The Excitement and Terror of Training Camp


Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta (88) catches a pass against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The excitement of training camp for fans means that football is back.  They want to see how the team looks, the draft picks and free agents they brought in, and everything is wonderful.  That feeling lasts a solid fifteen to twenty minutes before that feeling of excitement turns to terror when the first major injury is announced in one of the training camps around the league.  It does not matter which team it is or who the player it is, but the second it happens and the announcement is made that a play left the field on a cart, that feeling of excitement and hope turns to terror as instead of wanting to see the development of players and the team, the new goal is just to get through training camp healthy for the season.  One of the reasons the offseason is so much fun for football fans is that outside of a rare situation, their players are either healthy or working to become healthy and ready to go.  To this point, the Browns have been able to avoid a major injury but they know all too well that feeling of terror and they were reminded of this in practice Saturday.

During practice on Saturday, during a one on one drill, Ryan Miller went down unconscious and limp for a moment.  On social media, Miller, then unnamed at the time, was a player down for what totaled seven minutes before he was ultimately immobilized and put on a back board before going to the hospital.  The important thing is the team and medical staff did everything they could in terms of due diligence and while the situation was serious and ultimately was a concussion, the team’s chances were not altered for the entire season by the event.  Miller should be back in a week or few and back to practicing.  That would be the case if it was Joe Thomas, Joe Haden or anyone else.

For teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, and Baltimore Ravens, the excitement of the football season has already been sucked out and all of those teams are searching for ways to solve serious issues.  Dennis Pitta went down with a season-ending hip injury for the Ravens while Jeremy Maclin went down with an ACL Tear for the Eagles.  The Broncos lost their center, Tom Nalen with a torn ACL as well.  For Pitta and Maclin, the injuries are devastating for their teams but also for their own careers as both were in contract years and their futures could be genuinely altered as a result.  In addition, all three teams are now looking for ways to mitigate the damage and find players to try to fill the gaps left by these players.

Browns fans got their taste of this in 2006 with the life-altering knee injury for LeCharles Bentley.  On what was to be the first play of training camp, Bentley went down what would result in a torn patellar tendon; an injury that would ultimately end Bentley’s career and result in a four year battle that almost cost him his leg in the process.  Fortunately, Bentley was able to pull through all of it intact and has pushed forward and does media work in addition to running a training center specially designed for linemen.  Jason Pinkston has worked there as well as numerous other linemen in the NFL and players training for the draft.

Thankfully, Miller’s injury was relatively small in the grand scheme of things but brain injuries are nothing to be taken lightly and hopefully everything can be done to make sure he is able to return to the field but his mental health is protected as well.  As was seen with the unfortunate situations with Ryan Swope and Jahvid Best, two players that were forced to retire due to concussions, that is a serious issue the NFL is taking seriously, finally.

That is the nature of training camp and really the preseason.  Fans love football as do the players and the coaches but in the back of everyone’s minds, they are all afraid of injuries.  For fans, it seems like they all forget about injuries and how quickly and relatively easily they happen until they are reminded with another one.  Teams are constantly reminded as they see these guys every day and what they are working to recover from as well as the scars from those injuries, but for fans, out of sight, out of mind.  Excitement turns into an exercise in holding their collective breath for the better part of a month until the season starts.

The most unfortunate part of all of this is that a solution to prevent these types of injuries has not presented itself yet.  For all of the reduction of hitting practices the players were able to negotiate in the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, there is still a rash of injuries and most of them were in shells and low or noncontact.  The argument to reduce the amount of practice they have makes sense except when these injuries happened, it was not due to be overworked or anything along those lines.  The idea that shortening training camp and extending the schedule would help reduce these injuries is incredibly flawed.

Instead of getting injured in practices, players are getting injured in games and if there are eighteen games, the starters and bigger players are the ones taking the brunt of that damage.  At least in a practice atmosphere, guys that are dinged up can be held out of practice until something more crucial comes along, which gives fighting for roster spots more reps and more time to be evaluated.  More games puts a pinch on evaluation of young players and ultimately they are the ones that suffer while the bigger money players are at a much greater risk because games count and teams need to win them.

All of this ends up being a shell game in the end.  No matter how practices and games are scheduled, it is a contact sport that puts a significant amount of stress and torque on joints and tendons.  When these players are as big, strong, and fast of they are, their tendons and joints cannot always keep up with their muscles.  As a result, quick twitches and full speed contact put significant stress being put on them are always a risk for injury.  It is also astounding how many victims the first week of camp seems to have.  Somehow, some way there is probably a more effective way to acclimate players to be able to ramp up to full speed to prevent the sheer number of injuries happening as camps open.

In addition to increasing the amount of flexibility players have to help reduce some of these injuries, the best thing players and the NFL can do to protect themselves to help protect themselves against these constant injuries is to crack down on the use of substances that make these guys so big and strong but leave their joints and tendons at risk.  The other part of this is the NFL really needs to look into legalizing prescribed HGH.  Unless they can significantly reduce the amount of injuries that are happening, responsible use of prescribed HGH can help these guys recover faster and get back on the field, allowing them to realize more of their earning power.  The benefit to the teams is their players are on the field more often and can help them win.  Under the care of a doctor, HGH can be extremely effective to aid in recovery.  Like with just about anything else, abuse of anything can do more harm than good, so while people will say flatly that HGH is bad, it is more complicated than that and can provide real benefits.

HGH is commonly used in other situations by doctors to help patients, so why not use it in professional sports?  It certainly would not be easy to be passed into the NFL and would be met with significant scrutiny by the media and fans, but somehow, some way they have to find a way to help either reduce injuries or make them less devastating.  Like with the removal of ‘hatchet men’ with the career ending injury of Gale Sayers, the NFL needs to evolve to keep their players on the field.  After a week of practice, eight players are already out for the season.

Ideally, the NFL will work to attack the injuries both from a preventative measure as well as treatment.  Different advances in regards to knees and recovering from tendon tears are becoming more commonplace, but more is needed.  As it is, fans and teams as a whole can continue holding their breath and hope their team can get through training camp relatively healthy.  Football is always going to be a brutal sport and injuries will happen no matter what changes are, but it is staggering how much everyone has to walk on eggshells while players are practicing hoping they can all get off the field healthy.