48.9 miles North of Gillette Stadium, I rustled the family out of bed for the trip to Mecca, Gillette Stadium. We hit the road around 7:30am, a refueling stop at Dunkin Donuts (refueling for us, not the car), and started south. 495S, 3S, 95S, Exit 9 to Route 1 towards Wrentham/Foxboro. Yeah, this North Shore boy was in unfamiliar territory. No, it's not my first trip to Gillette. It is, in fact, my fourth. The South Shore just ain't right. Sorry Marima, but I know you feel the same way about the North Shore. ;-)
I was surprised at how easy a drive it was and how very easy parking turned out to be. You see, every time I go to Gillette, I expect ridiculous traffic and insane parking problems. I know this was training camp and should only expect about 2,000 of the faithful, but in the back of my brain, I still thought it was going to be a nightmare. Not so. Signage was plentiful and easy to follow with very helpful parking attendants waving you into spaces.
We got there at approximately 8:30am, and after a short walk to the training field entrance, were greeted with a line about 200 deep. Around 9:00am, they allowed folks in and the line moved extremely fast. Grandstand seating is provided near the field closest to the Dan Farber indoor practice area (check out this map for more details). A word about seating: the higher rows will provide a better view, but will make it difficult to get an autograph when selected players come up to the grandstand area. My best advice is to know your priorities upfront: great view, sit further back; autograph, sit closer to the front.
The whole event had the air of a High School game. I don't mean to say it was High School level play - FAR from it. The grandstands, the free admission, able to take pictures, it just "felt" that way. It just made the whole experience fun and easy to deal with. This is especially important if you choose to bring your kids (which I highly recommend - I'll explain later); we had a total of five ranging from 10 to 20. Ok, enough about the "experience"; let's get down to brass tacks. Here's a few things I observed:
- Tom Brady - Wonderboy looked VERY good. Running, doing drills, dropping back to pass. I didn't see any range-of-motion issues whatsoever. From bombs, to quick passes, to checkdowns, there didn't seem to be any problems.
- Randy Moss - He's ridiculously talented. I've said for a long time that when you put the ball where only Randy can catch, only Randy will catch and I got to see that up close and personal. I recalled a few passes where Moss was one-on-one with a DB (Terrence Wheatley is one pass that comes to mind) and Brady put it sky high. Moss turned, jumped, fuhgetaboudit. Wheatley didn't stand a chance.
- Wes Welker - Wes is a freak of nature. He catches just about everything thrown his way. As long as he can put a hand on it, he's pulling it down. After the catch is where the real magic starts to happen. On one play, he was juking and jiving. He made a small hop in the air as if to decide where to go, and hits the ground going 90 degrees left. The defensive back was a bit stunned, to say the least.
- Laurence Maroney - Maroney not only looks strong, but fast. He made a few "Wes Welker" cuts that had linebackers scratching their helmets. I'm really happy for him and hope this is a sign of good things to come.
- Cornerbacks - Leigh Bodden looked good, very good. At one point, he was covering Greg Lewis and just smothered him, causing an incompletion. I'm really excited about him.
- Kick Return - Chris Hanson knows how to kick the ball to make it insanely hard to catch. When it leaves his foot, it turns into a spiral with one end facing the sky and the other facing the ground. It then drops straight down, making it very hard to grab. In fact, Greg Lewis dropped one right in his hands. An interesting note: Wes Welker worked on kick returns for a long time. He didn't drop one. I suspect we'll see more of Wes in this capacity.
- Bill Belichick - Coach chats with a lot of guys as their stretching. He looks around a lot and when something catches his eye, he's all hands on, becoming a position coach. Then he's off to the next thing.
A few words about autographs. Only select players approach the grandstands. My guess is this is rotated so it's never the same set of players. This morning, it was Brandon Meriweather, Mike Richardson, and Herana-Daze Jones. Bring a sharpie and whatever it is you want signed. Training camp rosters are handed out to the fans and make good autograph material if you don't have anything else to sign. Training camp is broken up into 9 "periods" of different lengths. I believe it was the end of period 9 when all the players came to the center of the playing field for some final words. That's when the mad rush to the ropes takes place; be ready for it. Kids get stuff signed easier than adults.
Those are some of my thoughts as best as I can recall. There's a lot going on and a lot to soak in. The media has a much better vantage point, their grandstand at one end, dead center. No wonder why Mike Reiss gives you better notes than me. ;-)