By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Wednesday, Jul. 23 2008

In 1995, it was hard to go anywhere in Wisconsin in late July and August
without rubbing elbows with an NFL training camp.

The Chicago Bears called Platteville home. New Orleans trained in La Crosse.
The Kansas City Chiefs were based in River Falls. The expansion Jacksonville
Jaguars camped in Stevens Point. And oh yeah, there was this team called the
Packers who trained in Green Bay while being quartered in De Pere.

Throw in the Minnesota Vikings, who trained close enough to Wisconsin (at
Minnesota State-Mankato) to hold joint practice sessions with the Chiefs, and
the phenomenon known as the Cheese League was flourishing with six teams.

The weather was cooler. Hard-core NFL fans could see several teams train in a
few days' time. And the opportunities for joint practices between teams were
numerous. Government and tourism officials in America's Dairyland envisioned a
day when perhaps nine or 10 teams would train there, making the Cheese League
the gridiron equivalent of baseball's Grapefruit League (Florida) or Cactus
League (Arizona).

But the Jaguars trained at Stevens Point for only that summer of '95. The
Saints ended a 12-year stay in La Crosse following their '99 camp. And the
Bears pulled out of Platteville following their 2001 camp, ending an 18-year
run.

All chose to train either at their year-round home facility, or much closer to
home. The exodus from Wisconsin saw parallels across the league as team after
team decided to train closer to home.

Last year at this time, 15 of the 32 NFL teams held training camp at their
year-round facility. Fifteen trained somewhere within the geographic region of
their fan base. Buffalo, for example, trains in Rochester, N.Y. The Saints
train in Jackson, Miss.

Only the Chiefs, who have been in River Falls since 1991, and the Cowboys, who
train in Oxnard, Calif., held camp at so-called remote locales, far removed
from their natural fan base. But now, as the 2008 season is upon us, the Rams
have reversed the league-wide trend. After training at their year-round
facility in Earth City the past three summers, the club said "Cheese" (League).

The team reports to Concordia University Wisconsin on Thursday in Mequon, a
suburb of Milwaukee.

"I guess the general theme for the team is we want to do things different than
we did a year ago," coach Scott Linehan said. "It doesn't mean that (training
at home) was the reason for the way things went a year ago. But we definitely
want to approach things in a different way."

After a 3-13 finish that marked the team's worst record since the move to St.
Louis in 1995, Linehan's job is on the line. He's trying to do everything in
his power to stay employed as an NFL head coach and reverse the fortunes of a
franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2003.

"The thing I really like about the off-site training is the team-building that
you can't get when you're having just another day at the office," Linehan said.
"You get that feeling when for the offseason program, OTAs, training camp,
regular season you're in the same place. You kind of feel like you're in a rut,
so to speak."

Call it the Groundhog Day Effect (the Bill Murray movie; not the Feb. 2
holiday).

"To me, a lot of the leadership is built, and the character of the team is
built through training camp when you go away. It's just ... you just spend day
and night together."

In St. Louis, players are tempted to go home to see family or friends whenever
there's a break in the camp schedule. It's only natural. Linehan said he even
went home a few times during the past two camps at Rams Park.

In Wisconsin, the players won't have that luxury. It is Linehan's hope that
they might mingle in the dorms during down time, whether it's a friendly card
game or dominoes, or just chit-chat. And if they go out, they'll almost be
forced to go out together.

That type of thing was commonplace in Macomb, Ill., during the Rams' nine-year
stay for training camp at Western Illinois University. For example, it was
common to see Grant Wistrom, Ricky Proehl and Jeff Zgonina having dinner and a
cold beverage or two in the back room of the Red Ox restaurant. One year, Kurt
Warner took every offensive lineman, tight end and quarterback on the camp
roster out to eat, and picked up the tab. Dinner for 22, please.

"There's something about having that bonding time," Linehan said. "I know it
sounds a little corny ... but I think that's how you develop a camaraderie on
the team between veteran players and the younger players."

Linehan also feels training away from St. Louis will help the players focus.

"You're in the dormitory," he said. "You're under a (tight) schedule. It's day
and night football. You've really got to discipline yourself to do that 24-7."

And the weather factor is real.

"The average temperature there, because it's right on Lake Michigan, is between
10 and 13 degrees cooler (than St. Louis)," Linehan said. "Which is a positive
because studies show, the cooler it is, the more work you get done, because you
don't have the fatigue factor."