On Wednesday night (7/23), the full 2008 Ravens' team assembled for the first time at a 7 p.m. meeting at the Best Western in Westminster. Rookies, quarterbacks and a select group of veteran players had already spent 3 days in training camp, but now the rest of the team arrived and head coach John Harbaugh directed his first-ever full-team meeting.
The first half of the meeting focused on logistics and administration. VP of operations Bob Eller, who runs our camp, covered information about parking, meals, travel, and respecting all the workers at the hotel and McDaniel College. Darren Sanders, our director of security and a former Baltimore City detective, was blunt regarding safety issues, no guests in rooms and speed traps around Westminster and going south back to Owings Mills and Baltimore. Darren didn't point the finger at police or state troopers setting up speed traps; he just explained that they will be there and players should drive within the limits.
Our public relations, community relations and TV staffs all made presentations about what they do and what is expected from the players and the coaches. The PR presentation focused on what the big stories of camp are: Who will be the starting QB? How hard or how long the training camp is compared to previous Ravens camps? Is the defense too old to be elite again? Players were told that working with the media is part of the business of pro football; that is a "have to," and that reporters are, in general, good people just trying to do their jobs.
An emphasis was placed on interacting with the fans who attend camp. Players were reminded that "We all get paid by the fans. That's where the money comes from – one way or another." The team was shown a picture of an 8-year old Steve Bisciotti, the Ravens' owner, visiting with Johnny Unitas at the Colts' training camp. The team was told: "When Steve bought the Ravens, he said one of the reasons was that he had such great family memories of coming to Westminster when he was a kid, and how nice the players were to him. So, on days when you don't have to lift weights, meet with a coach or get treatment right after practice, go say hello to the fans – shake some hands, sign some autographs."
And fans, please understand this: There could be as many as half of the team who have some football responsibility immediately after practice. That means not every player will sign every day. And, even when a player is signing, it is impossible to sign for everyone. And, we do tell our players to focus on signing for the children at practice.
On the whole, I think our players are great about spending some time with fans during camp, especially when I see all the other things the players have to do during these long days. In fact, in a near future blog, I'll give a blow-by-blow of a player's and a coach's day.
As the first part of the meeting continued, Bill Tessendorf, our VP of Medical Services and an NFL trainer since 1976, cut to the chase with the players. "Tess" was blunt about the importance of hydration and sleep during camp. He reviewed NFL drug laws and reminded players that random testing is a constant. (For example, kicker Matt Stover told me that he was tested 3 times this offseason, once while he was vacationing with his family in Montana.). I was amazed when "Tess" talked about certain players who are prone to cramping and heat-related issues and how some of these players are taking pills that can be used to measure their core body temperatures. These measurements are taken when a player is at rest and then taken when the players are practicing. During practice, if their core temps are too high, they will be either cooled on the sideline or pulled from practice. (For reporters reading this and thinking this would be a good story: Yes, it would be, but because of privacy and competitive reasons, we will not pinpoint which of our players get too hot the fastest. Sorry.)
As happens every year at the first meeting of training camp, equipment manager Ed Carroll receives the most warmth from the players. Chants of "Ed-ooo" filled the air as the veteran Carroll told players to be nice to each other and his camp assistants, many of whom are college grads who majored in sports administration.
Of the staff members appearing briefly, no one had the room's attention more than our director of player development O.J. Brigance. We all see powerful courage every day watching O.J. admirably and with dignity battle "Lou Gerhig's Disease." With respect to O.J. and to the privacy of the meeting, I will not detail all that he said. He talked about the team's players' programs and the availability of both he and his assistant Harry Swayne, the starting right tackle on the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl team. But, he also talked about how he could see in some players' eyes that "I don't look the same as when you last saw me." O.J. then talked about the realities of the disease and what the players would likely be seeing with him during this season. When this hero finished, the players applauded – and continued to clap – until Coach Harbaugh asked team chaplain Rod Hairston to come up to O.J.'s motorized scooter and say a prayer. "Harbs" asked all the players to get as physically close as they could to the now-sitting Brigance as Rod began his prayer. Whew, there were many moist eyes in the room.
Strength coach Bob Rugucki then explained to the players about the lifting program during camp – which included telling the players that, when they are scheduled to lift after a practice, they should come directly to the weight room in practice pads and they will be given dry shirts to lift in. In other words: "Don't stop to do anything else before you get to the weights."
It was then time for Coach Harbaugh, who had made comments to the team after each presentation in the first part of the meeting, to give his message to the players. John respectfully asked all staff besides the players and coaches to leave the room.
Again, out of respect to the privacy of these special moments that are important to building a team, I will not give a blow-by-blow of Coach Harbaugh's message. I will offer these observations: No doubt, John had put a lot of thought into what he said. His message was not complicated. It contained inspiration, hope, toughness and empathy with those in the room. He talked about the intelligence and abundance of experience that were put into the planning of this training camp.
He bluntly listed what the expectations are for each player and every unit: offense, defense and special teams. It was clear that Coach Harbaugh, reared in a coaching family, had spent a coaching career waiting for this moment. He was good, and he had the room's attention.
When he finished, he said: "We have a little video to end the meeting." The brief video showed highlights from many of the players in the room – big hits, hard runs and memorable touchdowns. When the highlights ended, a scene from the movie comedy "Major Payne" played. Actor/comedian Damon Wayans, dressed as an army officer, says something like: "Now men, get some sleep, because the hard stuff starts tomorrow." The room erupted in laughter. But, the message was clear. Yeah! I can't wait to see what happens next.
Cornerback Samari Rolle has not reported to camp after the death of his father, Harry, who died last Thursday due to a massive heart attack. Samari had recently traveled with his Dad to study the history of their family. The funeral is this Saturday in southern Florida. Owner Steve Bisciotti is sending a private jet to take Ozzie Newsome and some veteran players who are close friends of Samari to the service.
There is no doubt that Coach Harbaugh is in charge. He makes changes, but he does it respectfully and he's nice about it. It's a challenge for all of us to keep pace with his energy. (He's up at 6 a.m. and I got an e-mail from him Tuesday night that listed the time sent as 1:02 a.m.)
One of the endearing parts of working with him is his self-deprecation and humor. After falling trying to "cover" RB P.J. Daniels in a drill on Wednesday, "Harbs" told the media that he needed the device that says: "Help me I'm falling and I can't get up." When he was signing some autographs after our very first practice of camp on Tuesday, I was told by a security person that when John reached for a helmet being held by an adult fan, the fan pulled the helmet back. The guy said something like: "I just want established players to sign the helmet." When I later mentioned to John that I heard not everyone wants his autograph, he laughed and said: "Hey, hopefully that guy will want my autograph in three years. And, there was some kid who didn't want me to sign his ball. He asked me if I was a player. Do I look a lot older?"
It's going to be fun – and demanding, as it should be – working with this man.
Come out to Westminster if you can. If you haven't been there ever, you'll be surprised at how close you'll be to the action. You'll hear coaches and players, you'll see the sweat drip from chins, and you'll have the chance to tell the head coach you don't want his autograph.
**Here's a link** to a feature, assembled by the oustanding producer Adam Berger, on O.J. Brigance that appeared this week on the NFL Network and NFL.com. It's worth watching. It's titled, O.J. Brigance: True Courage.
Talk to you next week.
Kevin Byrne is the Ravens' Senior Vice President – Public and Community Relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis, Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.