Stills: Training camp memories

Former Packers safety Ken Stills goes back in time to his days in training camp with the Green Bay Packers. Stills has fond memories of camp under Forrest Gregg, including a funny story of how he schooled then-rookie Chuck Cecil.

As training camp kicks off I can only sit back and smile as I begin to reminisce on all the great times we had as players. For me, training camp with the Green Bay Packers in De Pere, Wis., for five seasons and with the Minnesota Vikings at Mankato State University for two seasons were some of the most memorable times in my life.

There are more than enough stories from those seven training camps to write a serious, serious book, but since has asked for my expertise and insight I'll give you a look into training camp that you probably won't believe.

Just because you see the players on the practice field sweating through practices don't think they aren't having any fun. As a player, especially a returning veteran, training camp is a time to tune up your skills, get back into game shape, and really prepare for the upcoming season.

For most veteran players, myself included, during the 1980's when there wasn't any free agency or franchise tags put on players, a guy didn't think about losing his job during training camp. You knew each year when you arrived at camp you were the starter. If the team felt that you couldn't perform your duties and they were ready to replace you they would, otherwise it was your job to keep. I know each year I made sure of that.

I remember one training camp around 1987 or '88 when the Packers drafted a defensive back from Arizona State named Chuck Cecil. Chuck was on the cover of Sports Illustrated one season with blood dripping down his nose like he was some throwback player from the '60's. He was this young, cocky, defensive back that thought he was going to come to Green Bay and take my starting free safety position. Well, I wasn't having any part of that. The story that I'm about to tell you only a few people know about. To this day I don't even think Chuck knows about it.

'Jack' for you, soda for me
During training camp we stayed in De Pere at St. Norbert College, just like the players do today. Just down the street from St. Norbert College there are a few local taverns. After having spent a few training camps in the area and really getting to know the folks of De Pere, I became friends with one of the local tavern owners, John Nick of Nicky's Tavern. Nicky's was one of our hangouts during training camp, a great little spot where everybody knew everybody and we treated each other like family. Sounds like most places in Green Bay. Well, back to the story.

During training camp the veterans always have the rookies take them out for dinner and drinks, so I decided that my rookie, Chuck Cecil, was going to take me to Nicky's. Before we arrived at Nicky's I discussed with the bartender, which happened to be John Nick, that when I come in that evening I would be with Chuck. I'm going to ask Chuck to do a few shots with me, but here's the kicker instead of John giving me alcohol he would give me soda and give Chuck the shots. Back in those days the soda and alcohol came out of the same hand dispenser.

Well, we arrive at the tavern later that evening and I give John the nod and me and Chuck began doing shots of Jack Daniels. "Here's to the new rookie," I'd say. Shot number one, Jack for Chuck, soda for me. Shot number two, the same way. Shot number three, again Jack for Chuck and soda for me. Well, to make a long story short Chuck had 10 shots of Jack Daniels that night and I had 10 shots of Diet Coke. This young rookie thought he could hang with the old vet. He starts hugging me and telling me how he's going take my job. You know how guys get when their out having a good time. Well, the next day at practice it was hilarious. Beside the fact that Coach Forrest Gregg was wondering who smelt like a brewery, Chuck was staggering all over the place, dropping passes and looking totally discombobulated. He comes up to me and says," Dude how come you look like nothing happened to you?" Boy, if he only knew.

Like I said, I never felt my job was in jeopardy. Well, eventually Chuck became the starter and I moved on to a career with the Vikings.

Camp under Forrest Gregg
Training camp was always a great time for me. I loved training camp. Being with the guys and doing something you really love to do. Besides that they even paid us to do it.

When I first came to Green Bay in 1985, Gregg was the Head Coach. You want to talk about a tough training camp. I'm surprised more guys didn't pass out from heat exhaustion.

Here's a small look at my first training camps. The first day you report, you have to pass two physical tests. Your first test is a lifting test. You have to lift 185 pounds or 225 pounds, depending on your position for as many times as you can. There was a standard that Coach Gregg expected and if you didn't reach it he made a mental note of it.

When it comes down to final cuts and it's between you and another guy those mental notes are often the difference between making or missing the squad.

The second was a running test. You had to run a mile in around 4 minutes, 30 seconds. That's right. I hope you don't think the four minute mile is something new, we've been doing it since the 80's!

Coach Gregg loved to watch his players lift weights, but he really loved to watch us run. He would always call the local TV station to watch that first practice, making sure the cameras were rolling when the big offensive and defensive linemen were running around the track. Guys like Charlie Martin, Ron Hallstrom and Tim Harris running full speed around that big track, what a sight that use to be. Whenever other people saw us on TV they would always say, "Whoa, those guys are big and they can run, too."

If you didn't make the running test that first day then every day at 6 a.m. you were back out there trying it again and you were there everyday until you made it.

All of our training camp practices as well as regular season practices started with 100 up-downs. If you don't know what an up-down is, then you probably don't want to know. What you do is you start running in place, when coach says "hit it," you jump down on the ground breaking your fall with your hands, arms and shoulders then rapidly jump back up. If you do this at a quick pace you get a great cardio workout, along with a pretty good upper body workout. When I look back on it now, coach was pretty smart. For all the guys who came into camp out of shape and who hadn't lifted any weights coach could use this to get them ready.

This was one of the many things Coach Gregg took from Coach Lombardi and one of the things I've taken from Coach Gregg that I use with my players today.

Once the up-downs were over we'd go into practice pretty much like it is today, individual drills, skelly pass, one-on-one, and team. We didn't have as many water breaks as they do now and we put in a lot more football, but we really enjoyed it.

Between all the practices, whether it was outside on the ‘Frozen Tundra' or a nice sunny day on the practice field (we didn't have the Don Hutson Center back then) practice always was enjoyable. You might be riding your favorite kid's bike down to practice or walking along with a fan. If we weren't putting Ben Gay on one of the rookies jock straps, or kicking out our screen window from our dorm room to sneak out past curfew we were hanging out at the local Steak House as a team or hanging at one of our teammate's house. It was a great time to bond together and become a team.

I never really experienced a bad training camp. My rookie year in 1985, I was the final cut from the roster. I remember sitting in my hotel room, and by this time we had left St. Norbert College and were ready to move into our own places. I was rooming with a good friend of mine, running back Gary Ellerson when the phone rang. We both looked at each other, scared to answer the phone. Gary picks up the phone then hands it to me, it's Burt Gustafson on the line, we called Burt "The Ax Man." If you got the call from Burt you knew you were getting cut. The nine words a player never wants to hear. "Coach wants to see you and bring your playbook."

I was more scared than disappointed by that call. At that time in my life I was just happy that I had an opportunity to even be in a training camp. I never even dreamed I'd play pro ball.

For the player whose dream has become reality, be very thankful. Make sure when you look back on your training camps you're able to smile, just like I did.

Ken Stills

Editor's note: Ken Stills played safety for the Packers from 1985-89. E-mail Ken at

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