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Training camp lore has little to do with football

by J.W. Miller on 08/06/18

Make no mistake, the best part of training camp for the fans is, well, football. Six months of free agency, the draft and off-season training seem like board games compared to the sensation of watching your team hit the pitch again, which it does Thursday night. But for one who has been through it, it’s the stories that I remember most about Saints training camp. The deeds, the places and the personalities become part of legend and lore of an NFL training camp. And some of it has nothing to do with football. 

My first two years with the Saints, training camp was held at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond in a cauldron of typical August weather. In 1986, Jim Mora’s first as head coach, we lost so many players to dehydration with the high temperatures and humidity that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough players to practice. The temperature wasn’t as bad in 1987, but it was a monsoon summer in which torrential rains forced us to bus the team to LSU or the Superdome just to practice. GM Jim Finks was done with that, so he talked with his old ties at the Bears, who recommended we move camp to La Crosse, Wis., which we did in 1988. 

That didn’t sit well with the politicians in Louisiana whom new owner Tom Benson was courting for improvements to the Superdome. It didn’t help that our first week in La Crosse, the Midwest was undergoing a heat wave of scorching proportions. That prompted the Times-Picayune to add a weather scorecard to each day’s front page: “La Crosse 102, Hammond 94.” Thankfully, the heat went down but the stories during the Cheese League days abounded. 

It didn’t take long for the guys in the boiler room - equipment manager Dan Simmons, his assistant Silky Powell and trainers Dean Kleinschmidt and Kevin Mangum – to find an after-practice watering hole. The Bluffside Inn sat at the foot of Grandad Bluff, the tallest point in the area, rising nearly 1,200 feet above sea level. Soon, members of the entire staff could be found at the Bluffside, sampling its bar-long offering of 24 unique beer taps. One night, an unnamed scout made a bet that he could drink a beer from each tap, thereby “running the taps.” He made a valiant effort, bailing out at about 19, but the rest of the story was to come. 

In addition to players taking mandatory drug tests at camp, Benson required each staff member to take a random test. Unfortunately for the scout, his number came up the morning after his effort at the Bluffside Inn. He failed the test, spent some time in the NFL’s substance abuse program and never tried to run the taps again, at least at the Bluffside. 

When the Bluffside started to attract too many staffers, Simmons and Powell found a remote retreat called "Leo and Leona's" about 15 miles out of town in the village of Newburgh Corners. The proprietors were a married couple in their eighties who were always behind the bar, Leona chain-smoking Camels and serving Special Export with cheese curds, while Leo reminded visitors that before the Saints came, the biggest thing in Newburgh Corners was when presidential candidate Estes Kefauver made a campaign speech there during the 1956 campaign. If anything in the bar was older than Leo and Leona, it was the décor which consisted of rusty signs, antique farm equipment, old toys and gadgets of all types. Leo’s favorite commemorative, however, was a huge sign over the front door that said: “The Bears Still Suck!” 

Grandad Bluff was the scene of another feat of derring-do that turned into a “derring-don’t” for another staff member. Defensive line coach John Pease was a workout warrior who brought his bike to camp for between-practice rides.  His favorite was a pedal up Grandad Bluff, which rose vertically about two miles. Pease was never one to do things the easy way, and one day between practices, he came limping and bloodied into our administrative office carrying his bent and broken bike on his back. “What happened to you?” we asked, and Pease responded: “I wanted to see if I could come down the mountain without any brakes.” He almost made it, but a hairpin turn near the bottom sent Pease and his bike sailing off into the forest. Another casualty for the training room. 

Craig “Ironhead” Heyward had a clause in his contract that he would receive a bonus if he reported to training camp at 260 pounds. He earned it the first year but never again could get his weight below 260 in subsequent camps. After about the third or fourth year of failing, Finks asked Heyward why he couldn’t make weight. “Don’t blame me, it comes naturally,” Heyward said. “My mama weighs four bills,” Headspeak for 400 pounds. 

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