The Jaguars were trend-setters and didn't even know it.
Seventeen of the NFL's 32 teams will conduct training camp at their home facility this summer. In 2000, only four teams stayed at home.
The Jaguars have held training camp away from Jacksonville only once in the team's history. The experience at Stevens Point, Wisc., apparently was too traumatic to ever do it again.
Ah, yes, training camp 1995. Who could forget the infamous "Concentration Line," the sight of grown men sitting in rubber trash cans full of ice water, or Rod Smalley riding the stationery bike into oblivion? Actually, Smalley was the smart one. He took one look at Tom Coughlin's practice regimen and said, "I'm hurt."
Jeff Lageman was wise enough to know that only fools rush in, so Lageman took his time getting to camp. Coughlin didn't like it but Lageman knew the rules and there was nothing his coach could do about it.
"Everybody who went through that shares a bond. Any time we all get together, we always laugh and tell stories about that '95 camp," Lageman says of that more-than-a-month of torture.
Coughlin took his team to Wisconsin ostensibly for two reasons: 1.) To get away from the Florida summer heat. 2.) To focus his team completely on football and the Coughlin way of doing things.
Reason number two was a complete success. Reason number one quickly became laughable when Wisconsin experienced the hottest summer in its history. Temperatures reached 106 degrees on consecutive days; cattle were dying in the field and Jaguars players thought they might, too.
"It was like a prison camp. When I got there I saw the looks on guys' faces and you could tell they were beat down," Lageman said.
When he got there? Yeah, camp had begun without Lageman, defensive tackle Kelvin Pritchett and defensive end Joel Smeenge because the three veterans knew Coughlin's start date was earlier than veterans could be required to report.
"Smeenge started getting phone calls. We came in when we had to and I think Smeenge came in before that," Lageman said.
NFL rules concerning training camp start dates forbid teams to put on the pads prior to 14 days before the team's first preseason game, which was July 29 for the Jaguars. Coughlin's start date was several days prior to the 14-day rule, which required players to report early on a voluntary basis. Lageman let it be known at the conclusion of spring OTAs that he wouldn't volunteer.
In Coughlin's address to the team at the conclusion of OTAs, "He said when you leave here you'll get your flight plans, so they literally handed you plane tickets to get to Stevens Point early as you left the room. I got my ticket and I'm in the locker room sitting on my stool and he walked up to me. I said, 'You and me have a problem.' I said, 'I'm not gonna be there.' He was concerned I was going to rally the whole team," Lageman said.
Lageman and Pritchett rolled into camp "late," conducted a little press conference, then submitted themselves to their punishment.
"I had to do my conditioning drill even though I was at all of the OTAs. K.P. and I started out at the bottom of the depth chart. I guess that was our punishment. I was going against guys that wouldn't even be on an arena league roster," Lageman said.
"I knew it wasn't going to be easy. When we had the OTAs, there was one day in particular that burnt my shorts. Here it is a voluntary situation and they're telling you when you have to work out (conditioning). You get there at seven, your legs are pretty cooked and you have to sit and wait until practice at one, and after practice we had to run gassers. The reason we ran gassers is that he was angry that guys didn't sign in for breakfast," Lageman, a Jaguars broadcaster these days, recalled.
"He had this rule that guys couldn't bend over at the waist. I had this shoulder surgery and I was wearing a vest so my arm wouldn't get loose. The only way I could get pressure off my chest is if I got down in a catcher's position," he added.
That drew a reprimand from an assistant coach, to whom Lageman offered a sharp repartee, which resulted in a stare down between Lageman and his head coach.
It didn't take long, however, for Lageman to make a major impact in training camp. It was in the first pass-rush drills in full pads. The field was a little wet from an overnight rain and Lageman, the most esteemed of the Jaguars' defensive linemen, was working against prized rookie Tony Boselli, the Jaguars' first-ever draft pick.
Lageman bull-rushed Boselli, who twisted his knee as he tried to plant his feet. It resulted in Boselli being sent back to Jacksonville, where he underwent knee surgery that would sideline him until week four of the regular season.
"You would've thought the franchise just nosedived. Here you had all these guys dealing with injuries and getting treated like ants, and here it was like the franchise just died," Lageman said.
Live goal-line and short-yardage drills were routine. Players crossed a line as they entered the practice field and at that point their concentration was to be only on football.
Injuries were not permitted. At the start of one practice, word reached Coughlin that Desmond Howard and Ernest Givens would not be joining the team that day because the two receivers were favoring sore hamstrings. Shortly after Coughlin learned of that information, Howard and Givens were on the field in full uniform.
"If you were hurt, you were over there in full pads riding the bike," Lageman said. "I had never had a muscle pull in my life and I got a double groin pull. I never had a muscle pull after that. I was so fatigued. We had contests to see how cold we could make the water. Guys were getting in cold tubs they never would get in."
Prior to breaking camp and heading back to Jacksonville, a running back named Leon Brown sustained a chilling injury in practice.
"It was gruesome. His foot was pointing 90 degrees in the wrong direction," Lageman said. "It was the Bataan Death March of training camps. The one thing is the food was just incredible. I said it's too bad because the coffee's not that good. The next day there were new pots and the coffee went from jiffy store to Starbucks quality."
The Jaguars were 4-12 in that inaugural season, but they were in the AFC title game a year later. Reporters were ripping Coughlin for his dictatorial ways, which included rules forbidding sunglasses and required players to keep two feet on the floor during meetings. Fines for ties that weren't tight against the neck were commonplace.
"It worked. His whole goal was to find out who the mentally weak were. As a player, you're watching, too. At the pro level, there aren't many who can't withstand it. Most of the guys were soldiers; just tell me what to do," Lageman said. "When you had a day off, you didn't want to do anything. You were just crushed."
On Aug. 2, Jack Del Rio will welcome players to training camp 2009. Consensus of opinion is that this summer's camp will be more demanding than those of recent years, as Del Rio drives home his "new commitment" message, but no one is expecting it to compare to what happened in Wisconsin 14 years ago. It would be the Jaguars' first and only camp away from home.