Bryce Paup visited an NFL training camp one day last summer. A veteran of 11 training camps as a player, Paup probably felt a tinge of envy by what he saw.
“It was like, wow, that’s pretty nice. They don’t even hardly hit,” he said.
Men of a certain age still cringe when remembering the brutality of football training camp of yesteryear. Two-a-day practices in full pads with endless hitting. Day after day after day.
Tales of machismo revealed in long, grueling practices are romanticized, even immortalized in the case of Bear Bryant’s famous Junction Boys.
Paup, about to begin his first season as Gophers defensive line coach, went through his first NFL training camp in 1990 as a rookie with the Green Bay Packers. He told close friends that he hoped to last long enough to buy a house, two cars and then “I’m out of here.”
“It was that brutal,” he said.
Thankfully, times have changed. Guided by health and safety, football training camps are no longer designed to beat players to a pulp. From high school to NFL, practices are still physically demanding but a relative breeze compared to the past.
The NFL’s latest Collective Bargaining Agreement had more practice restrictions that benefit players, including limits on practice hours and contact. In April, the NCAA banned two-a-day practices with contact for college football. The Lakeville North High football team will wear full pads only one practice in camp.
“There’s not one kid that gets through with this and says, ‘Ah, that was brutal,’ ” Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen said. “They will be fresh by the end of camp instead of gassed.”
Vossen has experienced both sides. He played defensive line for Lakeville North from 1995-97 and remembers being in full pads most days with conditioning sprints at the end.
That was football’s essence at the time. Camp was supposed to be physical and exhausting. And dreadful.
“That’s what everyone thought made you tougher,” Vossen said.
An emphasis on player safety in the concussion era changed everything. Teams significantly reduced the amount of hitting. Tackling became a small part of practice, if at all. Attend practice at any level and you will hear coaches screaming, “Stay on your feet.”
“It’s a sin to hurt a kid in practice,” Vossen said.
Paup shakes his head at how much has changed. He recalled his rookie camp when the Packers and Cleveland Browns held a goal-line scrimmage during a joint practice. A teammate pulled a veteran move and told Paup to take all the reps. That was a long day of punishment.
Training camp lasted six weeks with two practices most days. Paup was “worn out” by the end.
“Football is not easy, but it’s not nearly the grind that it used to be,” he said. “I’m all for that because you don’t need to grind people into the ground.”
Paup used a personal physical therapist during his career. His therapist could tell by tightness in Paup’s body that training camp was near.
“It was the fight-or-flight syndrome,” Paup said. “You’re ready to go and your body is responding. It started to get ready for that pounding.”
In the old days, speed and strength training was not as prevalent or sophisticated as today. Players needed camp to get into shape. Now players train practically year-round so they come to camp in peak physical condition.
“Why would you pound them after they’ve done all that work?” Paup asked. “It’s stupid to grind them. Let’s not ruin it.”
Vikings offensive lineman Joe Berger is a 13-year veteran who attended his first NFL camp in 2005. The shift in philosophy between then and now, he said, is dramatic.
“You started with full pads on Day 1 and you didn’t get a break until Day 14 or 15,” he said. “This is a lot different.”
Different, but not easy, he noted. Camp remains a physical and mental challenge. But not being in full pads daily offers a welcomed respite. Teams often practice in “shells” — shoulder pads, helmets and shorts.
“You’re in pads way less,” Berger said.
New Gophers coach P.J. Fleck eliminated two-a-days a few years ago and added a midweek recovery day. Fleck still incorporates his own version of the no-place-to-hide Oklahoma drill — two players lined up against each other in a small space, going one-on-one — but his practices focus on tempo as much as contact.
“The whole thing is taking care of our players,” Fleck said. “But if you watch our practice, this isn’t a soft, slow practice.”
Vossen’s coaching staff learned something valuable after reducing the amount of hitting in Lakeville North’s practices years ago: “We didn’t see any letdown on game day,” he said.
They still teach tackling technique without taking players to the ground. His program remains a big-school powerhouse. And his players are as tough as ever.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get a kid to clip his pinkie off like Ronnie Lott did,” he joked. “But they’re still tough.”