When you’re a child, camp—whether you like it or not—is one of those defining activities of summer. These days for millions of sports fans camp continues to be a feature of the hot months, but it’s no longer about riding horses, swimming holes, or capture the flag. It’s about football, professional style, and it’s a big draw. I haven’t been to camp since I was 12, but this year that changed. This year I went to Camp Cowboy, boot camp for America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. And that means good, clean fun for football-crazy women, men, and kids of all ages. It also gives cameramen, TV sportscasters, newspaper reporters, and select St. Edwards University students something to do during the slow months of summer. And it provides a continuous deluge of perspiration in the driving, pounding, run-blocking, hard-tackling Texas sun for all of the above—especially the guys in the helmets.
Camp Cowboy happens in Austin, one of the two good-sized cities in Texas notable for its lack of a professional sports team (the other being El Paso). Here’s the idea: Bring on the Cowboys (because they have to practice), put them in a small college campus in sleepy South Austin, and invite anyone so desiring to come out and watch free of charge. It turns out a lot of people want to watch—an unbelievable amount of people considering how little actually transpires. But there I was among them, among everyone from players and fans to reporters and cheerleaders. I was there to find out for myself the true nature of this gridiron event, to ride the plodding train of hype headed through August toward the imminent NFL season.
Before we board this train, though, I should declare my baggage. I am a fan of football, but not of the Cowboys. Most of my friends are devotees, however, and when I watch the games with them I feel like a double-agent, ever concealing my Cowboys antipathy for fear of constant taunting. And as much as I can enjoy the sport of football I’ve remained completely indifferent to the whole training camp phenomenon, caring only what happens to a team once the season begins. Upon entering Camp Cowboy, though, I checked my biases at the gate, and went in willing to be converted.
It all started with a little pomp in the form of an opening ceremony on Austin’s Sixth street the day before the first practice. This was a kick off event, as it were, functioning to obliterate with cheer the persistent questions regarding the Cowboys’ peculiar circumstance as both America’s team in gleaming white and also the much-criticized collection of misfits and criminals who embody the negative qualities attributed to professional sports. The next day came the first football practice which, much like the game itself, had an uncanny propensity for being absurdly boring and, at times, visually breathtaking. Over the course of the practices I visited, I tried to talk to the fans, most of them happy campers, to see what really brought them out in such large numbers in case there was some big mystery appeal I didn’t know about. I moved stealthily through the equally populous press corps, eavesdropping on conversations and occasionally engaging one of the media hounds in dialogue. And after practice, when the press is allowed to interview the players in passing, I sidled up next to a few of those sweaty behemoths and tried to get them to say something interesting enough to report in this article. And if you plan on camping yourself, there’s a practical guide to what’s afield. Click on, and I’ll tell you the score.
The training camp ball got launched with an “official ceremony” that turned out to be more of a squib kick. The police cordoned off about two or three blocks of Austin’s Sixth Street, the famous strip of bars and clubs that would hours later become its usual roiling parade of strutting cowgirls, Jagermeister saturated sophomores, and imperturbable cover bands. But this was 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday and something pretty spectacular would be required to bring a large crowd away from their week-ending happy hours and out to the smoldering asphalt of downtown Austin.
A makeshift stage had been constructed at one intersection and surrounded with chain-link fence. Large speakers were blaring contemporary pop music that was only broken intermittently by the enthused exhortations of an embarrassingly squeaky voiced dj who, despite his sunglasses and resident hipness, still managed to sound like an annoying teenager.
I’m not sure what my expectations were for this ceremony, but whatever they were, they were fulfilled in a surreal, if not downright silly, way. Things got underway when dark Chevy Blazers began to pull up behind the fencing and, though I couldn’t really see much, the buzz percolating through the crowd indicated that some of the players had arrived. The music continued pumping until the dj finally pranced up to the stage and chirped that before the athletes were trotted out, we could enjoy the precision dancing of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
Instantly they took the stage, a six-woman phalanx from the most famous cheerleading squad and assumed a formation, then waited for the music to begin. Their outfits were appropriately skimpy, more revealing than I’d expected having only seen them on television. As they danced through a lengthy and spirited routine to hoots and cheers from the crowd, I was most impressed by the magical durability of their smiles. Seemingly surgically attached to their faces, not one smile wavered during the course of an aerobically challenging routine performed in blistering ninety-five degree heat. It was a routine that ended not just with an energetically elastic series of precision high kicks but with the women taking the last kick, legs high over head, and lurching down to the stage like a pair of open scissors and sounding a deafeningly percussive thud. With that finale the routine was over and, if I may speak