Real American idols - up close

On a day when 5,000 fans have turned out to watch the Carolina Panthers begin preparations for the NFL season, few can match the vantage point of 13-year-old Alex Rutherford.

Tapped as one of five Panther Pals - selected from dozens of entries each day of training camp - young Alex finds himself on the practice field at the conclusion of workouts.

Alex is paired with fourth-year starting linebacker Will Witherspoon, who proves as gregarious with kids as he is ferocious with ball carriers.

"Don't run away from me," he mock-scolds young Alex, his newfound assistant. "Didn't your mama tell you? Stay close!"

Alex, grinning and overwhelmed, nods and says little, so awestruck is he by his newfound backstage pass.

He heeds the linebacker's advice, tightly trailing Witherspoon along the autograph line. "My man Alex is helping out," the linebacker tells fans awaiting signatures.

The two eventually work their way up a path leading to the locker room at tiny Wofford College, the Panthers' summer home.

Such encounters are among the reasons veteran Sports Illustrated scribe Peter King, among others, views training camp as a sacred spot for keeping players and fans linked.

With all 32 NFL clubs back at work this month, training camp represents an opportunity for both sides to spend a little time with each other before the hurly-burly of the regular season arrives.

Football fans and executives alike insist that their preseason is a more authentic experience than baseball's spring training.

"If they didn't play [exhibition] games and sell beer, I question how many people would show up for bunting practice," Mr. King says. "With training camp, you're out there and you can hear what the players are saying and you can get close enough to hear these coaches actually teaching players what to do and where to go and how to do it. I just think it's fantastic. It's my favorite time of year."

While total attendance figures for training camps are the province of individual clubs, estimates range from 10,000 to 70,000 per season.

Big men on campus

Much has changed over the years in the way pro football teams gear up for a new season.

Two decades ago, training camps lasted as long as six weeks and were held long distances away from home. As a result, players would spend extended periods away from their family.

Today almost half of NFL teams use their regular-season practice facilities as training camp headquarters.

Summer sessions now last only three weeks or so, a reflection of league restrictions requiring teams to invite fewer players to camp.

Beyond smaller rosters, teams no longer rely on camp to get their players in shape. The prevalence of off-season training regimens has wiped out that practice.

Whether teams train at home or relocate to tiny destinations such as St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., home to Pittsburgh Steelers camp, fans benefit from improved access to players in a relaxed atmosphere and, in most locations, free admission and parking.

Teams that have flirted with paid admission have suffered backlashes. Last month, amid heavy criticism from fans and media, the Minnesota Vikings nixed a plan to charge daily admission for practice sessions in Mankato, Minn. It was "the right thing to do," says Steve LaCroix, Vikings vice president of sales and marketing.

Other moves by the Vikings - adding interactive fan areas, a VIP skybox, merchandise tent, and selling sponsorships - have turned what once was a club expense into an enterprise turning a slight profit, he adds.

Several other teams have adopted varying levels of commerce at camp. Selling novelties and concessions is one thing, says San Diego Chargers executive Jim Steeg, but the larger concerns are preparing for the season and establishing fan rapport.

"It is a great chance to get kids out and let them be around it," Mr. Steeg says, "the ones that can't afford to go to a game because of a $65 ticket. All the studies we have seen are that kids develop their team loyalty between 8 and 15 - this is a terrific opportunity for us and for them."

Finding new fans

Even for teams who train at home, winning new converts ranks up there with winning football games.

The New Orleans Saints, aiming to attract a broader audience, plan to hold an intrasquad game in Jackson, Miss., later this month.

The team receives a warm reception wherever it goes, says Arnold Fielkow, Saints executive vice president, with one caveat: "The hardest thing for us is the heat. Some days, it is just too hot to come out and watch us practice. We do the best we can."

Wisconsin serves as home to two NFL camps known for their down-home hospitality.

The Green Bay Packers practice just down the road from Lambeau Field at St. Norbert College. Green Bay began training there in 1958, the year before Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi arrived. It was Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, who ushered in the tradition of players riding kids' bikes back and forth from practice.

The Kansas Chiefs employ similar transportation methods at their training camp at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, 30 miles southeast of Minneapolis.

One longtime observer recalls a group of players spending $300 on a jalopy several years ago to get them around town when needed.

"At the end of camp, they met an old woman who looked like she could use a hand, so they gave her the car," says Bob Moore, a spokesman for the Chiefs. "We got a kick out of that."

A tune tradition

As for Lombardi's Green Bay glories during camp, the coach enjoyed American Idol-style entertainment.

"He required every rookie player to sing for his supper," says Lee Remmel, Packers team historian and a former sportswriter. "Vince insisted on it. These guys were off-key, so, at the end, he would ask [veteran running back] Elijah Pitts, who had a natural voice, to show them how it was done. Elijah would sing, and Vince would just beam."

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