- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A rookie of the year season for the NFL champion New York Giants earned linebacker Sam Huff $7,500 in 1956. The modest salary was nowhere near enough to live year-round in New York City, so when the season ended Huff headed back to his home in West Virginia to get a job.

There he found part-time work at a grocery store. Huff stocked shelves, bagged groceries and wheeled carts to cars of patrons, who got a kick out of having a budding NFL star toting their non-perishables and toiletries.

“They could not believe it,” Huff recalled. “‘Sam Huff, the pro football player, is bagging my groceries.’ But I needed the paycheck. I needed to pay the bills.”

Nearly 50 years later at Redskin Park, the Washington Redskins’ year-round training facility, dozens of players can be found lifting weights, running or reviewing plays on a midweek day in May. Long gone are the days when Huff stacked cans and quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, another future Hall of Famer, manned a jackhammer at an offseason construction job.

Tight end Chris Cooley, Washington’s pick in this year’s third round, where Huff was selected in 1956, will receive a signing bonus of about $525,000. Only six Redskins, one of whom is no longer with the team, took advantage of the league’s internship program this offseason. And everyone trains 10 or 11 months a year to keep from falling behind.

Workouts, in addition to being far more intense, have become highly structured and regulated. Collectively bargained rules now designate “voluntary” activities, which many players consider effectively mandatory. The NFL Players Association monitors programs and investigates — as in a current case with the Giants — when players report violations.

Driving the sea change have been two primary factors: the money players now make and coaches who constantly seek an edge. The downside might be players who exit the NFL ill-prepared for the outside world, but few players or coaches are willing to compromise their offseasons in the current high-stakes environment.

“It’s a bigger business now,” Jurgensen said.

Halftime cigarettes

Marty Schottenheimer remembers how his summer vacations as a player in the 1960s used to end with sprints through the field behind the house of fellow linebacker Dick Butkus.

“He would mow a path about 15 yards wide and maybe 120 yards long,” Schottenheimer recalled. “And we’d just run up and down it.”

The hay on either side of Butkus’ path grew tall during the long summer of Chicago’s south suburbs, and breathing was difficult. Weights came when Schottenheimer and Butkus were done running. The regimen was meant to shock their systems into shape after a long period of relative inactivity.

The preceding months of Schottenheimer’s offseason were spent very much off. He and his wife, Pat, traveled to Florida, where his parents lived, and he brushed up on his golf game. He had no concern that other players would spend their offseasons running, lifting and eating right to gain a competitive edge.

“Many of the players weren’t working out, so you weren’t at a physical disadvantage if you didn’t,” said Schottenheimer, now coach of the San Diego Chargers.

In so many ways, it was a different era.

“I can remember, you used to walk into a locker room at halftime and guys would be sitting there smoking cigarettes,” he said with a laugh. “Times certainly have changed.”

From the days of Huff and Jurgensen until the late 1970s, training camp started in early or mid-July, opened with about two weeks of two-a-days and included six preseason games. Players spent the early portion of camp getting into shape and learning the offensive and defensive schemes. They spent their offseasons doing whatever they wanted.

Now, with camps starting in late July and generally four preseason games, considerable work is done in the offseason. Camp is expected to refine physical skills and knowledge of plays.

“You can’t walk into camp and get into shape in five weeks anymore,” said Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, whose previous stint as coach lasted from 1981 to 1992. “You want to be here [in the offseason] for the mental part of it, the conditioning part of it and the team part of it.”

Decades ago, the crash-course camp mentality dovetailed with many players’ need for additional cash. Huff’s other offseason jobs included selling furniture and carpet at a store owned by one of his friends, while Jurgensen worked in real estate and sporting goods in addition to construction.

Although the two joke about how much money players earned in that era, they believe there were benefits to having a “real job” — like being more well-rounded and prepared for life after football and having a greater connection with the fans.

“More than anything else, you were part of the community,” Jurgensen said. “[The Redskins] didn’t have great teams, but we stayed a part of the community.”

Give-and-take

Things began to change in the 1970s when Hank Stram coached the Kansas City Chiefs. According to NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen, who started as a lawyer with the union in that era, Stram was the first coach to institute a “minicamp,” or offseason weekend for players to return to town and brush up.

