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Goodbye Lockout, Hello, Eagles Training Camp

(Photo Credit: Denise Sanchez/The Morning Call)

Lehigh Athletic Director Joe Sterrett admitted this week, after the NFL lockout was finally lifted after a tense 136 days, that folks around the Lehigh athletic department were "living on a string" the past few weeks.

With the NFL lockout very much still on a couple of weeks ago, Sterrett made the decision to go ahead and prepare for Eagles Training Camp this summer - just as they had for the last 15 years on South Mountain.

It's that preparation - and the "relationships" with folks like Eagles head coach Andy Reid - which ultimately caused the Eagles to bring Eagles Training Camp to Bethlehem for the 16th straight year, even as other NFL teams announced they were modifying or cutting back on their training camps. (more)

The Morning Call has a lot more on the insight into the process in an excellent article by Patrick Lester:

Turns out the Philadelphia Eagles had no plans of ditching Lehigh University this summer to sweat off the rust before a season that fans hope will end with the team's first Super Bowl title.

"For us, we looked at it as, we're coming to Lehigh," Eagles COO Don Smolenski said of his team's decision to travel to Lehigh rather than stay at home like a handful of other NFL teams. "Coach Reid, this is his 13th season. He likes coming up here. He also enjoys the camaraderie amongst players and staff [at Lehigh].

"It's an opportunity for him to get the focus started."
And Nick Fierro also had a piece capturing the mood as well:

"I'm happy that the NFL and its players can get back doing what they love to do," Eagles coach Andy Reid said in a statement. "The coaches can get back to coaching. Players can get back to playing and we're all pleased about that.

"As far as our team, we look forward to reconvening in the near future and we are looking forward to holding training camp once again on the campus of Lehigh University. We understand that we have a lot of work ahead of us in order to get ready for the [Sept. 11] season opener at St. Louis, and I'm excited to get started on that as soon as we can."

"Even during the lockout, we kept working through the summer knowing we had to be ready for this moment — to go from zero to 100 mph overnight. That includes giving our fans a worthwhile preseason experience. So we kept working at it, even when we weren't sure we would have time for training camp at all. We owe thanks to many people at Lehigh and on our Eagles staff for making that possible."

Owner Jeffrey Lurie was as relieved as he was happy.

"I'm glad we were able to reach this agreement without interrupting the season for our fans," he said. "In the end, both sides gave enough to get the deal done, and we can all go back to work feeling good about what was accomplished. A 10-year contract is unprecedented in professional sports. By the time this contract ends, the NFL and its players will have been able to play 33 uninterrupted seasons of football."

It's encouraging that the Eagles were still dedicated and committed to a full training camp schedule at Lehigh, even with the uncertainty of the lockout. While some NFL teams love an off-site training camp and others hate it, Reid is most certainly in the "love training camp", er, camp.

It's that, and the continued care and dedication Sterrett and his staff put to this task, that is why 2011 training camp is once again coming to Lehigh.

Not everyone was confident about the Eagles' return as the lockout continued through last weekend, particularly since some other teams had long ago announced they'd be staying at home for workouts, mostly for logistical reasons.

Sterrett acknowledged that the staff at Lehigh "lived on a string" over the past several weeks. The university made the decision to begin camp preparations about two weeks ago, not knowing for sure if the Eagles would arrive.

Mary Kay Baker, Lehigh's director of conference services, said she was in constant contact with Smolenski, so much so that the two were communicating during vacations.

"I felt like we almost became family, we talked so frequently," Baker said.

Baker, whose staff arranges for food services, dormitory rooms and conference rooms, said "we didn't feel we were losing anything by being proactive" in preparing for camp.

Fans won't be losing out on a whole lot either. Under normal circumstances, without a lockout, rookies would have reported to Lehigh on Sunday and veterans on Wednesday.

Smolenski said fans — camp typically attracts 7,500 to 10,000 per day — will notice few changes when they arrive at Lehigh. The team is still planning autograph sessions and a merchandise tent is already set up. As in past years, fans will not be allowed at camp on the day before the first two preseason games, which are Aug. 11 and 18. In addition, players will have two days off — Aug. 2 and 9.

It's worth pausing to understand how extraordinary this is - that even with the lockout that has stopped normal operation for much of the NFL, Lehigh's representatives were working hard to make sure that IF the lockout were lifted that the ENTIRE Eagles Training Camp would still be happening.

There was no guarantee the lockout would be lifted, even as late as last Friday.

If it's true that the thousands of Eagles fans that go to Eagles Training camp will see little difference from prior years, that's because an army of Lehigh employees went beyond the ordinary in order to make it happen.

They deserve an immense amount of credit for making it work in this extraordinary year.

