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Sacco Sez: Training camp memories

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The World Champion Denver Broncos' 2016 training camp now is truly right around the corner.

The first practice is scheduled for Thursday, July 28, with camp to be held at UCHealth Training Center in Englewood, Colo., with 15 practices open to the public. Each of the 15 practices open to fans will take place from 9:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. at the team headquarters. On August 17, fans can watch a joint practice session with the San Francisco 49ers during the final open practice of training camp.

Training camp is all very neat and tidy and organized, and as John Elway and Gary Kubiak will attest, it is also very short compared to their first training camps as pros in the 1980s.

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But camp can afford to be shorter now, with shorter and fewer practices. The teams are allowed a number of offseason drills, on and off the field. With the strength and conditioning programs that all teams have, pro players have never been more prepared at the start of camp than they are now.

I can remember back to the days when we did not even have a strength facility, and it was rare to see a player for months at a time in the offseason.

Defensive line coach Stan Jones used to tell stories about how when he was a Hall of Fame player for the Chicago Bears and was an early proponent of weight lifting, players wondered if there was anything unusual about Stan because he did not just depend on hunting and fishing to stay in shape, but actually went to a gym to lift weight with bodybuilders. Eventually every player in football followed the example set by Stan Jones. 

I remember when training camp, circa 1978, involved two practices a day, every day. All the practices were in full pads, and there was no water on the field to anywhere near the degree of today. The players used to get a "popsicle break" midway through practice, and you never saw a bunch of grown men look so forward to a popsicle.

A very good book on training camp concerns itself with college football, and it is a peek at a bygone era.  "The Junction Boys," by Jim Dent, is the story of legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, actually pre-Alabama days, when he was in the process of molding his first Texas A&M team. A very good book, but not for the faint of heart. 

Or how about when Bill Parcells insisted on getting his team ready by having not two-a-days full pads, but three-a-days, including one full-pads practice at night? Or when Parcells was in Dallas and had all the stars taken off the helmets, telling the players they had to earn the star, and then setting up "robust" contact drills to see that players did so.

My earliest training camps were with head coaches Red Miller (three years) and Dan Reeves (12 years), in Fort Collins and then Greeley.

When you reported, that was that.  You would not be seeing your family for days, certainly, perhaps a couple of weeks, and generally speaking the team would go right back to camp after the first two pre-season games.

Once upon a time, one of our reporters from a local paper wrote that, "We have eaten so many meals at the team cafeteria than even the ice cream tastes like chicken." A good line!  Unfortunately, the cafeteria ladies thought he was insulting the food, so I had to get him to go to the kitchen and apologize, explaining that he meant his words in a humorous vein.

I remember the first times that trainer Steve Antonopulos mentioned that a player had gone for an "MRI," and all the press wondered what the heck that was. That was when the now common magnetic resonance exam was brand new to the medical world.

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I remember curfew. And I remember there was an all-pro defensive end we had who liked to go out after curfew, and he always squealed the wheels of his pickup truck as he left, leaving little doubt that he was gone. The head coach asked his curfew coach if everyone was in his respective room at the time of curfew check, and upon being told they were, he said that was good enough for him and chose not to attempt an identification of the missing player. When you could play, you could play.

There was a fair amount of rookie hazing back in those days, nothing like the sophisticated training camps of today. Veterans made it very tough for a rookie to take a job away from a veteran buddy.  The rookie had to not only outplay the veteran but show he could stand up to a variety of subtle and not so subtle intimidation techniques.

I remember Mike Shanahan had an annual putting and fishing derby for the players late in camp, and I remember when Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe "salted" the fishing lake with fish he had purchased, trying (in vain) to increase his odds of winning.

Camp days were long, from about 6:00 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m., and always longer than that for the coaches. Today the world of pro football has come so far, with an emphasis on the highest standards of preparation, planning and decorum. This is a huge plus for the game and for everyone in it, especially the players.  Camp has never been as sophisticated as it is right now. And it is a lot shorter. At the Broncos' ultra-modern kitchen and cafeteria, the ice cream never tastes like chicken!

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