The Fear at training camp

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:41 AM ET

TORONTO - That summertime feeling is back in the air.

And, for many of the 80-plus players at the Toronto Argonauts training camp, so is The Fear.

It is not something often discussed, just felt.

It comes in the dark with nightmares.

Or insomnia.

For some, it is throwing up at the sound of the first practice whistle or just a gut full of butterflies.

“As a rookie you don’t know what to expect. There is a fear factor. You’re sort of shell-shocked,” recalls Mike O’Shea, now the Argos’ special-teams coach, but for 16 seasons one of the CFL’s premier linebackers.

“You have your pukers. Some guys are eaters. Everyone has their own deal to get ready. What worked for me was believing that I was going to lose my job every year. That was my trigger.”

Gibran Hamdan drops the snap, picks up the ball and misses a receiver standing not 10 yards away.

Busted play.

Busted dreams.

A day later, after eight professional training camps and throwing just two passes in his National and Canadian Football League career, he quits.

Welcome to the cruel side of football, the side that doesn’t show up on game day or television.

Derek Stanley watches a rain-slicked ball slip through fingers that have caught similar throws thousands of times and mutters silently; a play goes to smithereens and a coach not-so-silently mutters a similar expletive.

Two days after camp opens receiver Matt Lambros is released — an off-season of sweat and hope dashed.

Running back DeCori Birmingham limps to the sideline shaking his head.

“You can tell everyone is anxious,” he says.

“I’m a seasoned guy and know what to expect — but I still get butterflies.”

He has played in Europe and made five NFL rosters but this is his best shot at a starting job since college and he can’t afford a wobbly pin.

Time is running out.

Barely more than half the players who arrived Sunday will survive to see the July 1 season opener.

Everyone knows it; few like to admit it.

“You don’t really want to talk about it. It’s in the back of players’ minds, but in the five years I’ve been doing this,” says receiver Chad Rempel, “I’ve learned there’s a lot of stuff you can’t control.

“If you’re worrying about who they’re going to cut or keep, you’re focussing on the wrong things. I know, because I used to be one of those guys who always worried about what the coach was thinking. I’ve been there.”

He has played and been released by five CFL teams.

“The first couple years I’d go in thinking: ‘This is it! I’ve got to make it now or my world is going to end. I put so much pressure on myself and it hindered my performance. I was stressing out.”

Training camp has a way of sucking the joy from a game.

For some, that anxiety endures.

“I don’t have a favourite training-camp story; they were all hell,” says Dan Ferrone, a three-time all-star offensive lineman with Toronto from 1981 to 1992.

“As a player there is always a lot of bravado on the surface but underneath I don’t think there’s one person who isn’t having some doubt whether they’ll survive. You’re not verbalizing the idea that you won’t make it, but it’s there.”

It has been 17 years since he retired but, “I remember going to training camp and phoning my wife and saying don’t worry, I’ll be home soon. I’m getting cut any day.

“The hardest training camp I ever went through was my first when Willie Wood was the coach. He started every practice with two laps around the big field. A lot of people might not think that’s much but then there were 100 up-downs ... which involves one pushup; Get up, do one jumping jack. Some guys couldn’t get back up. It was vicious.

“Training camp was in Guelph then and I used to pull off the 401 just before the exit and sit there and think, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ ”

The average CFL career is 3.19 years. By that standard Rempel has survived longer than most.

“A lot of guys wake up and wonder, ‘Is this my last day.’ I’ve been cut and you wonder is that the last time I’ll be on the field. I’m going to try not to think about those things.”

Jeremaine Copeland is starting his 11th training camp. He has been with Montreal, Calgary, several NFL teams, the XFL and now Toronto.

“E-e-everybody gets the old stomach virus. The night before I got on the plane to come here I couldn’t sleep. My wife said, ‘Aren’t you coming to bed?’ and I told her I was just too wound up. I went to the airport at 4:45 in the morning.”

And, Copeland doesn’t even have to worry about a job.

But he remembers what it was like before his roster spot came guaranteed.

“I was always nervous. I didn’t want to get yelled at, you don’t want to be the one busting a play and having the coach screaming at you ... you can sense the anxiety in the guys here.

“The jitters, guys not wanting to make busts ... afraid they’re running wrong routes, asking a lot of questions when they already know the answers.

“They get upset when they drop the ball; think it’s the end of the world. It’s something they have to get over quick. If they don’t they can be out of here fast.”

Unlike other pro sports there are no safety nets, no minor leagues as in baseball or hockey.

“In college you can be third or fourth string but you’re still on the team and going to workouts. But here, you’re gone,” says Orlondo Steinauer, Argos’ defensive-back coach and a former five-time CFL all-star.

“It’s the end of the road. That’s not comfortable to think about. There is an anxiety factor.”

Sometimes even playing well isn’t enough. A new coach, a change in direction by the team, and a career in real estate may beckon.

“In some ways it’s like a job interview,” says Steinauer, “you might have a really great one but the person after you might be a neighbour or a friend.

“The difference is in the business world you can go for another interview, but in football if you don’t do it out here there’s often nowhere else to go. It’s cutthroat.”

Training camp may be an opportunity but it is also where dreams die.

For many players it can be a very sad time.

Birmingham faced that reality. Waived by the Patriots and Jets in 2005 he went back to Arkansas to finish his degree in sociology.

“I told my mom I was finished with football. It wasn’t working out and I wanted something to back me up but when (football) is in your blood you keep coming back until you can’t anymore.”

So, he signed with the New York Giants, played in Europe and spent the past two seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

But, he knows it won’t last. He wants to become a football coach. Probably in Texas.

He just doesn’t know when.

The game hasn’t told him yet.

Such uncertainty can psyche a guy out. It happened to Rempel.

“The toughest part is the mental grind. In Toronto the last couple years, it has been learning a new playbook every year, trying to develop chemistry as a group and still doing everything to keep your own ass on the team.

“Physically there isn’t much difference, because all the guys here can play. It’s the mental side that separates those who make the team from those who don’t.”

When the end comes, it is harsh and sudden.

“They used to come at night,” recalled Ferrone. “You could hear doors getting knocked on around you. You wake up and guys you’ve been having breakfast with for weeks are gone. They’re not in the dressing room or the locker is emptied.

“You’re thinking is it my turn?”

These days the bell tolls for more than dinner.

Says Rempel: “In Toronto it usually happens at meal time, guys are walking up the stairs to eat wondering am I going to get the chop? You check in when you eat lunch, there’s a guy who checks off your name and he’ll say, ‘Go see (general manager) Adam Rita when you’re done.’ ”

Gives a whole new meaning to “The Last Supper”.

Camp brings a mixture of anticipation, anxiety and excitement.

It is three weeks of organized confusion that can linger for a lifetime.

“The heat, the double vision, the convulsions, the passing out, the dehydration, the injuries. There was nothing that appealed to me. Years later, you still shudder,” says Ferrone.

“It’s a unique atmosphere. You’re friends while knowing that at the end somebody is not going to be there. And, through all this misery, what happens is unique. You do draw to your teammates. You do build the chemistry that is with you the rest of the year and you do develop friendships that last forever.”


Videos

Photos