With Albert Breer on vacation, we have guest writers rounding out his Monday Morning Quarterback column. This column comes from Luke Kuechly, a five-time All-Pro and DPOY 2013. Read previous guest columns by Malcolm Perry, former Navy quarterback and now second-year Dolphins wide receiver; and Sam Rapoport, Senior Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the NFL.
The 2021 NFL season is just around the corner, and with that comes the start of training camp. It’s a first look 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 come true. Of course, there are players with more pressure heading into camp: an undrafted rookie hoping to make the team rather than an established veteran who is almost guaranteed a spot. Each player has something to prove and a different mentality for the training field. In my experience, the nerves that go into camp are always there, but they change over time and different things become a priority. Regardless of your situation, the obvious feel, smell, and sound of the training ground is a welcome sight for anyone who loves the game.
As a rookie, I was very excited to be in an NFL training camp, a dream of mine when I was little. I was excited to “go” to training camp, with the Panthers we had ours at Wofford College, in Spartanburg, SC, to drive to camp, get my room ready, and prepare for the next few weeks. . I was excited for the opportunity to practice against guys in a live team period whom I got to know and respect during OTA practices, guys like Jordan Gross, Greg Olsen, Ryan Kalil, Cam Newton, Steve Smith, and Jonathan Stewart. I was excited about the heat, humidity, and tension of training camp, but most of all I was excited, in a few weeks, to get my first chance to play in an NFL game. It was amazing and I was excited.
As excited as he was, there was also a definite level of nervousness and uncertainty. He hadn’t fully understood the playbook. I spent many nights reviewing it and feeling confident, but when things started to move on the field it was a different story. The speed of the game was different from that of OTAs. The boys were faster and got to where they needed to more quickly, which meant another transition period early in camp. I had the same kind of realization during OTAs, but this was on a different level. I wanted to show the organization and myself that I belonged. My excitement during the rookie year came in the form of new experiences, an obvious change of pace from practice, and my first look at an NFL training ground.
Moving into the middle part of my career, my mindset going into training camp changed. I had a good sense of our defense, I understood how training camp worked, I was established in my role in the team and we always had such a good 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 was able to spend more time on the things I needed to improve rather than constantly looking at the playbook. Everything was football, all the time.
However, I was very excited and nervous to see what kind of team we were going to have. We always had a good idea of what we needed to get back to, but there were always new guys coming through free agency and the draft that were there to help us win. Some guys looked amazing in the OTAs but they fought in the camp, and then there were the guys that fought in the OTAs, but when the pads showed up they were different guys. It was a fun game to play, anticipating what our team would look like, but you would never really know until we got to Wofford and spent a few days on the field.
In my final years of training camp, I began to appreciate other sides of the game. I felt very comfortable with the team, our defense, the guys on the team and what I had to do to prepare for the first game. It gave me time to appreciate what really makes the training ground and the soccer game special: the memories and relationships that are created in a team. I took more time to appreciate the opportunity I had to play the game. I also loved the energy that our fans brought to training every day. Our first practice on training ground was always at Wofford Stadium, and it was always packed with fans. The energy was great, the guys were excited to be there, the field was perfect, the music was playing and it was the official start of training camp. It was something that I just didn’t have time to appreciate when I was a younger player. Instead of worrying about the playbook late at night, the boys got together and spent time together. It was something he looked forward to every day: the opportunity to hang out at the end of the day. The coach gave us the night off from the meetings and it was as if he gave us a week off. The boys would go out to eat pizza together and return to their 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 when I was a younger player, wide-eyed with excitement but also nervous at the same time, but all with the same mentality of trying to be part of the team.
There were challenges as a senior player too, but that comes with the game. I spent more time preparing for practice and time after practice making sure I was physically fine. All the time it took, it was a fun process to figure out what worked best for me and how to implement it in my pre and post practice routines. We had a great training room in Carolina and I was very lucky to have great resources there. Again, I was always very excited and nervous to see what kind of team we were going to have and spent more time taking care of myself after practice, but as I progressed in my career, the more I began to appreciate the outside of … field aspect of the training ground.
Soccer is special. It is a unique opportunity to bring together boys from different walks of life, areas of the country and origins, to come together for a common goal, and that is to build the best possible team every year. Looking back at my career, I loved everything about the game, from OTAs to training ground, running out of the tunnel with the guys, and playing in crowded 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 ground is a great place to build those memories!
More NFL coverage:
• Setting realistic expectations for rookie quarterbacks of 2021
• The 12 teams that could win Super Bowl LVI
• 10 players who could make their first Pro Bowl in 2021
• Six losing teams in 2020 that will reach the playoffs in 2021
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.