Why do I look so happy? Because it's football time
By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
07/26/2006
Bryan Burwell
Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
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On the lush practice fields at Rams Park early Tuesday evening, the only sounds you heard were the low hum of power generators and the occasional whirl and shloooosh of underground sprinklers gently spraying a steady arch over this perfectly manicured grass carpet.

Just inside the tinted glass doors, there were all these empty, darkened meeting rooms with long folding tables and extra-large classroom desks lined up in orderly rows. With the exception of a few walls that had the neatly written X's and O's of football hieroglyphics etched on them, most of the white classroom boards were symbolically wiped clean. In less than 24 hours, Rams Park would be bustling with energy. But as Scott Linehan strolled through the empty auditorium on the eve of his first training camp as an NFL head coach, everything seemed perfectly calm.

"If you're a football guy, then you know what the day before training camp means," Linehan said as he flashed that familiar thin smile. "It's an exciting time. But the funny thing is, even though this is my first camp as a head coach, I'm not more excited than normal. I mean, I'm going to get some sleep tonight."

He would be one of the few.

As Linehan said, football guys - particularly the 80 or so men who will be reporting to Rams Park this afternoon to begin earning their way on (or off) the final roster - are all quite familiar with the high anxiety induced by the eve of training camp. From the time you're old enough to clutch your first helmet and jersey as a giddy 10-year-old awaiting the first day of 85-pound boys club practice, football's annual rites of passage are the nervous days and sleepless nights building up to the start of summer training camp.

The baseball poets would like to believe they hold a monopoly on the romance of their sport's early days (spring training), but there are just as many of us out there whose hearts race a bit more briskly at the first sightings of football. So consider this my annual ode to the joys of the return of NFL football.

I am a football guy, and I am not alone. By early Thursday morning, when the Rams open the gates to their Earth City facility, there will be thousands of like-minded souls streaming into the place, toting their coolers, clutching their numerical rosters and finding the ideal spot in the cool grass or hot metal bleachers to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse at the latest prospects and suspects in camp.

There will be little kids with four-sizes-too-large Torry Holt jerseys dangling off their skinny limbs like billowing sheets in the wind. There will also be overgrown men with their bellies spilling out of their three-sizes-too-small No. 67 jerseys, the (ill) fitting homage to the real No. 67, Andy McCollum, and his rather robust physique.

And, of course, there will be another generation of training camp stories spawned from the mouths of the great football storytellers such as longtime Rams executive Charley Armey. A few summers ago, as Armey held lunchtime court, he recalled the tale of an aging, and slightly unhinged, veteran who knew he was well past the December of his football life.

"So a knock comes on his door, and it was the words no one ever wants to hear in training camp," Armey chuckled. "'Coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook.' Well, this guy knew he had a reputation as a wild man, so he goes marching into the coach's room, and he decides he's gonna have some fun. He goes in there with this wild look in his eyes, slowly turns his back on the coach, then locks the door so no one can get in - and more importantly - no one can get out.
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"'Yeah coach, whadda ya want?'"

The man is standing there with a wild-eyed, half-insane look, and the coach is suddenly feeling like he's locked in a phone book with Charles Manson.

Armey's face has by now turned as red as a Jack Buck sports coat as he puts the final touches on this true (???) training camp confession. "Without skipping a beat," Armey cackles, "the coach grabs his playbook, starts frantically flipping the pages and tells the guy, 'Uhhhhhhh ... yeah ... turn your playbook to page 35!'"