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.

Player Stretching


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 for the rest of the audience, the resounding thud was one we’ll never forget.

In fact, after the thud it was all pretty anticlimactic. The castrato dj pranced back up to the stage and (after a few ga-ga’s in the direction of the cheerleaders) in his bold falsetto presented the players, coaches, and politicians. In person, Troy Aikman is impressively the Platonic ideal of a quarterback: tall, blond hair, proud bearing, sunglasses, barrel chest. Bill Bates, the freewheeling veteran, was also there, smiling broadly, as was David Lafleur, a rookie and the first round draft pick. Representing the community was a suit from the Austin Chamber of Commerce, newly elected mayor Kirk Watson, and Gonzalo Barrientos, state senator, dressed casually in new jeans and a white shirt. Watson presented the key to the city (an actual key, gold-colored and about six inches long) to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and coach Barry Switzer and pronounced them honorary Austinites. Switzer is the former head football coach of the University of Texas’ arch-rival Oklahoma. This irony was not lost on the crowd and prompted shouts of “Hook ‘em Horns, Barry!”, “You suck!”, and “Hi, Troy.”

After the requisite cliches about giving it all they’ve got, playing hard every day, and hoping to have a good season, it all came swiftly to a close. Players were whisked away and music returned to crushing volume as though none of this had ever really happened. But as the dignitaries left the stage, Jerry Jones did manage to express some heartfelt gratitude to Miller Brewing Co. for sponsoring the event and football in general. “Y’all don’t forget Miller Beer,” he cried. As though any true fan of the pigskin ever could.

Sweaty Behemoths

For some reason the Club Cars—those golf carts assigned to the players for travel hundreds of feet at a time from the dorms to the fields to the cafeteria and back again—really made camp seem like camp to me. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of incredibly large men and petite vehicles. One day, I sat outside the cafeteria as the players assembled for lunch, buzzing up and parking their Club Cars on the grass. Before long I counted more than twenty-five vehicles on the lawn and, just like a real parking lot, the players would come out after lunch and have to hunt around to find where they’d left their cars.

I wondered what it was like to be a member of a professional football team, what it’s like hanging out with all these wealthy ballplayers—eating together, sleeping in the dorms, driving those little cars? And I didn’t really get to find out. Journalists are not given too much time to question the players. And if you see a Cowboy, you have to be paparazzi quick to talk to him before he buzzes off. But when I finally did get to talk to a few of the players I found them all to be witty raconteurs who rarely hesitate when levying damaging criticisms against the team, the league, and most of all, their teammates.

78 and Coach

78 and Coach

Max Knake, a rookie from Texas Christian University, who faces long odds of making the team had the following revelation about the social side of camp: “Oh, it’s great. I couldn’t ask for a better situation playing football, of course. You have to consider that. Dorms are quiet. I go to sleep really early. I just put in a movie or something and go to sleep. Food’s good. A lot of camaraderie. You know, everybody’s pretty much first class, the organization’s first class.”

This is a pretty rosy view of Camp Cowboy considering a recent Associated Press article that began, “The Dallas Cowboys have taken unprecedented steps to prevent a repeat of player misbehavior, including the installation of cameras in the dormitories at St. Edward’s University.” Of course no one close to the team will comment on what’s going on except the source from the above-mentioned article who made the ominous statement, “We know when a player leaves his room after curfew.”

In his first press conference after rejoining the team, Michael Irvin spoke about how fun it was to be back. He laughed about staying up late playing cards in Emmit’s room and the simple joys of being one of the guys. That’s the kind of life I like to imagine at Camp Cowboy—cards with Emmit, smores with Troy, panty raids on the girls camp across the lake with Michael.

Sherman Williams, the backup running back, was concerned with the temperature and defined camp as “a melting thing.” Not one to hold back true feelings, when asked what he really feels about training camp, he said “Well, basically, you know, you have to be in a dorm and curfew at eleven o’clock and things like that, but it’s really not a big deal. I think this year’s camp is a lot shorter than the last couple of camps so that’s making it a lot better.” Overall, he was sanguine about the experience, saying “Yeah, we have plenty of good times, you know. It feels good to get out here and play football, you have to love the game and love the sport.”

