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Not your average 9 to 5: Pro football affords athletes a comfortable living, just not during camp

POSTED: August 1, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Veteran kicker Jason Elam reports to training camp at the Falcons complex in Flowery Branch.

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Linebackers call an audible to signify that Joe Horn is going in motion. The ball is snapped and play begins. Horn heads up field, stopping on a dime while going to his left, then diving to his right in an attempt to catch a Joey Harrington pass.

The ball is just out of Horn’s reach but the team reacts to his efforts, cheering.

In the afternoon heat of a July day, the players jog back to the huddle to try the play again. It’s just another day at Falcons training camp.

From a wake-up call at 6:30 a.m. to bed check at 11 p.m., the three-week training camp at the Falcons Complex in Flowery Branch is regimented and tiresome.

And the sentiment felt by most players regarding this time of the season is best summed up by 15-year NFL veteran and Falcons kicker Jason Elam: "Everybody hates training camp."

Falcons players wake up between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and head to the on-site cafeteria for breakfast.

"You’ve got to fuel your muscles and get energy for those morning practices," said 11-year veteran linebacker Keith Brooking.

First-round draft pick Matt Ryan gets his morning fuel from egg whites, turkey sausage, "and a little bit of cereal," he said.

From breakfast, it’s on to position-specialized meetings which last until practice begins at 8:30 a.m.

The first practice of the day ends between 10 and 11 a.m., and is a grueling array of conditioning and fundamental work.

Grueling, that is, unless you are Elam.

"The day-to-day is fairly boring for me," 38-year-old Elam said. "I only practice for about 30 minutes every five practices, so other than that I am just out on the field encouraging the other guys to work hard."

On the days he isn’t kicking, Elam stands on the shadeless sidelines in full Falcons garb waiting. "Well, I get a lot of sun, but boy is it hot," he said.

When the first practice of the day is done it’s off to lunch.

"First you have to shower, though," Brooking said. "Well, most of us shower. I have a couple of teammates that probably don’t.

"We have to remind them that you can’t take a shower pill."

Lunch for the team consists of a meat and vegetables plus salad, potato and sandwich bars.

"All our meals are madatory right here at the facility," Brooking said. "We have to eat here and they serve good healthy stuff. They have options for everybody, and they do a real good job."

Between the time they finish lunch and the hour before the afternoon practice, usually 2:30 p.m., the players rest in their apartments at the training facility.

"It’s so important to sleep during training camp," Elam said.

"You get horizontal and rest," Brooking said. "When your muscles are resting they are refueling, so it’s important to get nutrition in your body and lay down and rest as long as you possibly can before you have to go at it again."

Ryan uses his resting time to focus on something other than Atlanta’s offensive playbook.

"I like to watch TV and try and zone out for a little bit so that when I come back and get into meetings, I’m refreshed and mentally sharp and ready to go," he said.

More meetings consume the hour leading up to the afternoon practice, which begins about 3:45 p.m. Those meetings are to review video of the morning’s practice and bring in focus the individual improvements that need to be made in the afternoon.

The afternoon practice is centered around implementing the team’s offensive and defensive schemes.

"That’s when you see that guys are on the same page," Ryan said, "and seeing that makes for good team chemistry."

A horn sounds to signify the end of the afternoon practice, but not the end of the day.

At the conclusion of each practice the Falcons’ players speak with members of the media and, when the public is present, sign autographs.

After another shower and meal, the players head to more meetings, these lasting upwards of two hours, before curfew is enforced and they go to bed.

"They treat us like little boys," Brooking said laughing. "We have bed check and curfew. Coaches come knock on your door to make sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing."

While a mocking air of resentment surrounds the lack of freedom, the training camp schedule is a known necessity.

"I think I’ve always been a person that likes to stay in a routine and feel like I’ll be at my best when I stay in a routine," Ryan said. "I think camp gets you in that routine for your season. It gets you in the groove and gets you ready."



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