Allen Park — Before the Detroit Lions’ first padded practice of training camp on Tuesday, coach Dan Campbell reminisced about his first time in pads, as a rookie with the New York Giants in 1999.
As Campbell tells it, he was approached by Howard Cross, a veteran tight end in his 11th season with the franchise.
“I’m a rookie and he says, ‘Hey Dan, are you ready?’” Campbell said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ He goes, ‘OK, so when this thing goes down, make sure you got my back.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about when this thing goes down?’ I said, ‘What’s going down?’ He’s just like, ‘Have my back. Make sure you got my back.’
“It was like first period, team run, and it was like literally the first play and one of our D-lineman just slugs the crap out of our center and it’s all out. It’s an all-out brawl. I’m looking and there’s Howard and somebody is on his back, I’m running over there. You’re just trying to get involved, but yet you don’t really want to be in there and fight in the middle all of it.”
Campbell made it clear he wasn’t looking for those types of shenanigans during his first go-around as Detroit’s head coach, but he fully expected the intensity to be dialed up.
“I want to see these guys compete,” Campbell said. “I want to see them go all the way to the point to where it is almost an all-out brawl, but we’re not getting that. Like it’s so heated and it’s so hot and guys are trying to win so badly that we get better.
“I think that’s the only way you really get better. There’s such a fine line between we took it too far and guys are getting hurt, we’re out of control. But yet, if you don’t push it almost to that point, you really won’t get where you need to get in my opinion in this league, to be competitive at the very highest level. That’s what I’m looking for.”
For the most part, Campbell got his wish, with plenty of moments of controlled physicality, but rookies Amon-Ra St. Brown and Ifeatu Melifonwu got caught up in the heat of the moment during a special teams segment that resulted in a minor skirmish.
During the one-on-one blocking rep, St. Brown grew frustrated with the long-limbed cornerback latching on to his chest and not letting go. That led to some shoving and a brief exchanging of punches before the two were separated.
For some coaches, those actions would result in an automatic ejection from the day’s session. But not with Campbell, who not only allowed both players to keep practicing, but he continued to pair them up throughout the day, including another head-to-head rep in the same drill.
After practice, St. Brown downplayed the moment.
“You know, we’re just out there competing,” he said. “It was the first day of pads and the coaches wanted to see what we can do. It was aggressive, physical. He likes to block and you know I love blocking, so that was a fun drill for me.”