August 17, 2001 New York Giants Training Camp Report
The Season of Questions and Self Doubt
by David Oliver
Summer camp and pre-season combine for a season of immense pleasure and pain for football players and lovers of the game. The new guys taste the joy of putting on the pads and practicing and playing a game they have loved all of their lives. It is fun, of the highest order. But, of course, this is a term which can be interpolated in many ways. How can that be fun, my wife would ask, as I walked to the car after a marathon, blood sometimes filling my socks, knees grinding, pain everywhere? It got worse when I started triathlons, because I hated the water and I wouldn’t sleep the night before a competition. But the sheer joy of the contest, the start of an event, with everyone’s adrenalin blowing full blast, the ease of hitting the 15 mile mark and going on autopilot, and the thrill of seeing the finish line, of knowing that your body was functioning at max, that you were in control – ah, that is fun.
Well, football is not much different. As Chris Zieman told me, “Heck, we’re PLAYING FOOTBALL for a living, you know.” (Emphasis on playing). In a winning locker room, any winning locker, after any kind of competition, there is a lot of exuberance, joy. Mostly everyone feels good in the moment. But even in this fun, there is the reality that some have not measured up, either to their own standards, or to the coaches or the fans. There is self-doubt and introspection. And, of course, there is always redemption, for there is always another competition, another chance to do well; another chance to have fun.
So it went this week in the Giants’ locker room. A lot of exuberance, joy, some self-doubt and frustration, a lot of questioning and awareness that tomorrow another level had to be reached. So I spent some time with the younger guys, a couple of backers and a couple of linemen. This kid Chris Bober amazed me when I talked to him. His straightforward self-confidence was refreshing. Here was a young man who showed so little in that first mini-camp last year, in the bubble because it was raining, that I didn’t think he would make it to summer camp. I thought he was overweight and slow and that continued through last summer. But Coach McNally saw something and the kid responded. This year at mini camp I began to see a new creation here, a football player. He looked good on my visit to camp and he looked good in the Jags game. He told me straight up, “It felt good to get out there and play, get a lot of reps, get some film; this way I can get better next week.” I asked him if he had been working at guard in camp and he told me not much, that he had worked some at mini camp. He told me he would play “pretty much wherever they want to put me, that’s where I’m going to go.” That’s a common refrain in the locker room – you know, I’ll play anywhere. Ralph Brown told me, “Nickel, corner, safety, if they put me out there, I’ll do my 100% on every play.” And Dhani Jones told me he was switching around because “the more positions you know, the more equipped you are, the better you are; all of us as linebackers have to know every position because, you know, any given Sunday…” But some guys are frustrated with being asked to change positions. Jack Golden is a WILL backer, but he has been asked to move to SAM and it’s coming slowly to him, at least, he feels it is. And he’s a little down on himself. As he said “the WILL position, I love it.”
So what is it that makes it fun and difficult. Well, it’s kind of like dating when you are younger. It sure is nice seeing 10 young ladies, different kissing styles, movie tastes, musical likes, etc., you get the drill. But if you happen to fancy one more than the rest, but she thinks maybe it’s better if you both see different people, well, that’s pretty tough. Bober told me, “You have to go in there and work with different guys. When I was a tackle, I was working next to Glenn Parker. He has a distinctly different way of working than Mike Rosenthal. It’s just getting used to the guy, getting used to how they set and play.” I asked Brandon Short about adjusting to the players around him and communicating with them and he told me, “We talk to each other…I’m starting to get a grasp of what everybody around me is doing and that makes me a better player…but the safeties are phenomenal, they talk up so much…”
Bober told me it felt good to play worry free in that he has the plays down and unlike last year “your head’s not going crazy all the time.” He acknowledges that he has a long way to go, but he says, “I’m going to sit down and look at the film and try to go out and make some corrections next week.” Ziemann is having a lot of fun also. I get such a kick out of this kid. Off field, he has this huge grin. He reminds me of a buddy I once had who came from Georgia. Wouldn’t be comfortable at an opera or ballet, but put him in a union hall or a church basement, lay out a spread of chicken and sausage, fill the place up with Aunt Matilda and Uncle Waldo, and man, heaven. He doesn’t look ripped and ready for the swimsuit competition but I’ll bet he could throw a hay bale on a rig one-handed – just like my old buddy. Talk football and it’s all about ‘focus’ and ‘intensity’. Oh, yeah, when I asked him about the hitting, he said, “Hitting is great, I love it.”
