Deep in the heart of Sierra College -- the dry, dusty and heartlessly hot erstwhile summer home of the San Francisco 49ers -- a blessed consortia of cypress trees outside the cafeteria provided shady respite from the California sunshine. And a few days into my first trip to an NFL training camp a quarter-century ago, I noticed one evening, as if overcome by heat-induced delirium, that the trees in question now housed several of the cruiser bikes that had been rented to Niners veterans eager to spend less time as pedestrians amid the toil of two-a-days.
It was a surreal sight, to be sure: Bicycles embedded in branches, clearly the brainchild of a perverse prankster with way too much time on his hands.
Or, as I would later learn: The handiwork of the greatest quarterback ever to throw a football, just in case his teammates had begun to take him for granted.
I don't have an especially vivid recollection of the moment when Joe Montana admitted that he, in fact, was the party responsible for the recurring prank, but I imagine the confession occurred on the Sierra College pool deck just behind the Niners' locker room, an oasis that served as my de facto afternoon office (and that of a few other neophyte beat writers) and a safe haven for the defending champions' media-shy superstar.
Odd as it might sound, it was poolside -- seeking respite from the triple-digit temperatures in Rocklin, California, trying to reenact "The Catch" while springing off the high-dive, living in perpetual denial of daily newspaper deadlines -- where a young, clueless and decidedly non-jaded beat writer began earning the trust of a living legend and covert bicycle thief.
Granted, I'm not speaking for the masses. Talk to an NFL player, be it Joe Montana or Joe Fourth-String Tackle, and if he's honest with you, he'll rate his regard for training camp somewhere between getting a root canal and getting audited by the IRS. I feel those guys: Camp, even in this post-lockout era of fewer practices and scaled-back contact, is a legitimate grind, not to mention a place where so many dreams go to die.
Yet for those of us who don't have to put on pads and slog through two-a-days in the relentless heat -- like, you know, ever-macho football analysts -- it's tough not to get wide-eyed and excited when NFL training camps open. I still look back wistfully at that formative Summer of '89 at Sierra College (I even rewrote a song to commemorate it, at the end of this column a few years back) and some of my most poignant football memories have taken place in similarly remote and unlikely settings, on shade-challenged campuses across this glorious land.
There was that sticky 1997 afternoon in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, when Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, emerging from a meeting room at Saint Vincent College, strode toward me with eyes ablaze and salivary glands flapping as he declared, "I have a bone to pick with you!" Ninety-nine percent of my interactions with The Chin have been overwhelmingly positive, but on this particular occasion he was very much in touch with his inner linebacker, and I was the only soul within spitting distance.
By lunchtime, my pulse had returned to normal, and we were BFFs again.
Tempers flare regularly amid the toil of camp. I've seen my share of actual brawls -- and learned of plenty of others that took place in dormitory hallways or other areas to which the media were not privy. One August afternoon 13 years ago at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, star halfback Jamal Anderson unloaded a left hook to the ear hole of an Atlanta Falcons teammate on the practice field. A couple of hours later, he told me about the team's homage to a popular Brad Pitt/Edward Norton film of that era, utterly ignoring the first and second rules of Fight Club (no one talks about Fight Club).
That said, I dutifully kept quiet about some of the socializing I enjoyed on a rare "players night off" in suddenly happening locales like River Falls, Wisconsin (where one of my favorite running mates, then-Chiefs receiver Andre Rison, famously rechristened himself "Brock Middlebrook" after a particularly raucous night).
I spent my 30th birthday keeping up with the Joneses -- and attracting a Texas-sized commotion -- on the rockin' streets of Austin, which the Cowboys blessedly called their summer home in the mid-'90s. A decade-and-a-half later, I celebrated my special day in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, joining a group of Eagles players at a sports bar between practices. Channeling our inner Montana, we made a series of prank calls to Redskins tight end Chris Cooley and briefly tricked him into thinking he'd been traded to the Giants. Later, after learning that my daughter had been red-carded in the final stages of a U-15 tournament championship game (not a prank), we ordered another round of whiskey shots in response.
Conversely, I was stone-cold sober -- as was my driver, future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk -- when we got pulled over in his Mercedes sedan on an otherwise empty Illinois highway as we cruised toward the St. Louis Rams' camp in Macomb on a July night 12 years ago. Faulk wasn't smiling in the moment, but later, in the wee hours of the morning (hey, we got a late start), what had seemed to be a textbook Driving While Black traffic stop became the source of great amusement.
The next year, I hitched a ride to Macomb with Rams tackle Kyle Turley, who, after navigating his pickup truck into the passing lane, provoked the ire of another motorist. Said motorist displayed a healthy case of road rage, motioning for Turley to pull over and discuss the matter. Clearly, he didn't realize he was baiting a dude who'd famously yanked the helmet off of Jets safety Damien Robinson on national television, hurling it halfway across the field. Thankfully, Turley declined the opportunity to attempt a similar maneuver with this particular driver's actual head, and I exhaled.
On a drizzly July morning at the Chargers' training camp in La Jolla, California, I had my own driving misadventures: A backup tight end named Brian Roche proudly showed me the souped-up golf cart he'd enlisted for his time at UC San Diego, imploring me to give it a spin on a grass field near the dorms. He meant this literally: "Do some doughnuts!" Roche commanded, and I obliged -- until I was interrupted by the screams of Chargers coach Kevin Gilbride, who was charging toward me like a blitzing safety.
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"What the hell are you doing?!" Gilbride yelled. "That's the kind of thing that's gonna get us kicked out of here!"
I looked over at the spot where Roche had been standing: Totally empty. I looked back at Gilbride, mumbled a half-hearted "Sorry" and took my medicine. A few minutes later, I found Roche in the bushes, doubled-over in laughter.
When it comes to cherished camp recollections, I could go on and on (indeed, some of you would argue that I already have). Instead, I'd rather pause to explain what I like most about this unique stage of the NFL season, and why I'm especially partial to the dozen teams that still stage camp away from their regular training facilities: Training camp might by grueling, but it's also an ideal environment for bonding, both in terms of the intra-team dynamic and, at times, with visitors who may or may not have access to the campus pool deck.
During camp, I've had some tremendously illuminating interviews in the least likely places, including the Pacific Ocean (where then-Chargers general manager and accomplished body-surfer Bobby Beathard talked about Ryan Leaf's bad attitude between tube rides) and the kitchen of the Broncos' cafeteria (where I was told, heading into the 2011 season, that Tim Tebow was the fourth-best quarterback on the roster). OK, I'm kidding about the kitchen -- as was Broncos coach John Fox when, in response to my story, he suggested that the source had been the team chef.
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I expect Fox and I will laugh about that -- again -- when I show up for the opening of the defending AFC champions' camp Thursday, and rest assured you won't find me crying about my cross-country travel itinerary over the next few weeks. I have to confess that my excitement meter spiked last Sunday night when, on the eve of the Buffalo Bills' first practice of the year at St. John Fisher College, team president Russ Brandon texted me from a Pittsford, New York, establishment called Thirsty's with the following declaration: "If you don't come you are missing out on the best camp in America!"
I've never been to Pittsford, but if all goes according to plan, I'm coming -- and I'll be thirsty for a slew of new memories. I might not find bikes in the trees, but I have a distinct feeling I'll leave Western New York more ready for the 2014 season than I was when I arrived -- and that's a beautiful thing.