell. Coslet, apparently, likes Hades.

Denver Broncos, Greeley, Colo.

Check back soon for more of Peter King's Postcards from Camp. Or visit the archive to catch up.