Cowboys bring carnival atmosphere to California as only team with far-flung training camp
OXNARD, Calif. – Justin Durant wasn't sure what to think when he arrived at his first training camp with the Dallas Cowboys to see rows of white tents and three 18-wheelers full of merchandise.
The seventh-year linebacker had always prepared for a season in the same facility he used all year, so a California hotel transformed into something resembling a county fair was, well, unique.
"When I saw this whole setup, I said, 'Man, they might have a Ferris wheel,'" said Durant, who also played for Jacksonville and Detroit. "They're going to have to, you know, get some cotton candy and all that type of stuff. I was like, 'This is crazy.'"
The Cowboys have spent the preseason in California off and on for 50 years, and they are the only team that travels more than one state from home. Getting away from headquarters used to be a rite of camp in the NFL, but now two-thirds of the teams stay put, in part because they've spent millions on practice facilities that can give fans a place to watch.
Dallas could be next on that list, with the franchise reportedly in final negotiations for a new North Texas facility with enough land to handle what goes on now — thousands of fans lining the fences surrounding two practice fields and screaming for autographs amid the whir of air pumps that fill an oversized car logo and a giant beer can.
Even if that happens, it won't be easy for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to quit coming west. He has one more year on his current deal with Oxnard, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles, and sounds like he wants to re-up.
"I don't think it's a bygone time for the Cowboys," Jones said. "This is kind of business as usual in my mind, coming out here. I really look at it as part of our legacy, and we've had a lot of success doing it."
Teams holding training camp away from home date to the early days of the NFL in the 1920s. According to pro-football-reference.com, the New York Giants held camp in Lake Ariel, Pa., in 1926, after training in New York in 1925. In the 1950s, the Giants went to Salem, Ore., three times.
The Colts visited Sun Valley, Idaho, when they were in Baltimore in 1948. The Washington Redskins spent 23 years on the West Coast starting in 1939, including the final 16 at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The Cowboys moved training camp around their first three years because they were following the money. They trained for their inaugural season in Oregon and played a preseason game in Pendleton, which former player personnel director Gil Brandt says had a population of 10,000 at the time and is still the smallest town to have an NFL game.
It may seem impossible to imagine now in a billion-dollar industry, but a $25,000 appearance fee was a big deal in 1960.
"The National Football League was a shoestring, hand-to-mouth so to speak," Brandt said of what was then a 13-team league. "The feeling was that you couldn't sell 10 weeks of game tickets in cities so you played in these alternate cities."
Brandt says training camp 50 years ago was also about getting in shape on small college campuses with no-frills dormitories, whereas now some players spend the entire offseason working out at team headquarters and have about a dozen formal workouts.
So training camp has become more of a show, like in the Atlanta suburb of Flowery Branch where the Falcons entertain fans in a sprawling complex with an indoor practice field and condo-style rooms that are only used by the players for the few weeks of camp each year. And there's a $5 sandwich called the Game Changer, with pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, slaw, onion rings and bacon.
"We never had facilities like (the Falcons) had here," Brandt said. "Cincinnati was there, so there were 180 players on the field. You could have put 4,000 more on the field and they still wouldn't have been running into each other."
Jones ended a 27-year Cowboys' run in Thousand Oaks, a few miles south of Oxnard, when he moved camp to Texas for the first time in franchise history in 1990. That was a year after he bought the team and cut ties with Tom Landry and Tex Schramm, the only coach and general manager the team had ever known.
Eventually, Jones came to understand why Landry and Schramm liked the Southern California coast so much — sunny days with virtually no chance of rain or temperatures above the 80s.
The Cowboys returned in 2004, this time in Oxnard, where the highs have been in the 60s and low 70s. That's nearly 40 degrees cooler than the past week in the Dallas area, where the Cowboys don't have an indoor facility and would probably be moving practice to their stadium every day.
"I know when you're in the one environment where it's really hot oftentimes there's a lot more attention paid to the water jug behind the drill than the actual drill," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Everyone's just trying to get through it. Are we running after practice? Halfway through the practice it starts getting bad because we're getting ready for the run."
The first Dallas fan showed up 14 hours before the opening workout of camp in Oxnard last month.
Gates — yes, they even have turnstiles — open four hours before practice, and music blares from an area near the fields while fans mill about among food booths, a giant inflatable slide and merchandise trailers emblazoned with huge Cowboys logos. Fans can get in for free, but have to pay a one-time $20 fee for access to the fences where they have the best chances for autographs.
Even during the most mundane drills, fans shout encouragement, and they cheer big plays like it's a game during the 11-on-11 portions of workouts. When practice ends, they desperately try to get their favorite players to wander their way to sign footballs, jerseys, shirts and homemade signs.
"Kansas City has some good fans, supportive fans," said cornerback Brandon Carr, who spent his first four seasons with the Chiefs. "But you know, Cowboys nation, it's a different story. I see they added some more tents from last year, so I guess the crowd has picked up. Last year was kind of icebreaker, but this year I guess I'm just bathing in all of this excitement and all these fans."
For the marketing-conscious Cowboys, training camp is as much about the fans as it is the work.
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