For many kids, summer means going to camp — canoeing on the lake, hiking through the woods, playing volleyball on the beach, and learning new skills. Football players got to camp, too. But their experience is very, very different. I got an up-close look at what an NFL training camp is like when I visited the Baltimore Ravens pre-season workouts at Under Armour Performance Center last week.
The players arrive early to the Ravens Headquarters Facility in Owings Mills, Maryland. Some of them grab food, others spend time meeting with coaches and trainers to get them ready for their day at camp. There are nearly 90 players all competing for 53 roster spots, so the more work they put in to prepare, the better their chances of making the team. The players spend several hours getting their equipment ready and stretching out before the main practice. Coaches and trainers are like camp counselors, assisting players, getting them ready for the day, and making sure they know the schedule.
Much like every other summer camp, it’s hot at the Ravens’ training facility. Players are sweating before they even take the field. Most are wearing pads, or "shells,” that are lighter versions of the game pads even for practices that do not have full contact. To make sure players are safe, assistants walk around the field with carts filled with cold water.
Practice at camp is usually scheduled for three hours, the average time it takes to play an NFL game. The players rarely stop running — they use the time between drills and plays for conditioning to build stamina for a real game. "Everything we do in camp is built to carry the team through December and January," head coach John Harbaugh says.
An air horn sounds, and players start running in every direction. Coaches have planned specific drills to teach players the offense, defense, and special teams. Assistant coaches and other staff help direct the players to their next drill or breakout.
The Ravens’ training facility has three outdoor fields that they use for most practices during the season. The team uses the outdoor fields in most weather conditions to get used to playing at M&T Bank Stadium in downtown Baltimore. The Ravens have an indoor training facility, too. It’s a replica of the M&T Bank field, right down to the exact markings.
On the practice sidelines, Ravens assistants stand at the top of tall towers recording video of the practices, the players, and the drills for use by the players and the coaches in making improvements throughout camp. Loud music plays throughout the facility to simulate crowd and stadium noise to help the players practice in game situations.
After the final practice horn blows, many players go to the training staff for physical therapy — but not before they go to the cafeteria near the locker rooms. This isn't just any camp mess hall. It’s a full-service facility to provide the team healthy meals to help them recover from practice so they can continue their training and workouts. For many players, that means hitting the weight room for individual workouts to build strength, speed, or agility and prevent fatigue and injuries during the season. (The Ravens have one of the largest weight training facilities in the NFL.) Other players are off to classrooms where coaching staff to review practices, talk about players, and teach plays. Players also take time to study film and watch video of games and practices to improve their performance.
"You have to get good grades and be a good student to be a good football player," Harbaugh says. "They don't let you skate by."
So no skating at Ravens camp. No canoeing or campfires or spooky stories either. But like camps you might have gone to, Ravens camp has a motto: W.I.N., which stands for “What’s Important Now.”
For the players and coaches, what’s important right now, at camp, is preparing as best they can to win another Super Bowl. “Be a great teammate,” Harbaugh says at the end of practice, “and make others great around you!”
Photos: Patrick Semansky/AP (Ravens), Tres Starkoski (Harbaugh)