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Sacco Sez: Training camp memories and moments from years long gone

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The opening of NFL training camps is a much-anticipated rite of passage for football fans. It signals the start of a new year, with new hopes and recurring dreams.

This training camp is literally like no others before it. It represents the "new normal," one that we all hope passes quickly into some semblance of the older normal to which we are all accustomed.

But the start of any training camp brings to my mind so many thoughts of how things used to be, and I thought I would share a few as this new camp begins.

My first training camp as a Denver Broncos employee was 1978, the year following Super Bowl XII.

Red Miller was the head coach and a few things were indeed different.

Camp began in mid-July, and it consisted of two-a-day practices, every day, in full pads. There were no days for a solid month in which there were not two practices, nor any without full pads.

That was back in the days when there was a lot of running, and the Oklahoma Drill was still used, which I always thought of as more a manhood test than a preparation tool.

You may have seen the Oklahoma drill, but likely only in old films or in the movie, "Undefeated," which features it prominently — one on one, blocker and defender, with the blocker trailed by a back trying to get through the hold. I remember that Sam Allen, a photographer for KUSA, would get so close to it that Red would have to ask Sam to back off a bit so they could run the drill.

On one occasion, Red was unhappy with how his offensive blocker was executing, so he hopped into the drill himself, wearing coaching shorts, no pads at all and no helmet, and told everyone to watch him.

This was a different era and he was one tough coach, one whom I think Vic Fangio would identify with immediately.

I have always felt, watching Vic, that one of his greatest gifts is molding himself to this time, this generation, but that he would fit in just fine if this were still the old days.

Tough coach.

Back in those days, there was no water on the field. What I mean by that is, there was no water on the field for players, coaches or anyone else.

Instead, about two thirds of the way through practice, the team took a popsicle break. Really. The young student-assistant trainers would haul some coolers full of popsicles onto the field, and everyone stopped long enough to have one.

One. Just one.

Those were not better times, or worse times, they were just different times. Players now are bigger and faster, more socially aware, but today's guys would have adapted then, and the players of yore would adapt now.

Two of my favorite training camp stories sort of embellish days gone by.

Bob St. Clair, the great lineman for the San Francisco 49ers who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, stood about 6-foot-9 and was entirely intimidating. But making him even more so was that he grew up liking raw steak — completely raw, uncooked steak. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of blood from his food when he was dining at the training table. Many West Coast sportswriters have told me that scores of rookies could not watch him eat, nor could they look away.

But when they went from the cafeteria to the practice field, that memory lingered on and sent many a young lineman home.

The second moment came when the Broncos had their first training camp in 1960. It was at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and the Broncos' budget was tight.

All the players slept on cots in the gym. The food was mostly hash and was not to be criticized. There were three coaches on the staff. Three.

When they lifted weights, the equipment man, Fred Posey, had filled buckets with cement, of various weights, and then two of the buckets of desired weight were placed on either end of an iron rod. And there you have it. Weight training, 1960 style.  

But everything is relative. That 1960 team produced four eventual Denver Broncos Ring of Famers: quarterback Frank Tripucka, halfback/kicker Gene Mingo, safety Austin "Goose" Gonsoulin, and wide receiver Lionel Taylor.

So talent always triumphs over conditions, then as now, and that is the most important thing to remember.

It is the player, his talent and character, not the newness of his uniform or how many young trainers are squirting water into his mouth.

When they go into the locker room to prepare for practice, they take off their street clothes and put on their uniforms. Then they take the field. And the ones who make plays — not the ones who look the best walking through the airport or lifting weights; the ones who make plays — they will catch the eyes of the coaches and find spots on the team.

Water breaks or no, pads or no pads.

There is always a place for playmakers, and this generation of coaches, like those before, will find them during the duration of training camp 2020.

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