Old Dallas Cowboys’ Memories Of Training Camp Aren’t So Fond
The original article, written by Bob Christ of the Albuquerque Journal, can be viewed HERE!
One of the former morbid joys for many football fans on summer days was stopping by an NFL training camp during vacation and watching stars and wannabes work through steamy two-a-days.
While onlookers sipped icy drinks and lounged on the lush grass, coaches would have their troops on the brink of exhaustion during drills that often lasted three hours.
Those grueling days are gone, though, and likely never coming back.
Thanks to the current collective bargaining agreement between NFL clubs and NFL Players Association, only one padded workout per day is permitted during camp. Technically, there still are two practices, but a one-hour walk-through in shorts and T-shirts isn’t a test of stamina.
Players spend almost as much time in meetings.
Former Cowboys standout Bob Lilly, a Hall of Famer out of TCU who was the team’s first-ever draft choice, remembers a whole different world when he started out under coach Tom Landry.
It’s a wonder anyone survived.
“My first year, we had four weeks of two-a-days,” Lilly matter-of-factly told the Journal . “We were an expansion team (1960) and in 1961 we trained at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. My third week, I was fortunate enough to play in the (college) all-star game and we had a week of two-a-days there. By time I got back, half my buddies were gone.”
That season the Cowboys even played an exhibition game in University Stadium vs. the New York Giants, losing 28-10.
Some memories of that camp are seared in his mind.
Lilly said he and friend Glenn Gregory shared a room in a dorm that looked like a castle. They were on the top floor.
“It was 79 steps down to the lower lobby and then 347 to the field,” he said. “Then we had to walk about a quarter mile to the actual dressing rooms.”
Retracing their steps was even harder.
“It was a lovely setting, though,” he said. “No one had a TV or cellphone. We were very studious, learning our plays.”
A typical day back then started at 7 a.m. with breakfast, then taping, and morning practice from 9:30 to noon. After a break for lunch, there were drills from 3-6 p.m. After dinner, there were meetings deep into the night. It was lights out at 11 p.m.
These days, Dallas’ long practice is generally only two hours. Sometimes it will be shorter, such as when fights break out with other teams and Dez Bryant gets punched in the head.
Gil Brandt, the VP of player personnel for the club from its first year through 1988, and currently a senior analyst for NFL.com, recalls those camps getting off to early, early starts.
“One time (rookies) went to camp July 3,” he said. “Those years, we played six preseason games (once it was seven) and veterans came in 17 days ahead of the first one. In the morning practices we’d work on the running game. In the afternoon, the passing game.
And back then, players would sometimes show up out of shape, knowing they had plenty of time to get trim.
“They did,” Brandt said. “One of the reasons was they didn’t make a lot of money. That first year, our highest-paid player got $15,000. So most of the guys had off-season jobs. Coach Landry sold insurance.
Seventeen days of conditioning before the first summer game helped burn the fat.
Brandt said the Cowboys would bring 100 more players to camp out of necessity.
“We had exceptional success with free agents, and we did it initially because we weren’t part of the draft (preceding the 1960 season),” he said. “So we signed a bunch of free agents, some basketball players.”
At camp, he said some players would pool their money and get temporary transportation.
“Five or six guys would buy a car for $200. When they got out at 9 (p.m.), they’d take off to the local pub. It’s not like now, when they rent a Mercedes. I saw someone at Kansas City rented a Jaguar.”
Walt Garrison was a popular running back for Dallas from 1966-1974.
“I didn’t dread training camp because I knew it was a necessity and a learning process,” Garrison said last week after taking a break from bailing hay at his ranch 20 miles north of Dallas. “They gave you a playbook that looks like a phone directory with all the offensive plays and the audibles. There’d be meetings every day for two or three hours.”
He said he was fortunate to have second-year running back and later NFL coach Dan Reeves as a roommate.
“Thank goodness he picked me,” Garrison said. “I don’t know if they paid him extra to do that or what. I learned more from him just laying in bed and he’d be asking me questions all the time. He showed me the way.”
And, said Garrison, thank goodness he got to know fellow running back Don Perkins, an ex-New Mexico Lobo who played for Dallas from 1960-68 and is in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.
“Perk was my hero,” Garrison said. “He taught me everything I know about football. He wasn’t a long-distance runner, but he could sure run.”
Perkins, who lives in Albuquerque, was unavailable for an interview for this story.
As difficult as the two-a-day experience was with Dallas, Garrison said he endured worse at Oklahoma State under coach Phil Cutchin, who played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky and later was his assistant for 11 years.
“If you ever saw ‘The Junction Boys,’ you know what it was like,” Garrison said of extended practices in oppressive heat and little or no water allowed.
Lilly said the Cowboys snapped to attention regarding water after one of their tight ends had a scare.
“We never had a water break until Pettis Norman almost died,” Lilly said. “He was working out so hard he was dehydrated
As if a full practice wasn’t enough, there was running afterward.
“Twice a week after practice,” Garrison said of drills Dallas held in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (1963-1989), “we’d run five miles up in the hills to the top of the mountain and back. I never did enjoy that.”
Lilly was particularly wary of two other experiences.
“There would be a guy in the middle of a circle of players and he didn’t know who was going to come at him to hit him,” Lilly said. “Another was grass drills (run in place, hit the ground chest-first and return to your feet). We’d have five or six minutes of that.”
That was before practice.
But there was a reward at the end of the day, especially when the Cowboys’ camp was in Thousand Oaks.
“There were a couple of country-western bars near camp,” he said. “That was an area where movie stars had ranches. Glenn Ford, Slim Pickens and John Wayne would come over one time or more.
“Happy Hour meant cheaper beer, and they had wonderful barbecue and potato salad, which was better than we could get at camp. Coach Landry always wondered how we could be gaining weight.”
Twice a week after practice we’d run five miles up in the hills to the top of the mountain and back. I never did enjoy that.