Staying Healthy Is the Name of the Game at NFL Training Camp
The running back spins to his left, jukes back to his right, and, just as he crosses the line of scrimmage, the foot of a lineman the size of a Smart Car lands on his ankle. The crack of bone is audible as the running back lies prone, writhing in pain. Trainers sprint out onto the field, teammates shake their heads or huddle around their fallen fellow, the coach starts sweating. Soon the athlete is carted away, lost to the team, his career interrupted.
That scenario plays out in the minds (and nightmares) of NFL coaches, personnel men, and even players each summer as small college campuses heat-up with the sweat and tears of NFL training camps. What, no blood? Yeah, there will be blood, too.
You Mean We’re Here to Work?
There was a time, before players Tweeted or carried flat-screen TVs into their dorm rooms, when training camp was for, well, training. Players such as the New York Giants’ Frank Gifford and the Green Bay Packers’ Paul Hornung famously showed-up for camp out of shape and spent the time rounding into playing shape (and, in the Golden Boy Hornung’s case, skipping curfew).
Now, modern NFL players train nearly year round, hiring personal trainers, going through OTAs, and mini-camp in the spring. The expectation is that the players come into camp in the best shape of their lives and, yet, even with the extra speed, strength, and agility, injuries are commonplace and can impact a team’s season or even a player’s career.
Already in 2010, just a few days into training camp, NFL teams have seen impact players go down with bad injuries:
- Dez Bryant, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys, rookie first-round draft choice, out 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered during training camp practice.
- Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, running backs, Denver Broncos, both injured their legs minutes apart during the first day of drills. Moreno will miss three weeks with a minor hamstring tear while Buckhalter, who has a history of knee injuries, will be out for just a week.
- Percy Harvin, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings, was carted off the field with an unspecified injury.
- Domonique Foxworth, cornerback, Baltimore Ravens, tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee during an orientation practice and is out for the season.
These are just a few examples, there are others, including Pittsburgh Steelers starting right tackle Willie Colon, who also tore his ACL and is out for the season. Colon injured his ACL during a simple conditioning drill on his own time.
What Types of Injuries Are We Talking About?
The most common type of injuries are lower body injuries such as hamstring pulls and tears, knee sprains and tears, and ankle injuries. Concussions are also a bane of the NFL, though those are more common in games, where violent collisions are expected and the hitting is less controlled.
Injury prevention is key for all players, but inevitably injuries do occur. Two of the most common NFL injuries are hamstring pulls and knee injuries.
Hamstring pulls are about as common as water bottles in NFL training camps. Almost every practice is halted or ends with one or two players leaving the practice field with a hamstring injury. Many are mild, lasting only several days, while others may take a few weeks or even linger through the season, wrecking the year for affected players.
Hamstring tears, on the other hand, can be severe, lasting weeks or months. According to the Stretching Institute, a fitness firm based out of Long Island, hamstring injuries, especially for NFL players, occur when players experience muscle fatigue.
The Stretching Institute recommends a regular regimen of stretching and strengthening, which improves flexibility and allows the muscles to withstand the strain caused by drills such as sprints and the infamous conditioning drills run by NFL teams. Most, if not all, NFL teams utilize regular stretching drills before contact and conditioning drills and trainers are constantly rubbing, stretching, and pulling players’ lower extremities.
Another theory is the imbalance between the hamstrings and the quadriceps. If the quads are a lot stronger than the hamstrings, those muscles could be stressed so athletes should be careful to balance their weight training. However, players can undergo all the preparatory stretching in the world and still blow a “hammy.”
Though hamstring injuries usually occur during the beginning and end of physical activities, players can be hobbled at any time and most struggle with when to go full-tilt and when to go half-speed.
“You just tore your ACL.” That is a dreaded proclamation for any NFL player and, yet, each year, especially during training camp, players come down with severe knee injuries, knocking them out for the season, or more.
Foxworth and Colon’s recent knee injuries occurred during non-contact drills so hitting during camp can’t be blamed for players suffering devastating injuries. According to an article on SI.com, most teams have incorporated a knee injury prevention program.
“Most teams have ACL [injury] prevention training programs in place to help get the nerves that control the coordination of the knee working as well as possible,” Gladstone said in the SI.com article. “There have been a number of studies showing that preseason ACL programs lower the incident of ACL injury.”
Most off-season knee injury prevention programs focus on both strengthening the knee and providing extra flexibility with a combination of exercise and treatment. Yet, in some case, ACL injuries are unavoidable.
When a 300-pound lineman falls on a 210-pound running back’s knee, bad things can happen, no matter how much off-season conditioning was done. One method that will positively reduce the risk of knee injury is wearing a knee brace.
At the high school level, many schools mandate that players must wear a knee brace, especially among offensive linemen. Most pros hate knee braces since the bulky equipment can reduce the mobility that is needed to succeed in the NFL.
So, What’s Next?
The NFL has invested much time and money into preventing injuries. In December 2009, NFL charities donated $125,000 to UC Davis, according to Medical News Today, to research the best treatment for new injuries, especially the torn meniscus.
Prevention programs, though, are no guarantee that a player will be saved from devastating injury during drills. Some teams allow certain players to sit out drills, especially veterans, and hardly anyone of importance plays in the preseason games, for fear of injury.
Allowing players proper rest, hydration, and stretching will help, but the macho football mentality pervades the thinking of many NFL coaches and players. More drills, more running, more repetition is what coaches want, mostly because they are afraid to be outworked by their opponents.
Players are trotted out on the practice field, exposed to injury, and, sometimes, find themselves lying prone on the lawn, staring-up at the sky, holding a knee or a hamstring, while the coach starts to sweat.