Recollections: Packers without the price
By Thom Gerretsen
Want to see Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers without paying a king’s ransom for game tickets? You can watch them for free at Training Camp, which began July 25 with the first of 15 scheduled public practices at Ray Nitschke Field, about a block east of Lambeau.
True, you won’t see defensive players tackling their offensive teammates. New head coach Matt LaFleur has already said he wants to avoid camp injuries at all costs. But quarterback Rodgers, the two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, normally gets plenty of work at the public practices. That’s opposed to the preseason games, in which A-Rod has sat out at least three of the four annual August exhibitions in recent years.
At the time I wrote this, it was uncertain how different LaFleur’s practices would be than under former coach Mike McCarthy – who ran 13 training camps in Green Bay before he was fired last December. But you’ll likely see numerous drills, including the tackling of dummies. Quarterbacks often throw passes into basket nets, and Rodgers gets a hand from the crowd when he makes one. All of McCarthy’s practices had multiple scrimmages. They’re glorified touch football games, but tempers do get the best of some players on occasion. Practices begin two weeks before the first preseason game. And as the game gets closer, some players say they can’t wait to “hit somebody” who’s a real opponent.
I’ve seen 1-2 practices at every Packers’ Training Camp since McCarthy’s first season in 2006. There’s still plenty of action, even though the “hits” are now softer. In 2007, I saw running back Vernand Morency end his NFL career with a knee injury during a Training Camp scrimmage. But once the 32 NFL teams get their camps going, you’ll probably hear about at least one team with a major injury.
Some years, a rookie will stand out. I saw linebacker Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett make great first impressions with sharp-looking interceptions of Rodgers’ passes. Things don’t always work as well as you might expect. When last year’s camp opened, Rodgers built a good connection with newly-acquired tight end Jimmy Graham. But the former Saints’ and Seattle veteran struggled for much of the regular season. Hopefully, Rodgers and Graham will connect better this year.
Most of LaFleur’s practices begin at 10:15 a.m., two hours earlier than McCarthy’s. But you’ll want to arrive up to one hour early, to make sure you get one of the 1,500 sideline seats or end zone bleachers. There’s also standing room on both ends – and plenty of seats become available during practices as fans leave. Also, players have previously hit the field up to 30 minutes before the scheduled starting times. No matter how early you arrive, you won’t have to wait long for the action to begin. Once they hit the announced start time, practices have run for close to 2.5 hours.
I often brought my own coffee to McCarthy’s early starts during the 7 a.m. hour. But don’t worry about being dehydrated. Beverages and food are available just outside the bleacher entrances. Many players ride children’s bicycles from the locker room across Oneida Street to practice – and from – a tradition which began by 1960s Glory Years’ coach Vince Lombardi. After practice, Lambeau Field is open so fans can visit the Pro Shop, Packers Hall of Fame, and Lambeau Stadium Tours – or just get a bite to eat.
Besides the practices at Nitschke Field, the Packers will have their annual Family Night at Lambeau on Aug. 2 and the team’s 100th anniversary celebration on Aug. 11. Also, the Houston Texans – with former Badger J.J. Watt – will practice jointly with the Packers on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6 at 10:15 each day. The two teams will then open their preseasons against each other on Aug. 8 at Lambeau.
The team’s website at www.packers.com has “all things Packers” – including a full schedule of Training Camp practices. The public workouts run through Aug. 19.
Gerretsen is retired from a lifelong career in local news. Thom has served the central Wisconsin community through both radio broadcasting and newspaper mediums. He now provides occasional guest submissions to our weekly central Wisconsin publications.