The best part of having the players in camp is the stories about these guys that start rolling in after they’ve been around a couple of weeks. People start seeing them all over town in odd, sometimes compromising situations. Like the encounter a friend of a friend’s friend had with a sparkling convertible Mercedes that starting honking behind him on Congress Avenue. The driver doesn’t know who’s honking until the Mercedes pulls up beside him and it’s Michael Irvin at the wheel with a curvy blonde riding shotgun. Irvin asks the guy if he’ll give him directions to get to I-35. The man, who was not a Cowboy fan, answers Bartelbyesquely “I prefer not to give you directions, sir,” and drives off.

For the players, Camp Cowboy is work. And for many, it’s the deciding factor as to whether they’ll even have a job in the fall. And though I wanted to pry behind the scenes, behind the stony-faces intoning sports cliche after sports cliche, the gravity with which the Cowboys regarded training camp was manifest in every interview. And I just want to say that I respect that point of view, and I wish them luck, because I have to take training camp one day at a time, and can only try as hard as I can try, and will just hope that God will smile on me and give me the strength to come back and write another article again next season.


Walking up to the training fields at St. Edwards University the morning of the first day of practice, I felt like I was entering one of those model environmental cities of the future. Stationed at various checkpoints on the winding roads of the campus were yellow-shirted college students standing guard. Being on foot, I was unthreatening and they merely nodded to me as I passed. But they were stopping all cars and closely examining credentials.

Once inside the camp compound, I was struck by the sheer number of small, uncanopied golf carts zipping around. They added (along with the absence of litter and the ornate buildings) to the model environmental community ambiance. Later I would find that these carts, labeled Club Cars, were the standard means of conveyance for players and coaches, and that almost every official person was in possession of one. I was impressed by the clean, hive-like feel of the whole operation. As I mounted the final hill and the practice fields and crowds of fans became visible, I bolstered my superficial confidence and encountered the first press checkpoint. Expecting rigorous interrogation and prolonged examination of my credentials, I was pleased when they didn’t bat an eye and the long-legged, coed at the gate merely said, “They’re sending all the press to the other side this morning.”

At the other end of the field, about fifty yards away, players were lying on the ground in neat rows, being led in stretching by a battalion of coaches. The grass was short and green and impressively soft, like the grass that grows in the north, the antithesis of the spiny, piercing grass that favors Austin. As I approached, I could hear the coaches intoning commands like “keep the right leg back and twist back and to the left” to these very large men on the ground. And I joined the huge contingent of reporters on the south side of the field, doing my best to sink in and appear focused.

Soon the stretching ended and the offense and defense split up. I followed the majority of the press corps down to watch the offense begin their drills. The quarterbacks—there were four of them—began throwing to the receivers who were running twenty to thirty yard routes straight down the edge of the field. The discernible quiet in the air as these drills began surprised me, considering the numbers of press, fans, and coaches watching the proceedings. Everyone was slightly awed by the simple beauty of a football sailing through the air off the quarterback’s hand into the sprinting grasp of a sleek receiver. It was in these moments, watching the artful arcs the spiraling footballs made in the air, that I was reminded of the simple geometric grace of the game. No matter how much swaggering and wagering and trash talking one sees, there remains essential aesthetic appeal in every sport, and football’s was showcased in these simple passing drills. If you’ve ever tried to throw a football for distance, you would appreciate the apparent ease with which Troy Aikman sails the ball. Effortlessly he releases it, his mind instantaneously and automatically making the millions of vector calculations necessary to lay the ball softly into the hands of a streaking receiver thirty-five yards down field.

Soon the drills evolved and the receivers began running more varied routes—routes with fakes and quick cuts—routes that looked like they were designed to go long, but in which the receiver would suddenly cut inward and catch a fifteen-yard bullet. Then the plays changed again and a hyperactive coach, carrying around a large pad like an Arthurian knight carrying his shield, would station himself where the receiver caught the ball, every time, shouting, ” Contact! Contact!” jolting the receiver with the shield just as the player caught the ball. If the receiver dropped it he would shout, “Come on now!” as he ran off to slam the next guy.



