NFL training camp: Path to glory begins with brutal grind

Back in July of 2005, during my first training camp as an NFL reporter, it took only one day on the job and only one otherwise insignificant observation to begin digesting exactly what these athletes were enduring.

One by one, nearly a dozen Miami Dolphins players exited the team's facility carrying large, clear plastic bags, each containing 15 bottles, a mix of water and Gatorade. Morning practice was over. Afternoon practice was three hours away.

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"How long will it take you to finish all of those?" I asked one player.

"They'll be gone by the start of the next practice," he answered.

I'm not sure why that moment was so memorable, and I recognize that it isn't all that fascinating. Yet I've never covered another camp without considering it -- maybe because it was my realization of the trade-off.

You know those glorious and memorable moments of January? Those breathtaking, down-to-the-wire games during which the athletic accomplishments of men still running on tired legs captivate a country? It starts here. It starts now.

It starts this week, during the most underappreciated period of the NFL schedule, when every player will begin a quest to fulfill a childhood dream while pushing through what will feel more like a very adult nightmare.

If you don't believe how bad it can be, attending one practice will sway you. Sit under the sun from beginning to end. And when you start to recognize the impact of the heat, also recognize that 300-pound men underneath helmets are running sprints under that same sun. Every day. For at least two weeks.

Players these days will tell you it's "not that bad anymore," not since the new collective bargaining agreement curbed two-a-day practices.

"With the new CBA, camp is waaaay easier," one veteran texted. "The thing that gets me is the Groundhog Day effect and practicing against the same guys every day. I want to (mess) people up on other teams instead."

You see, players aren't really complaining. They aren't asking for sympathy. They recognize they're just earning the sizeable paychecks that eventually will enter their bank accounts if indeed they do make it to Week 1 of the regular season.

But there's a reason why, for instance, free-agent linebacker Takeo Spikes said last month on NFL Network's "NFL AM" that he'd be just fine waiting until midway through camp to sign with someone.

"Do I want to be on a team at the start of training camp? Not really," Spikes said. "After 15 years of playing in the league, they're not making anything new up. The only thing new you have to understand is terminology, and I would like to think I've been around long enough to understand that."

Don't be mistaken: Spikes is like everyone else. He doesn't want anything to do with training camp, with being sequestered from family and friends, with enduring the grind that is August in the NFL. It's the same reason that Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said it "remains to be seen" how much camp he'll endure during his final season.

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Alas, the grind is here. It is brutal. It will wear down bodies even as it builds them up. Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito said he'll lose an average of 6-9 pounds per practice, illustrating why it is so important for players to replenish themselves with all of that water and Gatorade.

Decades ago, before players were paid millions of dollars, training camp marked a time when out-of-shape men returned from a literal offseason to get everything back in order. These days, it seems like a player is already on the chopping block if his body fat creeps above three percent by the time he reports.

But the reality is still the same: To pursue the dreams of January, one must first survive the nightmare of August, a nightmare that begins this week.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.