Brandon Short and I discussed his comfort zone and he seemed genuinely happy. He told me, “Every day I get more comfortable with the position, I learn the position better and I feel better.” He talked about practice and the uncertainty in the beginning and said, “When you’re not absolutely sure of what you’re going to be doing, you’re not going to play as well.” I asked him about his responsibilities and used a back coming out as an example. He told me, “It depends on the coverage. If the flat is my responsibility and I’m on the backside and he’s my man, I’ve got to go get him, but if the flat is my responsibility and he just flares, I’ve got to go with the curl. Coverage is called depending on whatever formation they come out in.”
Ralph Brown, who along with Ziemann and Dhani Jones hasn’t been playing because of an injury told me, “It feels great being back on the field this year, having fun, we’ve got a good group of guys back there.” I asked him if the competition was as brutal as it seemed and he said, “Yes, but its fun, though, it’s fun.” He said, “Everything is coming back, I feel renewed, fresh, it just feels good being out there, trying to do my best for the team.” The team, a concept not familiar to a lot of people in this self-indulgent age. Sure there are a few athletes out there who are glorified Neanderthals, but it is so refreshing to hear talk of a team. Hell, I worked 30 years for a “family”, a “team”, and although I don’t have much to say for the leadership the last few years, many of my colleagues made sacrifices for the “team”. If you’ve never been part of one, you wouldn’t understand why that kind of talk resonates deep in my psyche.
I wrapped up with Golden and Jones and both had a little edge off. Jack was obviously a little low. SAM is coming to him, but with difficulty. He misses the WILL spot, infinitely more glamorous and for a banger like Jack, a position where the action lies. He told me, “I’m really not used to playing the SAM and I’m not liking it, but I’ve got to stay with it.” I asked why and he told me, “You’re up there on the line and I feel like I’m a better stack player…” I asked him about his relationship with Brandon since he was moved over (good buddies) and he told me their relationship had not been affected, “No, not at all, I can learn a lot from Brandon. He played the position last year, you know, now it’s made our relationship a lot stronger; the competition will always be there, but it will never be like that (a bad thing) between us.” He even mentioned that he felt a little slow on specials, that he had pulled an ab muscle, but he assured me he wasn’t forgetting that his place was on specials. He said, “I understand my role on this team is to be a special teams player and to be productive on special teams and also to prove that I can back up Brandon. I understand my role.” Jack has gained 10 pounds, bulked up as he said it, to play the SAM position. I told him it looked a whole lot better on him than it would on me, and that I intended to start telling people that I play the SAM position on BBI – so it’s Eric’s fault if I appear heavier.
Finally Dhani Jones. I asked him if he was having fun and he said, “Not wild enough, I’m not wild enough.” He told me he had messed up twice “and I was kind of disappointed with myself about that.” He went on “you have to be consistent when you’re in this league, on every play. My motto this whole time is if you don’t make any plays, you can’t stay.” You know, I felt the exact same way the first couple of times I made love, so I hope that Dhani, like me, realizes that he’s being a little hard on himself. So I asked him about the two plays, did he miss the call? He said, “Yeah, well, I made the call but I missed the responsibility, I’m disappointed in myself in that respect; but, it’s pre season, you’ve got to get better.” He went on, as if convincing himself as much as talking to me “that’s the one thing, you’ve got to put things behind you, get coached on it, you’ve got to learn from it, you’ve got to hustle to the ball all the time – that’s the thing regardless of whether I mess up or not on a play, I’m going to be at the ball. That’s the thing I learned at Michigan, one thing all these guys learned, Brandon from Penn State, Golden from Oklahoma State, Kevin Lewis from Duke, everybody is taught to go to the ball, that’s the impression on their mind. When they put together this team, the Maras, Mr. Accorsi, the Coaches, they wanted guys that are going to go to the ball – that’s our job.” Dhani is happy to be getting back into the flow of things, and even when “there are times that I doubt, and I can’t doubt myself…I’ve got to trust in God that he’ll make a way for me. Sometimes it’s pain and you just have to play through that pain.”
Pleasure and pain, fun and self doubt – yeah, summer camp and exhibition season; think about that as you watch the Giants and the Jets play.