In a copycat league, Stram’s minicamp started a trend toward offseason work, which led to a 1977 agreement between the league and union that minicamps would be limited. Most teams got one; clubs with a new coach got three. (The rules now stipulate two and three, respectively.)

In the 27 years since, teams and the union have engaged in an extensive give-and-take over what players can be compelled to do. The period of most change came between 1989, when the union was decertified following the 1987 strike, and 1993, when the most recent and stable version of the collective bargaining agreement was enacted.

Those years’ combination of no union to monitor offseason work and rising salaries, — due to the short-lived rival USFL and the advent of Plan B, the limited precursor to today’s free agency — led to “free reign” by the coaches.

“That was when the number of offseason activities coaches and management compelled players to attend really began to mushroom,” Berthelsen said. “That’s when [the offseason] started to have heavy structure.”

Another factor may have been the creation of year-round facilities, the first of which was George Allen’s original Redskin Park in 1971. Also, Dick Vermeil, who went from UCLA coach to Philadelphia Eagles coach in 1976, appeared to spur change toward players making permanent homes in their teams’ cities.

“When we arrived in Philadelphia in 1976, only five or six of the guys lived in town year-round,” Vermeil recalled. “Carl [Peterson, an assistant coach and then Eagles director of player personnel] and I were one of the first teams to give bonuses for living in town. By the time we left, there were 45 guys who lived there.”

Workout bonuses since have become a common part of player contracts. About 20 percent of Redskins players, for example, have workout bonuses ranging from $25,000 to $400,000. In addition, every NFL player earns $100 a day for participating in the offseason workout program, which can mean up to $5,200 over 13 weeks.

‘A better game’

This offseason, the typical Redskin works out four days a week at Redskin Park and participates in three minicamps. The CBA permits 14 of the workout days to be “organized team activities,” or minicamp-like practices in which plays are run on the field. Gibbs plans to utilize 12 of the 14 allowed OTAs.

The Redskins get about 90 percent participation in the workout program even though it’s mostly a commuter team. Only “16 or 18” players, according to director of player development John Jefferson, actually call Washington home year-round. Gibbs hopes that number will increase in coming years.

Minicamps are the only mandatory activities. However, few players are entrenched to the point that they consider the workout program truly “voluntary.” Failure to participate could be a mental black mark to a coach, which could jeopardize a player’s job.

There’s a fine line between encouraging participation and tacitly mandating it — a line new Giants coach Tom Coughlin might have crossed in recent weeks. The NFLPA is investigating whether Coughlin, known as a taskmaster, broke the CBA’s rules.

Other violations come when a team does the right activities at the wrong time. The St. Louis Rams last year ran practice drills during a regular workout day. They lost a week of workouts.

Despite coaches pushing the rules and the NFLPA’s nitpicking, both sides appear content with the current setup.

“Coaches are coaches,” NFLPA spokesman Carl Francis said. “We just want to make sure [players] have the right to make their own decision.”

Said Schottenheimer: “It’s been collectively bargained. That means both sides kind of said it’s OK. In my opinion, the benefit is that it has made for a better game.”

The one downfall might be the increasing inability of players to focus on anything besides football. Redskins guard Lennie Friedman and safety Andre Lott are rare exceptions. Friedman spent a week this offseason interning for Rep. Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, while Lott interned in January and February at the district attorney’s office in Knoxville, Tenn.

“It’s always good to get a jump-start,” Lott said. “You don’t want to finish with the league and then decide, ‘OK, what am I going to do now?’”

Just three other current Redskins had internships this offseason, all coaching-related, even though some 20 local corporations partner with the league to make such opportunities available.

“It’s a little different than it was in our days because the money’s different,” said Jefferson, a Pro Bowl receiver in the late 1970s and 1980s who now oversees the Redskins’ internships.

Of course, several dozen Redskins own their own businesses. Wide receiver Darnerien McCants is an artist. And the majority of players can afford to work out a few days a week at Redskin Park, then fly back to wherever they keep their permanent home.

Is the current setup better? Asked that question, Huff got up to get a copy of his autobiography, “Tough Stuff.” One of the game’s all-time linebackers (and most unheralded stock boys) read the book’s dedication to his children and grandchildren.

“May they truly understand my life and times,” Huff read, “and how hard work and not cleverness is always the answer.”

“I really believe that,” he concluded.

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