Traversing the U.S. over the last three weeks as I covered 15 NFL training camps and two preseason games, I logged 10,646 air miles and 2,935 on the ground. But for all those miles I was invariably met with one of just two reactions when I described my travels. "You're crazy; what a grind," said Jets G.M. Mike Tannenbaum from Cortland, N.Y. That's one. The other, expressed most recently by a fan I met at a Bills tailgate before last Thursday night's preseason game against the Redskins: "You've got the best job in the world."
Well, it's both—but it's more of the latter, really. The annual NFL training camp journey is my favorite time of the year. Pulling into Bourbonnais, Ill., at 5:26 a.m.... Eating nachos-in-a-cheesy-soup as dinner during a quick layover in Houston.... Typing on a computer perched atop a gas station garbage can during a leg-stretching stop.... Crazy? Sure. But that's the NFL in August.
If I had been doing pen-and-paper postcards, I would have written home about Drew Brees, unhappy that tight end Jimmy Graham wasn't hustling after a play in Metairie, La., zipping a ball at Graham and nearly popping him in the helmet, as if to say, "Sean Payton's not here—but I am. So knock it off." I would have written of lunch with Larry Fitzgerald in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he told me that his buddy Bill Clinton is such a big football fan that the former president had asked this summer, "Who's going to win your quarterback job?"
Off the field, I got a tutorial from coach Jim Schwartz on the Lions' new iPad playbooks, gawked at Jaguars linemen doing yoga in their spacious locker room and, in Renton, Wash., hard by Lake Washington, saw a bald eagle fly low over the west sideline at Seahawks camp.
On the field, I noted the impatience of Peyton Manning, who hardly believes the hype that he's all the way back from four neck procedures ("I hate it," he told me after a practice in which he threw mostly short and intermediate stuff); wondered whether a star was being born as I watched Seattle's Russell Wilson, a third-round pick, fire a deep completion on the run; and observed Robert Griffin III dashing five times on designed runs in a 20-play 11-on-11 drill at Redskins camp, dispelling the notion that Mike Shanahan will wrap the 218-pounder in protective cellophane and staple him to the pocket. These are the things you see and hear when you're up close and personal with the NFL in the dog days. Which is why I go.
And which is why I'll be happy to plow forward this week, when I see the Chiefs, Rams, Colts, Packers, Texans, Cowboys and another team or two. That's the third phase. Phase one (Cardinals, Chargers, Saints, Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers and Raiders) was conducted by plane and rental car. Phase two (Dolphins, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Falcons, Redskins, Giants, Jets, Bills, Lions and Bears) was in a luxury van provided by the protective-gear manufacturer EvoShield, and which included the company of Team SI: videographer John DePetro, reporter Matt Gagne, intern-driver Jack Ford and, along for the ride, ProFootballFocus.com writer Neil Hornsby, who won the Emmy for Best Road Sleeper in a Miniseries after he zonked out, motionless, for eight hours on the interstate between Flowery Branch, Ga. (Falcons), and Ashburn, Va. (Redskins).
Why the van? Summer storms, airline problems—you name the hiccup, I've encountered it. A few years ago I was stuck at Orlando International for eight hours and had to cancel a trip to see the Saints, and I've thought ever since how great it would be to get a van—and a driver—so that I could write in transit. Our 30-foot Ford features power outlets for our phones, laptops and wireless modem, plus a cushy black recliner from which I wrote portions of my Monday Morning Quarterback column, for SI.com, and concocted this list of awards from my first 19 days on the road.
Best Knowledge Gleaned, On Field
Randy Moss looks to me like vintage Randy Moss. At Niners camp I saw him make cornerback Perrish Cox tangle his feet and grasp at air as Moss blew past him for a catch.
Best Knowledge Gleaned, Off Field