ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --For those Broncos fans who believed in omens, the first day of practice at their team's first Dove Valley training camp in 2003 was frightening.
A wild wind storm blew through just before the start of the second half of their two-a-day workload, taking the club's 13-year-old practice bubble with it. Blankets of white canvas once used in the pressurized dome flapped in the breeze, then settled on the an AstroTurf field that once sat beneath the bubble, now drenched by the first storm it had ever experienced.
But it didn't stop that day's practice. The skies cleared, the Broncos took the field in front of a few hundred fans, and preparation continued toward what would be their first playoff season in three years. A year later, a strength-and-conditioning facility replaced the bubble, and one by one, the kinks that went along with moving training camp from Greeley to the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre were ironed out.
A dozen years after that inauspicious beginning, Broncos headquarters has never been more ready for a training camp. An expanded hillside offers seating for up to 5,000 spectators -- a long way from the 2003 limit of 500 fans per session. Concession stands will offer refreshments for the inevitable hot days. Portable restrooms, so long a staple of camp, gave way to more permanent facilities. A plaza welcomes fans through the gates.
With every tweak of training camp through the years, the Broncos did their best to expand the fan experience. But only now do the Broncos have a facility truly designed with training camp and its ensuing crush of fans in mind.
"We weren't built for hosting training camp when we moved down here, but we made do with what we had," said Chip Conway, the team's vice president of operations.
In 2003, the stay-at-home camp was different, but it wasn't new. When the Broncos opened their facility at 57th Avenue and Logan Street in north Denver in 1967, new head coach Lou Saban made full use of their then-sparkling new digs. The Broncos remained there for Saban's tumultuous reign.
But after John Ralston took over, it was back to campus. For the next 31 seasons, the Broncos trained at Cal Poly-Pomona (1972-75), Colorado State University in Fort Collins (1976-81) and, finally, at the University of Northern Colorado for a 21-season stay.
Leaving town was the NFL norm in those days. For a few weeks, players wedged into dormitory beds, took their meals in the cafeteria and used classrooms for their position-group meetings. Team facilities were smaller than they are today, and clubs left because they needed extra space in which to conduct training camp.
But in the 2000s, the positives of staying began to outweigh the negatives. Broncos headquarters was in a near-constant state of regeneration. With every improvement, staying at home became the more logical option.
In 2003, the Broncos were among the second wave of teams to take camp back to their headquarters. That year, the percentage of teams staying home increased from 22 to 38 percent, the largest one-year jump in NFL history.
Today, 20 teams stay at home -- 62.5 percent of the league. Teams have renovated facilities to accommodate crowds and the continued surge of interest.
The Broncos have kept pace. When they came home in 2003, fans had to pick up their free camp tickets in advance at the stadium when camp began, as the team feared that more than 500 spectators would surpass what its facility could safely handle.
The tickets were soon phased out, but it took a while for attendance to return to its on-campus levels. From 2005-09, the Broncos averaged 926 fans per practice -- enough to make some noise, yet not enough to create the kind of enthusiasm that defined the Greeley summers.
But in 2010, the crowds began to return. Fueled by the buzz of curiosity around then-rookie Tim Tebow, the average crowd at Dove Valley increased 44.6 percent, from 975 to 1,410. Peyton Manning's arrival turned a low buzz to a loud roar; during his first two camps, the average shot up to 2,834 fans over 30 Dove Valley practices.
Last year's camp had to be sacrificed. With no fans on hand for the daily work, the quiet was deafening. Players maintained their focus, but it wasn't the same without crowd interaction and enthusiasm. Camp felt tepid.
This summer, it will be worth the wait. Training camp should be bigger, better and more boisterous than in many years. The west hill will offer some of the best camp vantage points in the NFL, reminiscent of a similar berm on the Northern Colorado campus.
It's appropriate that the return of familiar faces like Gary Kubiak, Wade Phillips and Rick Dennison should be for this camp. It's going to feel like Greeley all over again.