‘It was completely different with COVID’: How NFL rookies experienced a training camp unlike any other

Henry Bushnell
·6 mins read

Unlike most rookies, Chris Orr arrived in the NFL with training camp experience. Not as a player, of course, but as a member of a football family. He isn’t the first Orr sibling to reach the league as an undrafted free agent. Nor the second. And when his older brothers reported for work, on a few occasions, Chris tagged along.

Two years ago, he visited Nick Orr at Chicago Bears camp. And before that, Zach with the Baltimore Ravens. Chris watched practice, picked Zach’s brain, even sat in on meetings. As a self-proclaimed “football nerd,” he loved it.

So when the Carolina Panthers signed Chris out of Wisconsin this past spring, the personable linebacker was prepared. “I definitely had a feel for it,” he says of training camp. “I definitely had a heads up for what to expect.”

But then he checks himself, and chuckles. He thinks back on the past month-and-a-half. “It was completely different with COVID,” he says.

Every year, hundreds of NFL rookies realize childhood dreams. They sign contracts, report for OTAs and pack into meeting rooms. They bond with teammates, compete against idols, travel to NFL cities and prance into stadiums. Fans watch. It’s the biggest, most enjoyable, most stressful job interview of a young man’s life. And when the 2020 rookie class turned pro last winter, they assumed they’d be called in for those interviews, just as their predecessors had.

Then the pandemic hit, and so much changed. Minicamps and OTAs vanished. Combined practices and preseason games disappeared. In late July, rookies reported to team facilities instead of remote locales for unprecedented training camps.

With those camps now behind them, two rookies spoke with Yahoo Sports about the experience. Plenty, they said, was unusual. The daily nasal swabs. The contact tracing device they wore everywhere. The masks, and makeshift or expanded locker rooms, and virtual meetings. The strict protocol enforcement.

“It's been crazy,” says New York Giants linebacker Tae Crowder.

A few things, however, remained unchanged. One in particular.

“My brothers always said, ‘Man, this is gonna be the hardest thing you've ever done,’” Orr says. “And it definitely was.” He laughs. “It definitely was.”

New York Giants linebacker Tae Crowder makes a catch during a practice at the NFL football team's training camp in East Rutherford, N.J., Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Adam)
New York Giants linebacker Tae Crowder makes a catch during a practice at the NFL football team's training camp in East Rutherford, N.J., Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Adam)

A different NFL rookie orientation

Football entered Tae Crowder’s life before grade school did. “I was 4, playing with the 5- and 6-year-old kids, and actually doing pretty good,” he remembers. “Ever since then, I been wanting to play in the NFL.”

As a teenager, he grew into a 6-3, 235-pound linebacker. He enrolled at Georgia. The league came into view. A productive senior season put him on draft radars. In April, on Day 3 of 3, in Round 7 of 7, with pick 255 of 255, the New York Giants made him “Mr. Irrelevant.”

Crowder had kept in touch with former Georgia teammates who’d reached the NFL. They’d briefed him their experiences. But by the time Crowder was drafted, he knew his wouldn’t be the same. “I didn't really know what to expect,” he says now. “But I knew it would be different.”

Before long, he met teammates over Zoom. But not in person until he checked into a North Jersey hotel in July. Once there, social distancing restrictions impeded fraternization.

Across the league, there were very few group outings, no bowling or fancy restaurant buffets. “That being taken away – [not] being able to see people in other lights, outside of just in the locker room or on the field – I think that might have hurt a bit,” Orr says.

But he still found ways to build genuine relationships. “You spend enough time with people, all you have to do is talk to them,” Orr says. “You have a welcoming smile, and you open the conversation, you can get pretty close to people.”

The biggest issue, as he and many others realized, was that the four most important segments of the job interview had been taken away.

Chris Orr earned second-team Big Ten honors in 2019. He's signed on with the Carolina Panthers practice squad. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Chris Orr earned second-team Big Ten honors in 2019. He's signed on with the Carolina Panthers practice squad. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

No NFL preseason, less opportunity

Orr knows how fine the margins on NFL careers can be. Zach, the second of four Orr brothers, made the Ravens as an undrafted rookie and two years later was an All-Pro. Nick, the third of four Orr brothers, was released by the Bears and never played a regular-season snap. Chris knows the stories extend well beyond his family, too. He knows about guys like Austin Ekeler, now a star running back, once an NFL roster long shot until he popped in a preseason game.

“I think not having the preseason games hurt a lot more than people thought it would,” Chris says now.

Coaches planned intrasquad scrimmages and “ultra-competitive” practice periods to fill the void. But they weren’t the same. High-leverage reps, and therefore opportunities, were limited. With cut day looming, for rookies across the league, stress spiked. The lack of games, Orr says, “didn't put more pressure on me to perform, because I wanted to do that anyway.” But he felt it during film review. He felt himself thinking, “Man, I shouldn’t have made that mistake,” or “Man, I could’ve done this a lot better.”

“In college,” he says of film study, “you were just like, OK, I know what I need to fix. I know what I need to get better at tomorrow. Whereas at this level, you could not be here tomorrow.”

On cut day, this past Saturday, he tried his best to chill. Throughout camp, leisure time had gone to everything from obsessive study to calls with family to playing “Mario Kart.” Now he turned to Netflix, “trying to take my mind off of it as much as possible. But you're never gonna be able to take your mind off of it,” he says of impending roster decisions. “You're never gonna be fully distracted.”

In Jersey, Crowder says, the biggest news of his young career first reached him via social media: He’d made the Giants’ 53-man roster.

In Charlotte, Orr’s phone rang. It was Luke Kuechly, now a Panthers scout. Throughout camp, the former All-Pro linebacker had helped Orr, breaking down and building up the rookie’s technique. But this call was different. Orr was being cut. Kuechly told him to come to the team facility, where Orr met with coaches.

Less than 48 hours later, he returned to sign on with the Panthers’ practice squad. He was disappointed, naturally, but also confident. One other thing his brothers had told him months ago: “You can play at this level. Don't let anybody try to tell you any different.” Every day in August, as he ingested knowledge and gained comfort and performed, he realized they were right. Training camp, in this sense, was still training camp. Even if it was extremely abnormal.

And life after it concluded is still moving fast. Orr doesn’t exactly feel settled. Practice squads are bigger and more important than ever. “Nothing really stops,” he says. “You never really breathe.”

Crowder, meanwhile, is preparing for his first pro game of any kind. “Just working hard, day by day,” he says. “And livin’ the dream.”

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