Sports, for all intents and purposes, are played on flat TV screens by slightly more life-like Madden players, two-dimensionally gliding around and causing you to cheer for seemingly absurd reasons like when one 2-D thing happens to cross a line while carrying a big brown egg. When you watch sports on TV, you are watching a tape-delayed representation of reality where tiny red, green, and blue light particles depict images of players no more real to fans than the girls they pretend to do things to on their computer screens. It’s a dehumanizing experience in which players disappear and reappear with the comings and goings of commercials so frequently that they might as well not really exist.
Sure, a possible solution to this fan-player disconnect is to attend the games in person where at least it’s live, and one can see the actual players themselves; however, a whole new set of restrictions prohibit the fan from connecting with these players on a more human level. First of all, the larger the crowd size, the larger the disconnect, as the players are increasingly put on a higher and higher pedestal with each additional awestruck fanatic blankly gaping at them. Secondly, the access to players is still inhibited by enough physical barriers (walls, security guards, fences, nets, etc) to prevent all but the exceptionally lucky fan to do anything more than get Donald Driver’s sweaty ballsack rubbed on his face, while he repeatedly slaps his ass during a Lambeau Leap.
While witnessing a live game is clearly better than watching on TV, it still does not allow for one to connect on a human level with the actual people that the average fan sees as merely a walking fantasy football commodity or statistic for their benefit. It is not until you see your favorite players, literally feet from you, interacting with you in an intimate setting, high-fiving you, doing the things that you’ve seen them do hundreds of times on TV before but never quite like this. You realize that they are actually human beings too and that they aren’t just glorified video game characters, an understanding that finally allows for fans and players to connect. Where does this magical fantasy land exist other than in strip clubs across the country you ask? At NFL training camps my friends, where dreams come true, the water tastes like wine, the women are cheap and easy, and your favorite players just look and act like larger, more talented versions of your friends.
I had the sublime fortune of attending Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, CA, for a day this past weekend and feel like I saw the team that I’ve been rooting for religiously since I was a child in a completely different light. Seeing a team like this (especially from only a few feet away) is like seeing them without a front, without a guise, and in their natural habitat, the difference between seeing drugged up lions in a zoo and wild ones on safari. You come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the nature of the team itself. You come to see who the different characters are on a team are, who the leaders are, who the jokesters are, and how they all interact to from a team.
For instance, I had heard before that Tank Johnson was a popular teammate on the Bears and one of their team leaders, despite the fact that he was often reserved and quiet as a new member of the Cowboys last year. This year he is more comfortable with the team and more comfortable with his place on the team, and it shows. He was the leader of the second team defense when he was on the field, yelling for everyone to huddle back up after plays, waiving his arms to pump/work up the crowd, and also showing his amicability, as he would talk to fans before warm ups and even offer insights into his personal life (he was telling people that he had sodium deficiency before warm-ups). In the matter of a few hours I had a new favorite player (ok not favorite but one of them) and learned a lot about someone that most people probably view negatively because of his off the field issues. This instance also offered an insight into the team, as well, as I now understand why the coaches are so interested in moving starting NT Jay Ratliff to DE so that Tank can be on the field more often.
Another one of my favorite things about training camp was getting to meet players who might not make the 53 man roster, like undrafted free agent rookie WR Danny Amendola from Texas Tech, and seeing how hard they work. These are the players who are fighting tooth and nail every play, every rep to get noticed and to be part of the team. They arrive at the practice field early, well before stretching starts, and they stay late, working on routes with other free agent receivers and quarterbacks. You cannot help but root for these guys, especially when you can see their talent and can imagine what they can contribute to your team. Amendola has drawn comparisons to Wes Welker since college (both from Texas Tech), as he stands at only around 5-10 but is one of the fastest and quickest players on the field. He’s in a position battle right now for the 4th-5th receiver spot with Miles Austin and Isaiah Stanback behind T.O., Patrick Crayton, and Sam Hurd. It’s fascinating to see, first hand, the type of work that these guys put in, and it makes you realize why you’re such a fan of sports to being with.
The speed, size, and strength of these players is also something that you cannot possibly appreciate to its full extent without seeing these behemoths live and up-close. The day of practice I saw, T.O. (at some points only inches from me) was wearing spandex pants and actually looked like an exaggerated comic book superhero. Seeing him from a few feet away, effortlessly catch balls and quickly running routes really made me appreciate the speed and quickness of the game. Because of his adept interaction with us fans, I also have a much greater appreciation for him as a person, as I (for obvious reasons) had always been reluctant to become completely sold on him in the past. He always had a big smile and a wink whenever he’d look over, which was often, and he even came over at one point during practice and gave a bunch of people high fives. Other players who you couldn’t help but be impressed by were the o-linemen and their ridiculous size.The Cowboys happen to have a particularly large o-line and seeing them waddle around was insane; these humans were clearly born to squat down and prevent other large humans from getting past them, Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis (big as a horse?), and Marc Colombo especially. You simply cannot fathom how large these monsters are, regardless how many times John Madden talks about them while circling their asses.
Finally, my favorite part about training camp was the feeling of excitement and anticipation that you get from seeing your team and all of their fancy new additions. Every team has reason to be hopeful in the NFL during the off-season (yes, even you Miami and Atlanta), and there is no better representation of this than at training camp when everyone (rookies, vets, coaches, media, fans) is coming together for the first time of the new season. This is the first time that anyone can see how amazing Adam Jones looks with a star on his helmet, how quick Felix Jones’s burst is after he gets through a hole, and how Zach Thomas REALLY is in every play on the defensive side of the ball. At training camp the new season is close enough that you can taste it, yet watching it develop from the beginning offers a much more rewarding satisfaction when it finally does come, the difference between helping to make a great meal while afterwards taking part in its enjoyment and wolfing down fast food.
I’m not saying that I’m suddenly a different or changed football or Cowboys fan after this one day experience, but it certainly opened my eyes to a different element of why I enjoy sports so much and what it is to root for an actual team and not just a bunch of faceless, statistics with numbers on their jerseys.