- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

WESTMINSTER, Md. The scene was the Baltimore Ravens' training camp at Western Maryland College, but it also might have been the XFL or the Australian outback from "Survivor."

Three-man camera crews, complete with boom microphones, crouched into every on-field huddle. Casual chats on the sidelines between owner Art Modell and general manager Ozzie Newsome recorded for posterity. Players muttering to themselves in frustration after a missed assignment no longer alone in conversation.

Welcome to "Hard Knocks."

HBO's much-hyped, six-part reality TV series featuring the Ravens in camp begins tonight at 11 p.m., and with it comes the first defining note of Baltimore's defense of its Super Bowl title: The cameras are everywhere.

"Big Brother is watching us," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

"Hard Knocks," produced by NFL Films, will feature an intimate look at everything surrounding a typical NFL training camp, including the grueling workouts, the separation between players and their families and the intense pressure first to survive camp and then to succeed after it.

The series also promises access to never-before-seen enclaves of the NFL, even by league-controlled NFL Films, such as huddles, players-only meetings, dorm rooms and private weightlifting sessions.

"Cameras? What cameras? I don't know what you're talking about," Modell said jokingly when asked about the film crew. "Actually, there's nothing wrong with it. If you start becoming withdrawn and looking over your shoulder, being careful about what you say, that's being paranoid. This is an open, accessible team. That's been my trademark for years."

NFL Films' on-site work in Westminster began in earnest Sunday when players were filmed exiting their cars, checking in and attending the first of many team meetings. From there, 16 camera operators, sound technicians, film loggers and other personnel buzzed around the playing fields and team hotel trying to strike a delicate balance between staying out of the way and getting close to the action.

Blessed with near-perfect weather the first two full days of camp, full cooperation throughout the Ravens organization and plenty of usable footage, NFL Films executives were surprised with their own progress.

Tonight's episode will include the team's arrival, Billick's initial speech to the players, rookies continuing a time-honored camp tradition of warbling out their college fight songs at mealtime and Monday's opening of two-a-day practices. A preview clip featuring defensive linemen Tony Siragusa and Dwayne Missouri appears on www.nfl.com.

"It's really been kind of shocking how well this has gone. You always have a few minor catastrophes in every significant project, but we've just been really fortunate so far," said Bob Angelo, NFL Films director and the on-site point man for "Hard Knocks."

"But what's helped is that even though we're sort of starting now with the beginning of camp, we've spent the last three weeks filming and getting to know the players. We've met their families, gotten inside their lives a bit and established a sense of rapport. I think it's paying off now."

Billick and NFL Films president Steve Sabol hatched the idea to have the training camp become a reality series soon after the Ravens wrapped up Super Bowl XXXV in January. And since the deal became final in May, Billick has been questioned constantly as to why he would allow yet another distraction add to the increased crowds and media coverage. His pat answer has been his desire to acclimate his team quickly to the heat of the spotlight blasted upon every Super Bowl champion.

Now with his grand experiment in action, Billick professes no regrets. The third-year Ravens coach saw a rough cut of episode one yesterday. He retains editing control over anything that would put the team at a competitive disadvantage, but to date he has not exercised it.

"They're the least of my concerns, really," Billick said. "I have a lot of faith [in NFL Films], and I believe it is going to be a great thing."

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