A few minutes before the start of the Detroit Lions‘ training camp, safety Tracy Walker came out of the Allen Park facility and knelt on a walkway, leading to the field.
A crew from NFL Films’ “Hard Knocks” followed closely. A videographer crouched down, careful to stay behind Walker, recording everything.
After a moment of silence and reflection, Walker sprang up and jogged to the practice field, full of life and excitement.
Music was blaring, players were screaming and a horn went off.
Lights, camera, action — welcome to the strangest Lions training camp in team history. It felt like stepping onto a movie set. There were “Hard Knocks” crews just about everywhere. Most of the crew members moved around in pairs — one lugging around a big camera and a sound person, holding a boom mic nearby. All the crew members wore light blue T-shirts helping them to blend in.
LIONS CAMP OBSERVATIONS: Dan Campbell’s optimism starts with his staff
“What is it like with ‘Hard Knocks’ here?” I asked tight end T.J. Hockenson. “Can you sense them?”
“I mean, yeah,” he said with a laugh. “You can sense a microphone over your head. It’s definitely interesting.”
The annual week-by-week HBO docuseries is featuring the Lions for the first time, which created some surreal situations. Normally, the media is not allowed anywhere near the field. But as the Lions went through warmup stretches, “Hard Knocks” crews were on the field, some on the ground, focusing their cameras on individual players, close enough to film their whiskers.
I counted five different crews on the field, just during the first stretching period.
Dan Miller, who handles the Lions play-by-play on the radio for WXYT-FM (97.1), stood next to a small fence. “I just want to meet Ray Donovan,” he joked.
Actor Liev Schreiber, who played Ray Donovan in the Showtime series of the same name, is the narrator of “Hard Knocks.”
Alas, Donovan — er, Schreiber — was nowhere to be found.
But the Lions have something even better: coach Dan Campbell.
‘I just try to be me’
I feel bad for this “Hard Knocks” crew.
Campbell is a quote machine, interesting and funny. Entertaining and genuine. But how do you cram everything from him into a single episode?
The entire show could be Campbell.
On Wednesday morning, Campbell walked to the back of the end zone. He threw a roll of tape, his whistle and a pen on the ground.
I was watching him thinking: What the heck is he doing?
He turned his cap backward and started doing up-downs with his players.
That’s basically a burpee without the push-up; it also happens to be the absolute worst, most diabolical, old-school exercise ever brought to a football field.
OK, maybe, that’s just my high school self talking — just the sight of up-downs brings back the horrors of two-a-days. Man, I hated up-downs.
But there was the Lions’ second-year coach, doing them with his players.
This wasn’t for the cameras. I didn’t even see a “Hard Knocks” camera nearby. It was pure Campbell.
“I just try to be me,” Campbell said. “I’ve got a lot of energy. I’m excited. I’m enthusiastic. I’m just me. I think that’s what comes out of me, so I think that help those guys. They kind of … believe in me, I guess. They feel it. They react off that. I think it helps. I don’t know any other way than just to say that’s just kind of how I am. Those guys play off of me.”
The up-downs lasted for more than 75 seconds. A coach blew a whistle and the players — and Campbell — hit the turf.
Finally, a horn blew and the session was done.
Campbell got up, clearly gassed. He straightened his shirt, picked up his stuff and went back to coaching.
“I told the team last night, our identity and who we are, and our foundation, is all about grit,” Campbell said. “That’s physical, mental toughness, and that means taking it one day at a time. That means going a little longer and pushing a little harder, thinking a little deeper, a little sharper, those terms.”
I’m not sure if a coach doing up-downs puts grit into a team. Not sure it helps win any games.
But I would have loved to play for this guy.
Once practice started, the crews seemed to melt into the background. I had to look for them. As Campbell stood behind the huddle, watching a seven-on-seven drill, a crew was behind him, two boom mics stretched over a line of players, presumably recording everything.
Wide receiver Quintez Cephus made a fantastic play — a one-handed catch — and sliced through the defense to the end zone, dunking the ball over the the posts.
And everybody screamed.
There is genuine excitement surrounding this team, mainly because of Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes. They seem to have a plan that makes sense.
Yes, this is a team coming off a three-win season. But the the offense should be improved.
“I do believe we got enough pieces in here to compete. I really do,” Campbell said. “And to me, when you’re a coach, you just want to know you do have the pieces to able to compete, and I do feel that way. And now it’s up to us collectively to find a way to turn some of those losses from last year into wins.”
The winners of camp
Now, let me make a few predictions.
Who will be the big winner of this series?
The company has signage everywhere you turn in Allen Park, including on the fronts and tops of four massive hospitality tents. I’m certain the Rocket Mortgage logo is gonna pop up in countless shots.
Another big winner?
The Lions in general. The entire country is going to love this team. There are just so many interesting narratives, so many interesting characters.
But none bigger than Campbell.
He’s going to come out of this a star. TV loves characters. And Campbell is as interesting and entertaining as they come.
Long shots on ‘Hard Knocks’
About an hour after practice, the field emptied out. Most of the coaches and players headed inside, and the “Hard Knocks’ crews went to their trailers. But one player remained on the field.
Josh Jackson, an undrafted wide receiver from Tulsa, was working by himself, catching balls off a JUGS machine operated by Casey Edwards, an equipment intern.
Johnson finished catching passes, helped Edwards clean up and then he put out more cones. He kept working on his footwork. This wasn’t for the cameras. There were none in sight.
This was just a young player, working his tail off, trying to make the most of this amazing opportunity.
That’s the best part of training camp. A long shot trying to make an impression.
Because when you strip away this crazy scene — the “Hard Knocks” camera crews and editing trailers and boom mics everywhere you turn — that’s what the start of training camp is all about.
Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.