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Will NFL players be ready to handle the training camp heat after Lockout?

Jonathan VilmaJonathan Vilma

Saints open regular season at Green Bay on Sept. 8

NEW ORLEANS – August 1st marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic death of Korey Stringer, a husband, father and starting tackle for the Minnesota Vikings who succumbed from complications brought on by a heatstroke at the age of 27.

His is the first and only death attributed to heatstroke in the 92-year history of the NFL.

I bring up Stringer’s death for this reason: Once a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is ratified, perhaps as early as the NFL owners’ meetings Thursday in Atlanta, training camps are expected to open soon after in preparation for the new season.

In New Orleans and in other tropical climes around the NFL, we can expect daytime temps in the 90s and heat index in excess of 100. Bear in mind, the 6-foot-4, 335-pound Stringer collapsed on an outdoor practice field, in full pads, on a day in Minnesota when the temperature hit 91 degrees and heat index rose to 110 degrees.

In a perfect world, every incoming player to an NFL training camp would be in football shape, mentally and physically prepared for the challenges ahead.

We do not live in a perfect world.

In light of this unprecedented lockout, now in Day 122, the Saints and the other 31 NFL teams should not expect their players to be football ready when business resumes full bore. Nor should teams take conditioning short cuts and try to make up for months of lost time in offseason programs.

Tom Shaw, a longtime NFL speed and conditioning coach who runs a performance camp under his name at the ESPN/Wide World of Sports Facility at Disney World, said teams should err on the side of caution when they reopen for business.

“There are a lot of guys who just started training this week,’’ Shaw said. “I’ve got two kids who have played in the NFL who started training this week because they know camps are getting ready to open and they’ve never had to push themselves.

“Guys think just because they've been working out at Bally’s in the air conditioning and getting on the treadmill, the stepper and the elliptical that they are in good shape. Then, they come out here in 94 degrees with 100 percent humidity and they’re dying. Each day they’re thinking, ‘Man, I hope we stay out for another month, so I can be in shape when I go back to camp.’ ''

I can hear Who Dat Nation now: “Hey, our guys are in shape. Our guys busted their butts for six weeks at ‘Camp Brees.’ No need to worry about them. The Black and Gold will be ready.’’

Think what you want.

I suspect the number of Saints players who are truly “football ready’’ when training camp opens is no greater than 15 percent of the proposed 90-man roster. That might be generous. I also suspect that will be the case league-wide.

“Hey,’’ Shaw said, “teams lost their whole offseason programs. But coaches don’t need to take it out on the players. Because of the time element, teams need to get their players ready to play games and coaches are going to be looking for guys who can play football. Consequently, players will spend the majority of their time at their facility learning the defense, learning the offense and going to special teams’ meetings and not doing the necessary work in the weight room or doing cardio-vascular work.

“Players will be training on the run like the olden days when coaches had them run gassers and conditioning drills after practice. I can see teams doing conditioning work during practice like they did in the 70s because they didn’t have an offseason program this year.’’

The important thing is that coaches and trainers take every precaution as they whip their players into game shape – indoors in a controlled environment and outdoors in the summer elements.

“Today, it was smokin’ hot (in Orlando) - 94 degrees and 100 percent humidity,’’ Shaw said. “We were sweating like dogs walking out of the weight room, walking outside to the field. Everyone was drenched. If you’re not used to going out when it’s this hot, you are really going to struggle.''

Especially carrying around 22 extra pounds of equipment.

As Shaw spoke, my thoughts turned to Saints' defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, the hefty 10-year veteran who inked a one-year, $4 million contract on Feb. 28. His deal includes a weight clause, a $630,000 bonus if he stays at 350 or less.

Rogers was conspicuously absent during "Camp Brees.'' At his signing, he tipped the scales around 375. No doubt, he would have benefited from a regimented offseason program under the team's direction.

“Dealing with the heat is going to be harder than anything that these players do,'' Shaw said. "For guys who have been doing stuff in the air conditioning, they’re going to struggle. There will be some practices two to three hours in the hot sun. If you’re not used to it, that’s when guys are going to start to fall out. That’s when trainers need to be on their toes.’’

Let's hope it never comes to that.


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