And I'm sure the town of Bethlehem and the many business establishments that benefit from the Eagles presence would be sure to agree.

Lehigh and the town of Bethlehem will be the giant beneficiaries of the publicity the Eagles train will bring to the area this summer.  And it's a whole lot of Lehigh people who shun the spotlight that need to be thanked.

*****

What was the lockout about, anyway?

Were the owners angry they weren't making enough billions?  Or the players angry they weren't making enough millions?

When the NFL Players struck in 1987, making the owners hire "scabs" to play NFL games like former Holy Cross great RB Gil Fennerty and Ole Miss QB John Fourcade (both with the New Orleans Saints), I followed every twist and turn with the interest I should have reserved for schoolwork.  They're not really hiring scabs, are they?  Who's crossing the picket line now?  They won't really play a replacement season, will they?

But I honestly have no idea what this particular lockout was about.
< The NFL has become the most successful pro sports franchise on the planet in the time since the 1987 strike.  For the most part, owners and players are set for life.  Why do I care if QB Michael Vick practices for one session, or two, in the preseason?  What do I care about secondary merchandising rights, or social media broadcast rights?

Nonetheless, in the day and age of instant media, all the NFL Lockout really managed to practically do was to put a lid on the normal, offseason hype.

With the end of the lockout, the lid has been blown out of the atmosphere as six months of stories, including free agency moves, rookie signings, and undrafted free agent signings have taken over.

For Eagles fans, WR DeSean Jackson's potential no-show at camp this weekend from a contract holdout dominated the headlines.

Well, yesterday, anyway.

Today, it's a potential deal for former Tennessee State (and current Arizona Cardinal) CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the news, as a QB Kevin Kolb-for-DRC deal has been rumored to be in the works.

(The latest proof that the deal is done? A blog posting from an alert blogger that DRC's jersey is for sale - on the Eagles' website.)

There's the inevitable six storylines going into Eagles Training Camp.

And that's not even including the list of the Eagles' undrafted free agents, of which Texas Tech QB Jarrod Johnson looks the most intriguing. (Could he ultimately be the backup to QB Michel Vick?)

With giant revelations seemingly being made every hour, you could argue that Twitter is one of the biggest winners from the end of the lockout.  If you haven't been tuning into a Twitter feed, you're behind the times.

****

One guy who was extremely happy the NFL lockout is over is - unsurprisingly - Lehigh OL Will Rackley, who has waited a long time to report to his new employer, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Will Rackley’s tweet summed it up best: “Just got that phone call I been waiting on since the draft.”

“It’s a relief. I’m excited and pretty anxious to get going,” said Rackley, who’s projected as either a guard or center. “It’s weird to not know what’s going on, then have camp in a couple of days. It’s different, but I’m excited to get out there.”

The Riverdale, Ga., resident arrived in Atlanta on Sunday. He looks forward to heading farther south to training camp in Jacksonville either tonight or early Wednesday morning for the first day of physicals, meetings and to receive his playbook.

“Probably the first time I followed it (lockout) was last Thursday and today (Monday),” he said. “I was just focusing on trying to get in better shape and working on my football skills and techniques. I knew they were going to figure that stuff out. I was waiting until it was getting close so I could get the exact time they’d figure it out. I’m glad it’s over.”

****

Of all the undrafted free agents signed by NFL teams, it's worth noting that Lehigh competed against many of them last year, and unsurprisingly, most of them came from the Delaware team they lost to in the playoffs.

Below is a list of undrafted free-agents that competed against Lehigh the past two years, and the NFL teams they signed with.

Central Connecticut State WR Josue Paul (Kansas City Chiefs)
Delaware S Anthony Bratton (Green Bay Packers)
Delaware DB Anthony Walters (Chicago Bears)
Delaware QB Pat Devlin (Miami Dolphins)
Fordham S Isa Abdul Al-Quddus (New Orleans Saints)
Fordham TE Stephen Skelton (Arizona Cardinals)
Harvard OL Brett Osborne (Seattle Seahawks)
Harvard S Collin Zych (Dallas Cowboys)
Northern Iowa FB Ryan Mahaffee (Baltimore Ravens)
Northern Iowa TE Schulyar Oort (St. Louis Rams)
Princeton TE/LS Harry Flaherty (New York Giants)
Villanova S Tom Dempsey (St. Louis Rams)
Yale LS Tom McCarthy (Atlanta Falcons)

This list doesn't include drafted players like Villanova OL Ben Ijalana (taken by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2nd round, and was the first FCS players take in the draft) and Yale RB Shane Bannon (taken by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round). All in all, fifteen players Lehigh competed against in the last two years will be on an NFL team this week.

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