It’s that awful time of the summer when the grass is burning up, the back-to-school ads are taunting you with their mere presence, the kids are back from camp and cranky as heck, and football, that fall sport, starts worming its way into the forefront of the popular consciousness. Again. (Thanks for nothing, Tom Brady.)
There’s a reasonable amount of football hate around, and some mild training-camp dislike, but not in these parts. We live within screaming distance of Green Bay, where Packers training camp, a tradition richer in substance than Mama DeGennaro’s red sauce, is going on its 70th year.
Training camp is when professional football teams creep down somewhat from their pedestals and move out among the populace, into small towns and college dormitories. It’s the best time of year to see players as people – large, sweaty people, but people nonetheless.
Here are some of our favorite football training-camp experiences, taking into account location, tradition, and relative humidity, but not the goodness or badness of the team encamped. That comes later.
Buffalo Bills: St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y. In general, the best training-camp experiences involve teams that have deep roots within their communities or regions. That certainly applies to the Bills. For training camp the team moves from one Great Lake to another, to a compact facility that’s extremely kid-friendly. When not watching the practices (which can be decidedly non-involving, even for diehard fans), kids can play games like the Quarterback Challenge and Football Toss, run an obstacle course, kick a field goal, and run a different obstacle course into the end zone. There’s also an autograph area reserved for kids – a nice touch. When the grownups aren’t watching football there’s always Canandaigua and the Finger Lakes to the south and a Nick Tahou Garbage Plate to be had downtown for the daring — and the skinny.
Green Bay Packers: St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wis. The original and still the best, Packers training camp is the total package, from tradition (players still ride kids’ bikes from the dressing room to the practice facility), to all-ages activities without end. In addition to the normal kids’ stuff (see Bills, above) there’s a dress-up photo booth; a Lambeau Leap area; interactive pylons with Packers trivia; community walls, with space for fans to write inspirational messages; the Chevy Packers Mobile Tour on Aug. 1, with more game stations, classic video reels and a photo booth; a bike-safety rodeo, playing off the riding-bikes-to-practice theme; a kids’ carnival, with a dunk tank, snow cones, and more; the Kemps Moooseum, with ice-cream history and free samples from 7 a.m. to noon Aug. 7; a golf area (!) run by the PGA of America; and lots more. Lambeau Field tours are highly recommended on off days, and so too the Packers Hall of Fame, but recommended above all is Packers Family Night, a scrimmage with a picnic, a jersey giveaway, fireworks, and more. And for those who see a trip to Green Bay as an excuse to eat custard and chocolate … well, there’s that, too.
Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minn. The Vikings and their fans take great pains to distance themselves from the Packers, but Minnesota’s training camp is very Packers-like, only without the advantage of having the team’s main facility just across town. Vikings camp includes the team’s first-ever baggo tournament (also known as cornhole, or simply “throw the beanbag through the hole”), lots of food, ample autograph opportunities, and a Family Football Day that features a Vikings walk-through in the morning followed by a junior training camp, a cheerleader clinic, and a night practice with fireworks to follow. Mankato isn’t quite Green Bay, but the Twin Cities aren’t that far away, and they’re not Green Bay, either. If the Cities are too ambitious a trip, New Ulm, the home of Schell’s Brewery and the revived Grain Belt brand (including the ever-yummy Grain Belt Nordeast), is a half-hour west down U.S. 14.
New Orleans Saints: The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W.V. Switching gears for a moment, the Saints travel far afield for a good portion of their training camp, and not by accident, since the August air in Metarie most closely resembles boiling Alaga syrup. The Greenbrier is an excellent choice; besides being one of North America’s premier resorts, with golf, swimming, tennis, horseback riding, and miscellaneous recreational pursuits that include bowling and falconry, the Greenbrier just happens to have a bespoke football training facility close by. The advantage to a more remote (and expensive) location for a training camp is more access for the fans who attend. In the Saints’ case, the key dates are Aug. 7, when the team holds its first open scrimmage, and Aug. 9, when the team has a “Picnic with The Saints” after its afternoon practice, with hot dogs and burgers, a meet-and-greet, and photo and autograph opportunities.
Oakland Raiders: Napa Valley Marriott, Napa, Calif. Okay, the Raiders don’t do much of anything for their fans during training camp, but that’s the Raiders for you. On the other hand, it is Napa, and there’s all this to do instead.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa. Like the Packers, the Steelers have some serious heritage going on, and a seriously motivated fan base. This is the Steelers’ 50th year of training in Latrobe, and in celebration the team is pulling out all the stops, with two team-history displays, including one with game-worn memorabilia spotlighting last year’s record-setting season; face painting and team dress-up; youth-football team practices and scrimmages; and an NFL “Play 60 Fun Zone,” with lots of high-energy football-themed activities. Latrobe may not be the hot spot of hardscrabble West Penn coal country, but Pittsburgh is only an hour away, with great restaurants, creature comforts and an exploding art scene.
If none of these do it for you, and you want to spend hours sweltering in southern heat while you cheer on the nondescript free agents and waiver-wire pickups that temporarily represent your team, that’s your own business. Here’s where you’ll find the remaining NFL training camps:
- Atlanta Falcons: Flowery Branch training facility, Flowery Branch, Ga.
- Baltimore Ravens: Under Armour Performance Center, Owings Mills, Md.
- Carolina Panthers: Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C.
- Chicago Bears: Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Ill.
- Cincinnati Bengals: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
- Cleveland Browns: Browns training facility, Berea, Ohio
- Dallas Cowboys: Oxnard, Calif.
- Denver Broncos Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre, Englewood, Colo.
- Detroit Lions: Lions training facility, Allen Park, Mich.
- Houston Texans: Methodist Training Center, Houston
- Indianapolis Colts: Anderson University, Anderson, Ind.
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Florida Blue Health Wellness Practice Fields, Jacksonville, Fla.
- Kansas City Chiefs: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo.
- Miami Dolphins: Doctors Hospital Training Facility in Davie, Fla.
- New England Patriots: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
- New York Giants: Quest Diagnostics Training Center, East Rutherford, N.J.
- New York Jets: Atlantic Health Training Center, Florham Park, N.J.
- Philadelphia Eagles: NovaCare Complex, Philadelphia, Pa.
- San Diego Chargers: Chargers Park, San Diego, Ca.
- San Francisco 49ers: Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Center, Santa Clara, Calif.
- Seattle Seahawks: Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Renton, Wash.
- St. Louis Rams: Rams Park, Earth City, Mo.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa, Fla.
- Tennessee Titans: Saint Thomas Sports Park, Nashville, Tenn.
- Washington Redskins: Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center, Richmond, Va.
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