We're Talkin' Practice, and Football Fans Eat it Up

As I read my Kansas City Star sports section this morning (and yes, I actually hold a real live copy in my hands), it highlighted the greatest example of exaggerated excitement over mundane activity in all of our sports…..training camp football. There were five Chiefs stories, none of which would qualify as riveting information. There was a the tale of a defensive player who has a pretty good chance of not being on the team being switched over to offense, a column on Andy Reid’s quite admirable support of a charitable cause, and a breakdown of some of the tidbits of football that were sort of played indoors Wednesday in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

     But I am certain that much of this, and more, was gobbled up excitedly by fans who are thrilled that football is, well, sort of back. There have been record crowds up in St. Joe, and that isn’t at all surprising since we are talking about the Super Bowl favorites here, led by the reigning MVP, and gearing up a fan base of which a goodly percentage were not alive the last time that the team played in the Super Bowl. Hell, it was so long ago that is wasn’t even called the Super Bowl at the time, that appellation yet to be dreamed up by the late owner of the team Lamar Hunt.  

     This hungry support group relishes in watching what in my mind is easily the least enjoyable pre-season sport. Football practice is pretty boring, even players will say that. They live for the real competition they are only guaranteed sixteen times per year. In other sports, practice far more resembles the real product, and in baseball for instance, there are dozens of actual games. Football only serves up four of those and that number likely will drop soon, and even in those four, only one features a goodly amount of players who actually will be on a roster come September.

     That fact matters little to those who bake in the sun at the college campus of Missouri Western. The fact that you can’t touch the quarterback, that complete tackling doesn’t occur, and that full eleven-on-eleven plays happen very seldom is a mere footnote. Fans and media alike try and make something of an off-the-mark toss of Patrick Mahomes, a deep ball to Tyreek Hill, or try and find diamonds in the rough who make a football play here or there.

     Nothing screams out that the NFL is king more than this. Even the coverage of the camps somewhat gives an indication that the “action” on the field is rather irrelevant. Who gets dinged up, who doesn’t show up, and who needs to be signed up, is far more often delineated to the public than what is happening with t-shirts and shorts on much of the time.  Hearts skipped a beat when Hill had to be carted off the field earlier in the week. Hearts were lifted when Chris Jones showed up to work on time, something that in almost any other profession is merely a requisite.

     Change makes for good fodder, and certainly at this particular camp is highlighted by the arrival of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnoulo. The veteran coach was brought in to replace bogey man Bob Sutton, and spice up one of the league’s worst units, which the scintillating work of Mahomes and his side of the ball almost overcame to the tune of a Super Bowl appearance. If Colin Kapernick would have been brought in to coach the D, he might even be hailed as a savior.

     Of course, the players are all on board. The phrases are quite familiar, communication is better, trust is at a peak, and the old ways were a disaster. Spagnoulo also is what you generally get when coaches are switched out in any sport, a completely different personality. Player’s coaches are almost always traded out for disciplinarians, in this case, a far more vocal, hands-on approach is greeted with huzzahs after the cerebral and thoughtful style of the grandfatherly Sutton.

     Other clichés abound, players by the dozen are in the best shape of their lives, they have stopped eating hamburgers and hired a personal trainer. Film study is at an Oxford level. New players are hailed for their leadership. Communication between quarterback and receiver is growing. Hundreds of balls are caught in extra work on the jugs gun.

     There ARE, however, at least a couple of tangible reasons why fans embrace the mostly mundane activities. Players are required to be far more accessible for autographs and pictures. Even if it’s not anywhere approaching a real football game, those fans are far closer to the activity than they ever are for a contest that counts.

     And speaking of that, the first preseason game comes up tonight to start off Hall of Fame weekend. It no doubt will be watched by a rather hard to fathom amount of people hungry for anything that resembles the genuine article. And yes, there is a betting line on the game. Somehow the Broncos have been deemed a two-and-a-half point favorite for the “showdown” with the Falcons. Diehards who haven’t been able to slap down their hard-earned cash on football in five months will actually have said cash riding in large part on guys who will  actually have a real job in mere weeks.

     I have grown far better at accepting people’s enthusiasm for activities like training camp and preseason football over the years. I actually liked covering camp when it was in River Falls, but that was more because of what went on away from the practice field than on it, and the fact that you went away to do it. Going to spring training is more understandable to me, since it’s winter at home, and warm and sunny there.

     But in a potential Super Bowl year, whatever floats your boat football fans. Eat up each seven-on-seven, gab with friends about your favorite rookie, high five after a St. Joe “touchdown”.

     After all, it’s time for you to practice too!