If attending an NFL training camp wasn’t bad enough, it was raining. The forecast called for the downpour to last all afternoon, so Kerry Collins, Jeremy Shockey, and the rest of the 2003 New York Giants slouched into the University of Albany basketball gym for a day of no-contact, no-speed, and no-effort football. It was not as though an outdoor practice would have been much more interesting, but at least I could have seen the players in their natural habitat. In the cavernous confines of the gym, every bored tweet of the whistle or half-hearted squeak of a sneaker echoed back three times over, adding a fittingly turgid soundtrack while the offense walked through the playbook. It was enough to have even the coaches checking their watches before long. My eleven-year-old self was bored before the car ride to Albany had even begun, but the rest of the fans sat patiently, thumbing through preseason magazines, and no one left early. The real draw of training camp was what happened after practice.
NFL players are probably the least accessible players in any team sport. There are no first-base fences that a kid can reach over with ball and pen in hand (even if they’re handing them to the bullpen catcher.) It’s dizzying enough to navigate an NFL stadium, even without the security guards who patrol every entrance and exit. But training camps are different. At training camp, the fortress-like stadiums are replaced by comparatively tiny college buildings. Just a fraction of the typical game-day capacity shows up, so security is lax. This is a football fan’s only realistic shot at up-close interaction with NFL players. When it was time for the Giants to leave the locker room, several hundred fans gathered at two separate exits about thirty yards apart. The parking lot my mother and I stood in was filled with hulking SUVs. The glint of chrome wheels beneath tinted windows signaled that we were in the right place.
I came to training with a plan, and sitting through three hours of non-practice did nothing to deter me. I had two white leather footballs that were designed specifically for autographing. I wanted one signed by Michael Strahan, and the other by Tiki Barber, the hardworking, personable halfback who I knew would be adored by Giants fans forever. Things did not go as planned.
Kato Serwanga, David Diehl, and Visanthe Shiancoe passed, but I held the footballs in toward my chest, waiting for my targets. The two separate exits were also causing problems. Adult fans scampered back and forth like toddlers toward candy when they saw a player they liked. They would’ve run right into waist-deep lava or trampled fellow fans if such situations had presented themselves. I held fast to the east exit, convinced it would be the one where Tiki and Michael would emerge. As I dreamed of the gap-toothed smile and the shiny head that would soon beam down upon me, a goofy-looking, long-haired white guy approached.
“Hey, buddy. Can I sign that for you?”
“Uh… yeah. Um… okay.”
What was I supposed to say? No, I don’t know who you are, and you look like you’re probably the janitor? In any case, I was foiled. The probably-a-janitor guy finished signing the ball while I stared down at the undefiled one in my hand. The one he signed was less valuable now than it was when it was blank. I tried to make out the name he had scribbled, but all I could read was “I’m going to get cut tomorrow.”
My mother, who knew nothing better than she knew the New York Giants roster, told me it was Nick Greisen, the second-year linebacker out of Wisconsin. I had let a man with five career tackles ruin my grand quest. Even as an eleven-year-old, I recognized the absurdity of a player asking a fan to sign an autograph. Was he also paying to play in the league? Must’ve been the only way he could stay on the roster.
I eventually got the autograph from Strahan. I asked my mother if she thought it would be worth anything, and she told me no, it’s not like he’s a TV star or anything, you silly boy. Tiki was nowhere to be found, but Greisen went on to have a respectable eight-year career, and finished with about 200 total tackles. After retirement, he became an advocate for improved safety in youth football, which I guess is cool, if you like kids. Compare that with the guy who left his pregnant wife, sold the use of his body, and called a woman the c-word on national TV, and I think I did okay.
My autographs are old and smudged now, but I can still remember Greisen’s odd request when I see that blob of blue ink. For all of the athletes who do whatever they can to duck the fans, it’s good to know there are a few like Nick Greisen, who wouldn’t mind scampering across the parking lot right along with them.