Almost Shot by the River.....Falls

It is now almost here. The annual rite of summer for NFL football players….training camp. It has changed and evolved during my time covering the Kansas City Chiefs which extends back to 1996, and it’s mostly for the better. But hey, when you are in a reflective mood, you think more about the things that you miss, than the things that are at hand.

I miss River Falls, Wisconsin. From 1991 to 2009, the Chiefs trained in the tiny town that is the home of The University of Wisconsin-River Falls, a Division III football school. I guess 18 years is the limit, since William Jewell (MO.) College, its predecessor, lasted 17, and the Wisconsin town of now 15,000 lasted just one more as the training camp home. While just thirty miles or from Minneapolis, you can get an idea of the rural nature of the area by the fact that River Falls has the largest population in its county.

It’s pretty sleepy to begin with, but when you came to town in July through the years, without the five thousand plus students there, it was extra quiet. But the Chiefs arriving in town (originally with a couple of other teams also training in the vicinity) and just as they were becoming a relevant franchise, caused excitement, and created an industry. Joe Montana becoming a Chief only two years into it ramped that up even more.

There are few phenomenon like newly found sports love. We not long ago experienced it here in Kansas City with the Royals, and when the Chiefs moved to River Falls, that was the same deal, a long losing franchise, with new success, with their own style of play to embrace. It was just the start of off-the-charts tailgating, zoobas, Camaroheads, and all that went with it.

It probably was just about at its zenith when I started covering camps in 1996. It truly was big business for the area, since Chiefs fans literally by the thousands would make a summer vacation of it. Camp was longer then, all the practices were open to the public, and there certainly was far more of what passed for real football. But still, I always was pretty mystified that this would be the choice of families over Yellowstone Park or the Grand Canyon. Which I guess is a little weird for me to say, because I enjoyed going so much myself.

I kind of get it from true fan standpoint. If you made the effort to drive seven or eight hours back and forth and spent money for accommodations and such to watch your squad PRACTICE, then you certainly could call yourself a diehard. There were a few other things to do like fish or play golf, and you could go to Minneapolis and catch a ballgame, but it was in a dome, and even if the Royals were in town, they generally sucked.

There were also two nice nearby towns on the Minnesota side, like Hudson and Stillwater, and they provided a bit more lively night time entertainment. Hudson in particular had a lovely riverfront feel, and in fact I think I stayed there about half of the years I spent in the area.

But right there in River Falls after practice was the downtown where Bo’s and Mine, and the Mainstreeter, kind of alternated being the “hotspot”. I think my first memory of Bo’s was a taste of the culture for ladies in the town. Two well dressed businesswomen, looking like they perhaps came from the local bank, came in on a Monday night, sat down and ordered, and made sure the Monday Night Football PRESEASON game was up on the television. Back came the waitress with their first round, two orders of cheese curds, and a pitcher of beer…….EACH!!!!

But for us in the media, the feeling was kind of literally like going off to camp together….boot camp perhaps. The work days were long, and for that matter usually the nights kind of were, too. Generally after the second practice, whichever method of sending your material you were using at the time, which was more time consuming by far than now, was done under a tent as a cooler of beer was being consumed. Then maybe you just kept it rolling local, or maybe went bigtime and showered and headed for a riverside dinner in Stillwater or Hudson.

The nights occasionally created a story or two if a Chiefs player went off the grid. I believe it was backup QB Todd Collins who got in a scrape on top of a bar table in Stillwater once, I know it was a backup QB, that’s for sure, since that kind of things is bad business for a backup.

Then of course there was the arrest of Brock Middlebrook. Who??? You don’t remember ole Brock playing for the Chiefs??? Well, his alter ego Andre Rison apparently was extra-excited about celebrating my birthday of August 6th in River Falls, since he stayed out into early on the 7th and was cited after a fight in a downtown bar. He told police (as he had done after other arrests) that his name was Brock Middlebrook. He was released a week later.

That kind of misbehavior, and the natural thought of young football players being away at camp without a whole lot to do in River Falls, led to a running media joke. Since the Chiefs started training there in the early 90’s, the joke went that about the middle of the first decade of the millennium, that the River Falls High School football team would suddenly start claiming state football championships.

Sorry to disappoint us degenerates, but a study of Wisconsin high football champions from 2007 to the present reveals not even a title game appearance for River Falls, and heck, they have SEVEN classes. If you think I’m not diligent, I also checked the Minnesota records and Hudson and Stillwater were nowhere to be found either. Damn!!!!

There were many good and bad things about River Falls, and there are some that are neither, like Rene at the Copper Kettle restaurant. A fine wait(uh)person of uncertain gender, the gravel voiced server dressed in women’s clothing was always a fun introduction to a new visitor to the town. The old fashioned nature of the true meat and potatoes style eatery made it even a little funnier.

The old joke is that the Minnesota state bird is the mosquito and this area bordering on that state certainly fit the bill. A few times I played golf on Sunday before the assignment began. It usually was as evening was coming, and more than once resulted in me quitting, despite being drenched in bug repellent.

You can decide if this one fits into the good or bad category. One evening after quite a few beers, a few very well known media types (you are safe guys) put their heads together and decided a trip out of town to a backwoods strip club was a fine idea. A fine idea if you fancy some gals shaped by cheese curds and Leinenkugels.

My last year in 2009 was a great visit in the company of local media legend Frank Boal. I wasn’t a daily runner by then, but always worked out. One day Frank suggested we go for a run. We did it up proud, but I got myself a dandy blister. That was fine, we were wearing summer clothes, and sandals with a big bandage on your toe was OK. UNTIL, we decided I should cover Brett Favre’s Vikings debut in a preseason game against the Chiefs in Minneapolis right after camp. I still remember people looking down at my ugly feet in the press box of the Metrodome, toe prominent.

Many, many more tales could be told. But none would ever top 2004, when a Secret Service agent threatened to shoot me. You would think that Chiefs General Manager Carl Peterson physically slapping my cell phone out of my hand (which he did) would have been the best story of the day. Nope.

George W. Bush decided on short notice that a photo op at a football training camp would be a good campaign move. No politics or controversy there. So he came onto the practice field (with an entourage of hundreds of media, security, and support staff) and glad handed the Chiefs and coach Dick Vermeil. At the end the team huddled and Bush was addressing them. I was live on the air and worked to get as close as possible to the president to get some natural audio on my phone. I pushed closer with my phone hand extended… step too close.

A very stern (aren’t they all) agent barked, “if you try to hand that phone to the president, I will shoot!!!!”. Alrighty then. Live segment over.

I have nothing against St. Joseph, Missouri. They do a great job with Chiefs camp, and the taxpayers of the state no doubt deserve easy access for the 250 million they put up to renovate Arrowhead stadium. Camp is shorter now, anyway, and there are so many mini-camps and OTA’s that it doesn’t seem all that special anyway, except of course that Patrick Mahomes is around now.

But fans still get excited to see the players, and get their autographs, and bake in the hot sun to watch their favorites sort of play football. However, I think they miss a little something in not having the option of a vacation pilgrimage to River Falls, even if is far from Niagara Falls.