With Albert Breer on vacation, we have guest writers filling in for his Monday Morning Quarterback column. This column comes from five-time All-Pro and 2013 DPOY Luke Kuechly. Read previous guest columns by Malcolm Perry, former Navy quarterback and now second-year Dolphins wide receiver; and Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The 2021 NFL season is right around the corner, and with that comes the beginning of training camp. It’s a first glimpse at the NFL for some, the realization of a dream for others and an opportunity for every player on the field to make their NFL dreams a reality. Of course, there are players with more pressure heading into camp—an undrafted rookie with hopes of making the team rather than an established veteran who is all but guaranteed a spot. Each player has something to prove and a different mindset going into training camp. In my experience, the nerves going into camp are always there, but they change with time, and different things become a priority. Regardless of your situation, the feel, smell and obvious sound of training camp is a welcome sight to anyone who loves the game.
As a rookie, I was so excited to be in an NFL training camp, a dream of mine as a little kid. I was excited to “go away” for training camp—with the Panthers we had ours at Wofford College, down in Spartanburg, S.C.—to drive myself down to camp, get my room set up and get ready to go for the next few weeks. I was excited about the opportunity to practice against guys in a live team period who I grew to know and respect during the OTA practices, guys like Jordan Gross, Greg Olsen, Ryan Kalil, Cam Newton, Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart. I was excited for the heat, humidity and strain of training camp, but most of all I was excited, in a few short weeks, to get my first opportunity to play in an NFL game. It was awesome, and I was pumped.
As excited as I was, there was a definite level of nervousness and uncertainty, too. I hadn’t fully grasped the playbook. I spent many nights reviewing it and feeling confident, but when things started moving on the field it was a different story. The speed of the game was different than OTAs. Guys were faster and got where they needed to more quickly, and it made for another transition period early in camp. I had the same type of realization during OTAs but this was on a different level. I wanted to prove to the organization, and to myself, that I belonged. My rookie-year excitement came in the form of new experiences, an obvious practice tempo change and my first glimpse of an NFL training camp.
Moving into the middle part of my career, my mindset going into training camp changed. I had a good feel for our defense, I understood how training camp worked, I was established in my role on the team and we always had such a great group of guys that I was excited to spend the next few weeks with them. I was so excited to compete every day on the field and work to grow as a team and defensive unit. I loved the challenge of working on new areas of my game, once I could spend more time on things I needed to improve on rather than constantly looking through the playbook. It was all football, all the time.
I was very excited and nervous, though, to see what kind of team we were going to have. We always had a good feel for what we had coming back, but there were always new guys coming in through free agency and the draft who were there to help us win. Some guys looked unbelievable in OTAs but struggled in camp, and then there were the guys who struggled in OTAs, but when the pads came on they were different dudes. It was a fun game to play, to anticipate what our team was going to look like, but you would never really know until we arrived at Wofford and spent a few days out on the field.
My last few years of training camps, I began to appreciate other sides of the game. I was very comfortable with the team, our defense, the guys on the team and what I needed to do to prep myself for the first game. It gave me time to appreciate what really makes training camp and the game of football special—the memories and relationships that are created on a team. I took more time to appreciate the opportunity I had to play the game. I also loved the energy our fans brought to practice each day. Our first practice at training camp was always in the stadium at Wofford, and it was always packed with fans. The energy was great, guys were excited to be out there, the field was perfect, the music was bumping and it was the official start of training camp. It was something I just didn’t have time to appreciate as a younger player. Instead of worrying about the playbook late at night, guys got together and spent time with each other. It was something I looked forward to every day—the end-of-the-day opportunity to hang out. Coach would give us the night off from meetings, and it was like he gave us a week off. Guys would go grab pizza together and head back to the rooms to play video games. It was like we were kids again after a high school game. I enjoyed talking and going through things with the younger guys in the linebacker room. They reminded me of myself as a younger player, wide-eyed with excitement but also nervous at the same time, but all with the same mindset of trying to make the team.
There were challenges as an older player, too, but that just comes with the game. I spent more time getting ready for practice and time after practice making sure I was good to go physically. As much time as it took, it was a fun process finding out what worked best for me and how to implement it into my pre- and post-practice routines. We had a great training room in Carolina, and I was very fortunate to have great resources there. Again, I was always very excitedly nervous to see what kind of team we were going to have and spent more time taking care of myself after practice, but the later I got in my career, the more I began to appreciate the off-the-field aspect of training camp.
The game of football is special. It’s a unique opportunity to gather guys from different walks of life, areas of the country and backgrounds, to come together for a common goal, and that’s to build the best team possible every year. Looking back on my career, I loved everything about the game, from OTAs to training camp, to running out of the tunnel with the guys, to playing in packed stadiums. But I think what will stick with me the most are the memories and relationships formed with the guys off the field, and training camp is a great place to build those memories!
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