Jahlani Tavai grabbed two jumbo-sized bags of ice from one of four freezers outside the Detroit Lions practice facility Wednesday and dumped them in a large black tub.
For years, NFL players have used ice baths to rejuvenate their bodies after tiring workouts, but Tavai’s post-practice soak on Day 1 of training camp Wednesday seemed different.
A year after COVID-19 restrictions forced players to socially distance their rehab in small groups and at least 6 feet apart, Tavai talked gregariously with teammates and staff members as he awaited his plunge.
Fellow linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton and Tavante Beckett soaked in their own ice baths nearby, and a steady stream of Lions made their way to and from eight oversized buckets congregated in a shaded area just outside the facility’s garage.
Lions coach Dan Campbell said before practice that “over 80%” of his players are vaccinated against COVID-19, and that high rate of compliance affords most players a break from last year’s onerous pandemic restrictions.
“The players have been great,” Campbell said. “We all know what’s going on with the rules and as it pertains to vaccinations, and they’ve been outstanding; the players, and then us the staff working with them. So we’re ready and we’re ready for practice, we’re ready to move on.”
NFL Network reported Tuesday that 85% of players have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and that 14 of the league’s 32 teams have a vaccination rate over 90%.
The NFL kept in place last year’s restrictions on unvaccinated players, requiring them to test daily for the virus and restricting their actions in team facilities and on the road, while allowing vaccinated players more freedom. Vaccinated players are required to be tested just once every two weeks.
One prominent Lions player said he decided to get vaccinated only “after they told us about … the restrictions and everything.”
“It influenced (my decision) a lot,” running back D’Andre Swift said. “I don’t live close to the facility so having to come in every day and off days or not, come in and get tested just to go back home, I feel like vaccination was real beneficial for me.”
Another part of his decision, Swift said, was not wanting to let teammates down.
Players who test positive for COVID-19 must quarantine, with different sets of rules in place for vaccinated and unvaccinated players. Vaccinated players who test positive and are asymptomatic can return to practice after two negative tests 24 hours apart. Unvaccinated players must isolate for 10 days following a positive test.
The NFL notified teams earlier this summer it will not reschedule games due to COVID outbreaks by unvaccinated players, that teams responsible for an outbreak may be subject to forfeit and that players will not be paid for forfeited games.
“That’s an aspect of it as well,” Swift said.
Ice baths aside, Wednesday’s practice was both a return to normal for Lions players and a fresh start.
The Lions practiced for about two hours, including a half-hour walk-through and had a second closed walk-through Wednesday afternoon.
They dedicated two periods to 11-on-11 work, another to seven-on-seven drills and spent the rest of the day working in position groups and on special teams.
“The energy out here is a lot different,” Swift said. “Guys smiling, having fun. People kind of forget to have fun playing this game. We’re playing a kid’s game. Can’t ever forget to have fun. Everybody out there having a good time doing what they love.”
Campbell, who was hired in January along with general manager Brad Holmes to replace Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn after three losing seasons, said he gave his players four rules to abide by in their team meeting Tuesday night: Don’t be late, keep your weight in check, don’t disrespect your teammates and don’t disrespect this game.
After that meeting, Campbell said he was too excited to sleep, though he did not show signs of fatigue Wednesday when he punctuated the Lions’ morning workout by doing up-downs with his players.
“I’ve been around some good coaches,” Campbell said. “I was fortunate. I’ve been around some real good players, too. And I feel like between myself and the staff that I built, we understand what winning looks like and how to get players there. We understand players, how to motivate, how to push, and then we’ll teach them the scheme. But just to get a swagger and an attitude of confidence, I think that’s going to go a long way.”