A time of misery, a time of discovery

The words scare grown men, at least some of them (including me), prompting a change in personality. They snarl at their wives or girlfriends. They bark at their kids. They clutch mightily to their last days of freedom. All from these words: training camp.

The words scare grown men, at least some of them (including me),
prompting a change in personality. They snarl at their wives or
girlfriends. They bark at their kids. They clutch mightily to their
last days of freedom. All from these words: training camp.

Coaches love it, they¹re sick that way. But everyone else? No,
thank
you. Training camp means nearly four weeks living the way no adult
should live. Gone is your comfortable bed, adoring wife and happy
kids. They¹re replaced by other bitter writers, some of whom (like
a
certain Warpath page 3 columnist) think it's funny to slide half-
eaten Chinese food under your door at night, then run away giggling
(try doing that at home). Meanwhile, other suitemates' snoring
penetrates the walls quite easily. A few stumble home late at night.
Others play polka music. I'll take the latter (hey, my uncle is an
accordion player). You live in a dorm room, sleeping on beds whose
mattresses either sag in the middle or feel like a bag of potato
chips. You eat the same food that college students eat in the
cafeteria. Which means it's, um, not good.
But there are good things: you can eat chicken wings more often
because no one is there to tell you that you can¹t. And you do
bond
with other writers (I have to admit, the Chinese food thing was funny
us crazy writers). You live with someone, or next to them, and you
get to know them real well, becoming good friends.

Mostly, though, training camp is about discovery. That¹s the best
part about covering camp. We already know many of the players and
what they¹re capable of doing. Training camp is about unearthing
the
next James Thrash, the undrafted and already cut free agent who
starred in his first camp. Now look at him. In 1997, Thrash was just
another fresh face in camp, one that no one paid much attention. Then
he returned a kickoff for a touchdown and did it again the following
week. Everyone wanted to know his story.

Suddenly, he¹d earned a roster spot. The last time Washington
trained
in Carlisle, similar tales were told. In 1994, the Redskins drafted
Heath Shuler in the first round. Has anyone forgotten that yet?
Shuler held out, giving others a chance for more repetitions in
practice, including seventh-round pick Gus Frerotte.

While Shuler waited, Frerotte starred, especially in a Saturday
scrimmage against Pittsburgh. Before that, few wanted to talk to
Frerotte. After that, everyone did. Sonny Jurgensen paid attention,
noticing the kid could play. Even when Shuler reported, Frerotte
looked better. His passes were more crisp and delivered to the right
area. Shuler, meanwhile, struggled. Which is why some veteran writers
determined immediately: This kid can¹t play.

Their battle continued the next season, when training camp would
determine who was the starter. This much was obvious in camp: Norv
Turner wanted Shuler to start. If Frerotte made a tiny mistake,
Turner pounced on it much harder than if Shuler had. By camp¹s
end,
Turner had no choice. Frerotte had clearly outplayed Shuler, winning
the job.

Another player caught everyone¹s eye in 1994, though he's long
gone
from the NFL. Running back Tyrone Rush was a longshot who turned
heads when given the chance. In that Pittsburgh scrimmage, Rush made
a bunch of plays. Frerotte overshadowed him, but Rush landed clearly
on the coaches' radar.

His was a sad, but a hopeful rags-to-riches story: Rush had grown up
in a shack off a dirt road in Mississippi, with corn snakes sometimes
dangling from the ceiling. A job in the NFL could rescue his family.

Rush did make it, briefly. He continued to play well that camp, and
in preseason games, earning a roster spot. But Rush constantly
battled neck injuries, that season and the following one. Had he
stayed healthy, he might have contributed, and became another Thrash
story.

An even better tale, long before I covered the team, is Joe Jacoby's.
In 1981, he came to Washington as an undrafted free agent. The
coaches barely knew his name and he wasn't about to correct them if
they called him the wrong one. As long as he was still there, what
did it matter? But he became a starter that season, and remained one
until 1993. Who would have guessed that?

Training camp phenoms long have been a part of the NFL, forcing
writers and coaches to play such a guessing game. Can Mark Stock
really succeed in this league? He shined in training camp as a
receiver and returner seemingly every year. Yet he was always cut,
finally making the roster in 1993, only to soon be cut again.

It also gives everyone a chance to learn which draft picks can play
and which ones are phonies. The biggest phony: Andre Johnson, the
31st overall pick in 1996. It took about two plays to learn that this
kid would be a bust. Every time he battled against an undrafted free
agent rookie, he did OK. But every time he went against anyone who
was drafted or who was a 45th-man-on-the-roster-type, he stunk.

Training camp in 1997 forecast future struggles for Frerotte, who
looked horrible. Yet Turner protected his youngster by insisting
nothing was wrong. Frerotte had problems that season, completing only
50 percent of his passes. Meanwhile, another young quarterback was
showing he could play: Trent Green. Was he another Mark Stock,
someone who could only play well in the summer? Would he ever get a
chance to prove otherwise? Thankfully for him, he did. And it paid
off.

Training camp is also where, in 1995, Matt Turk announced to the
world, or at least a hundred folks in Frostburg, that his leg was
among the best in the NFL. One high, booming punt after another
proved that.

Camp is where receiver Leslie Shepherd made his mark, showing a
toughness lacking in many teammates, vaulting him from nowhere status
to eventual starter.

The next year, another pleasant out-of-nowhere story emerged with
undrafted fullback Larry Bowie, who was a starter until ankle
injuries derailed his career.

Camp tells the other half of the story, too, showing when veterans
might have lost it. In 1997, Cris Dishman and Darrell Green both made
the Pro Bowl. The following summer, however, it was clear that
wouldn¹t happen again. At least not with Dishman, who routinely
was
beaten by mediocre players in practice. Sure enough, during the
season, Dishman was badly beaten, forcing the Redskins to abandon man-
to-man coverage most of the year and limiting their blitzing.

Just look at last year¹s camp for a foreshadowing of gloom and
doom.
Training in Ashburn, the Redskins tried to make this the feel-good
camp of the season. Corners would pat receivers on the behind for
every little catch, even if it was against them. They¹d laugh with
one another, turning it into Camp Lovefest. They lacked a seriousness
and a purpose and appeared to be a team that thought it already had
done something, rather than one which hungered for achievement. But
last year¹s training camp didn¹t tell you everything: corner
Champ
Bailey couldn¹t cover anyone. It hardly mattered. Bailey blossomed
in
his second year and is now mentioned among the elite corners. Some
years, coaches are wrong, too. Remember the summer of 1991, when Joe
Gibbs wasn¹t impressed with his team? It was months before they
lost
another game en route to a Super Bowl title.

Camp is the time to find out if someone is simply a Mark Stock or a
James Thrash, a Larry Bowie or an Andre Johnson. It's where longshots
such as running back Larry Brown (eighth round, 1969) or tackle
George Starke (11th round, 1971) or linebacker Monte Coleman (11th
round, 1979) or tight end Clint Didier (12th round, 1981) or guard
Raleigh McKenzie (11th round, 1985) or center Mark Schlereth (10th
round, 1989) emerge and become a key players. It¹s the best time
of
the year. It¹s the time when everyone can dream. But the hard part
is
figuring out which dreams are reality. Actually, that's also the fun part.




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