An all-access pass into Ravens camp
Elvis is here. So is a man named Goose. And the cameras - well, they're everywhere.
Welcome to NFL football 2001, Baltimore Ravens' style, a bizarre mix of Vince Lombardi tough and "Survivor" marketing, where the men are jumbo-sized, the coach is as mighty as a television executive, and the American public watches every move with screams and moans.
And what better place to kick off a new season than at the training camp of the Super Bowl champions, at a field in the middle of farm country where more than 15,000 fans converge nearly every sweltering day?
Did I mention that everyone is dressed in purple?
This training camp, in preparation for the season's Sept. 9 opener, is downright weird.
These are the defending champs, and everyone wants a piece. The fans crowd around in awe. The journalists line up for interviews. Even Art Modell, the once-hated owner who moved the team here from Cleveland five years ago, is treated like a prophet as he drives around in a golf cart.
"It's awesome," says Brittni Downs, an 11-year-old wearing a Ravens jersey with the number 52, that of linebacker Ray Lewis. "I'm a girl, but I can enjoy this, too. They're a great team."
Capturing it all, and adding to the insanity, is HBO, the white-hot cable television station that introduced "The Sopranos" to the world. HBO has been filming the Ravens for the new documentary six-episode series, "Hard Knocks" (Wednesdays, 11 p.m.-midnight) which promises to go where cameras have never gone before in the NFL - from the players' hometowns to the locker rooms here at Western Maryland College. They have a 23-member crew, cameras everywhere, and access to the players that makes ordinary journalists jealous.
"I think football on television on Sundays tends to be sanitized," says Bob Angelo, the director of the series. "We're trying to give American television audiences a clear picture of what goes on at an NFL training camp, of the whole process by which 83 men come together and 53 remain at the end of six weeks."
Sound familiar? The show has been marketed like a reality drama in the mold of CBS's "Survivor." The difference: this really is real. On the line are jobs, and the competition is fierce.
The players run sprints until they double over. The hits are ferocious. And college All-Americans sometimes look like boys when they meet the men of the NFL.
"This is not a made-for-television event," Angelo explains after a morning practice. "This was going to happen anyway. We're just here documenting it."
The HBO series features the stories behind the players. See veteran wide receiver Qadry Ismail shopping for meat in the supermarket; watch rookie tight end Todd Heap carry his bride into their new suburban house (with no furniture). You get the picture.
Ravens' head coach Brian Billick, the movie's charismatic leading man, has welcomed the film crew. Billick thinks that as the Ravens try to defend their title, the media attention will be 10 times as intense as it was a year ago. This will be good practice. Although the players can appear a little rough around the edges in front of the camera, they seem to have adjusted well.
"It doesn't bother me, because I'm going about doing my normal thing," says tight end Shannon Sharp, the unofficial mouthpiece of the Ravens, as he cools down after a light practice. "If I was gonna curse, I would curse whether HBO, CNN, or anyone else was here. After the first day [of filming], guys were looking over their shoulders, but now guys are going through their normal routine. We can't worry about HBO, just go ahead and do what we gotta do."
And what they gotta do is win football games. Although the Ravens certainly have their work cut out - star running back Jamal Lewis injured his left knee Wednesday and will probably miss the entire season - the word here at training camp is, not surprisingly, "repeat." They've kept most of their legendary defense intact through the off-season, and they've added what they think will be a top-notch quarterback in Elvis Grbac.
"Everyone will be gunning for them, but I think they can do it," says Vernon Carfine, of Ellicot City, Md., who came out to watch the practice with his daughter. "They have so much desire and intensity, you can see it on the field."
Of course, the NFL season is long, and there are sure to be disappointments. But for one day at least, everything is perfect in Ravensland: The sun is shining. Drills are running smoothly. And long passes fall lightly into the hands of wide receivers who streak along the freshly cut grass.
After practice, swarms of kids push their noses through a plastic fence and try to get autographs from their favorite players, one of whom is 350-pound defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, affectionately known as "Goose."
Goose sits on a bench near the locker room, tired from a long day, a sun hat pulled over his eyes. He seems too tired to get up and answer to the kids who are screaming for him. "Just climb the fence," he yells.
They obey. And in a second there is a miniature stampede of little bodies, rolling in the grass, tripping over a football, and running up the hill toward Goose.
Football season has arrived.