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Zach Strief: Saints road trip to Los Angeles about more than just football

Zach Strief
August 18, 2019 - 1:25 pm
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For the past 3 days the New Orleans Saints have been taking a break from 80% humidity, meetings that end at 10 pm and hitting another black and gold jersey.  This yearly pilgrimage scrimmage against an opposing team on the home turf gives the players a break from the monotony of camp, but it also gives the organization an opportunity to build the bonds necessary to turn a group of men from all different walks of life, into a team able to come together for a common cause.  

Football, more than any other sport, relies heavily on the ability of its players to know, to feel, to think just like the man next to him.  That type of relationship doesn’t just occur, and it can’t be assumed.  It must be nurtured, cultivated and grown by willing participants. That has long been part of the purpose of training camps.  Bonds can be built by shared struggle.  

The difficulties of going through an NFL training camp pushes players to become infinitely closer than they could have become without that experience.  As NFL training camps move further and further away from the physically demanding marathons of years past, opportunities like a multi-day road trip become more and more important to building great teams.  Look no further than the Saints schedule this week in Costa Mesa as an example.  

The Saints training camp schedule is more rooted in tradition than many around the league.  A player’s schedule starts around 7am with breakfast and ends around 10pm, following night meetings.  I can assure you, while playing, that schedule is difficult to understand.  I have found, however, after taking a few steps back, that your perspective can change tremendously.  

One of the biggest differences between college football and professional football is what happens when the work is done.  When you live in a dorm with your teammate, there is plenty of time to build relationships.  That changes dramatically when you get to the National Football League.  Teammates suddenly have families and responsibilities.  When the time to go home happens as a pro, you go home.  

The other reality that has slowly creeped into all walks of society is the ever-increasing reliance on technology, which has removed so much of the human interaction that was once required for anyone.  Sitting around and play cards was suddenly replaced by sitting around reading Instagram.   The only solution is to increase the amount of time players are forced to be around one another.  You can only stare at your phone for so long.  With more and more teams reducing the time required for players to be around each other, there is less and less opportunity to build the rapport necessary to become a championship caliber roster.  

You may find players today who disagree with that analysis.  They might tell you that their teammates are their boys.  I would respond by suggesting that friendship is different from bond.  Friendship is casual, it is easy, and it fast.  Bond has a higher price tag.  Bond requires struggle, it requires sweat, it requires experience.  It is a relationship that is becoming harder and harder to find in the sports world.

Are players more likely to flee their team for a larger contract somewhere else because they are selfish? Or is it simply that true hardened bonds are not as readily formed as they once were in the NFL?  Obviously, there are many scenarios, and staying with your current team is not always the prudent decision to make.  I support any player’s right to freely move when he is able.  That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be more loyalty, if players were able to come together at a deeper level like they once did.  

These realities have made trips like to Los Angeles all the more important.  You probably have seen some of the activities Saints players planned.  Trips to the race track, to Hollywood, to a golf course, or nightly dinners...all provide opportunities for players to build those relationships that must exist for success.  It is part of what makes these shared practices so important to the game today.  With all the discussion about shared practices taking over some of the evaluation process, and allowing the league to reduce the number of preseason games, I can’t help but find myself wondering, if you take these trips and turn them into pure business, where does your team find these crucial moments to become one collective unit?  

It’s been a special week in Los Angeles.  Getting to see the guys interact, drawn closer by a fun experience in the middle of a tough one, reminds me why I loved and still love football so much.  I love it because it is a game played by a team, not an individual.  Because football creates bonds with other humans like few things do.  Because in struggle, there is beauty.  Because the difficulty involved made me a better person. Mostly, I loved pro football, because it created the strongest relationships in my life.  It was fun to see those same type of relationships building for others.

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