- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

It’s an annual rite of training camp, the football equivalent of the State of the Union address. Joe Gibbs delivered his speech Sunday night before a joint session of Redskins players and coaches. He stood in the meeting room at the National Conference Center in Leesburg and, well, what did he say, anyway?

“It was different from last year,” Brandon Noble said. “He has a year under his belt now. He knows us, we know him. There’s more of a relationship.” Also, Gibbs had a lot more to talk about this time — the shared experience of last season, the tough losses, how the team hung together and maintained a healthy atmosphere in the locker room.

What resonated with Ray Brown was Coach Joe’s declaration that “being able to coach here means something to him, that it’s a special place to play. He acknowledged the fans, too,” Brown said. “Some of the new guys don’t really get that, don’t understand what the team means in the community, the importance of the charity work we do and how we represent the organization.”

But all in all, it was fairly standard stuff — the kind of speech made in NFL training camps across the country. “Everybody pretty much says the same thing,” said Redskins assistant Earnest Byner, a veteran of 14 pro seasons. “By training camp, the players know what’s going on.”

It wasn’t always thus, though. Half a century ago, the ritualistic gathering of the team for the coach’s Opening Remarks was a more significant occasion, perhaps because the offseason was truly the offseason back then — no minicamps, no organized team activities, etc. — and people went months without seeing one another. Whatever the reason, these talks tended to be more … memorable. For some coaches, at least.

Giants Hall of Famer Steve Owen, for instance. Owen would round up the rookies — usually 30 or more — and, between spits of tobacco juice, set them straight on the facts of NFL life.

“One day about 25 years ago,” he would begin, “I stepped off the bus in my hometown, Kinsley, Kansas. I’d been back East playing pro football, and I realized as I got off the bus that, excepting I was a little older and a little wiser, I was just where I’d been about six months earlier when I headed East. I’d been making pretty good money, too, for those days. Where it had gone I didn’t know. Spend a little here and a little there, but when you look back you never do know just what you’ve done with your money.

“That was the last year anything like that happened to me. I realized what a chump I was to work that hard all fall and then not have anything to show for it. The next year, when I got back to New York, I opened an account in the bank up the street from the hotel where I lived, and from then on I had those dollars marked down in that little black book I carried around with me.”

Owen wasn’t merely dispensing financial advice, though. He was working up to the larger point that football is merely a means to an end and that “the boys we want on the Giants are the ones who have their eyes on something else over and above a successful career as a pro player.”

The season, after all, lasted only five months in those days, and practice — once training camp ended — was done by noon. “Those free months of the year and those extra hours of the day are the important ones for you,” Owen told the rookies. “Make plans to do part-time coaching or go to school for a master’s degree. Get a job during the offseason in some line that appeals to you.”

Today’s players are more likely to receive such counseling at rookie symposiums or maybe from their agents, but in 1953 — with the Giants anyway — it came straight from the coach’s mouth. (Of course, Owen took an unusual interest in his troops. He and his wife lived in the same hotel with the unmarried players.)

Then there was Paul Brown. Each year, the famous Cleveland coach delivered an oration at the start of camp that became known simply as “The Speech.” It might as well have been chiseled in granite so little did it change over the course of two decades.

One of Brown’s main themes was “language, … dress … [and] deportment.” In particular, he said, “I don’t want to see any player in the dining room in a T-shirt. I expect civilized table manners and table talk. There have been people who failed to make this team simply because they were obnoxious to eat with.”

Another of PB’s commandments: “I want you to keep your wives out of football. Ask them not to talk football with other wives. I’ve seen it cause trouble.”

Only in the ‘50s.

Gibbs’ speech to the Redskins wasn’t nearly as momentous (though Ray Brown still considered it “very important” because it “sorta sets the table.”) Indeed, his whole delivery was different — less programmed, more off the cuff.

“I think it’s important that it comes from the heart,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily something you plan.”

Hey, at least he was smart enough not to knock the players’ wives. Give the guy credit for that.

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