“One on One” passing drills came next and this is where the action heated up. As usual, the quarterback would snap the ball, dropping back as a fleet-footed receiver sprints off the line of scrimmage. This time, however, there would be a cornerback poised and waiting ten yards off the line to vie for the ball on defense. One player would get his turn and then go to the end of the line until it became his turn again. The line of cornerbacks was just a few feet from the battalion of reporters and I monitored their reactions. For the first day of practice, the drills were tremendously competitive and the cornerback line was populated with lots of young players whose odds of making the final cut were clearly long. But they were giving it their all and would curse if the receivers beat them to the ball (which they did about 70% of the time). It is universally acknowledged that the corner’s job is one of the toughest and least desirable in football. After all, they are left out to guard the wide receiver on their own and at considerable disadvantage since the receiver and the quarterback have arranged what pattern will be run. If the receiver gets by the corner and catches the pass, the result for the defense can be disastrous and the poor cornerback often gets singled out for the blame.

Michael Irvin seemed to take special delight in these duels with the cornerbacks. Inevitably a cheer would arise from the crowd when it was Irvin’s turn and he seemed to thrive off the attention. Several times he completely lost the defender with a devastating fake and caught the ball to the ravenous approval of the crowd. A couple of times I saw Irvin get tangled with the defender and throw him to the ground. On one occasion he yelled “C’mon man, you’re taking it personally,” at an overzealous youngster who stormed off in a huff. Other times, Irvin playfully engaged the defender, good-naturedly taunting him and sharing a laugh.

Occasionally the coaches themselves could be entertaining too. There was one coach who’s job seemed to be exclusively to exhort and encourage the team. He was an older man and limped, dragging his leg behind him like hissing zombies do in the old matinees. When a player would make a good play as, for instance, when safety Darrin Woodson made an interception during drills, The Limp dragged himself all the way across the field shouting “Hey, Woody! Hey, Woody!” And when he finally reached Woodson he whispered something into his ear and turned him around to face the younger players, crying, “Y’all see that? That’s what I’m talking about!”

When the entire offense and defense got together to run plays, we could see Aikman, Irvin, and Emmit Smith working together, running play after play, drilling in the routines they’ve drilled in every season for the last five years. While it was fun to see all these guys perform, the repetition soon got old. And by the second practice I watched I must say I had very little interest in what was going on on the field. But, hey, this is not the official product, it’s not even rehearsal. The actors are still learning their lines. You can’t fault the team for being boring in practice. Just the shmoes (myself included) who come out to see them.

Media Hounds

Here are the top five lines I overheard in the press corps during my stay at Camp Cowboy:

5. “I hope to get some of those round, brown beef balls.” (presumably thinking about lunch)

4. “Don’t you go to church, kids?” (referring to the endless cheering from the Kids’ Zone one Sunday morning)

3. “My foot may be hurt, but I sure do want that autograph.” (This was not said by a member of the media, but by some weird, chubby guy who hobbled past me after practice finished. It was unclear that he was addressing anyone at all.)

2. “I need a fight, Martinez.” (wistful journalist desiring something to report)

1. “Anyone know why we’re out here?” (a journalist to other assembled journalists on the field after practice)

78 and Coach

On the Sidelines

I was nervous about fitting in with the rest of the reporters, so when I first arrived with my bright yellow media pass I strode intently down the long line of press until I found an opening on the sideline, then took out my notebook and began scribbling. When I glanced up at the guys around me, I realized I wasn’t fitting in. No one else was writing, most were just standing around talking. In fact, I saw only two other reporters ever put a pen to pad. The majority of the press was television guys.

We all watched the first hour of practice rather intently. It was the first day and the drills were fairly interesting, as was the interaction of the players and coaches. When the airhorn would blow from the top of the observation tower signaling the end of one drill and beginning of another, the savvy cameramen would observe the transitional movements of the players and then move like a swarm of bees to the next sideline to get the best position for their cameras. With admiration I watched this scurry time and time again, strolling to gaze over their shoulders.

After the first few hours of practice, though, the drills started to become repetitive and everyone’s attention began to wane. Sportscasters turned their backs to the field and started filming their pre-taped introductions, saying in ten o’clock news voices things like “Billy Davis knew things were going to be rough when he got here, but how rough he never could have imagined….” Other guys just struck up standard chitchat with colleagues from other networks they obviously hadn’t seen in some time.

The real work began when practice ended and the players could be approached for a few minutes before they headed to the showers or lunch or wherever they went after practice. Large groups of reporters would gather around the marquee players like Aikman and Irvin. Equally large groups would sometimes assemble without any apparent impetus at all. During my first post-practice interview session, I joined one of these aimless groups to see what would happen. We all stood huddled together in the middle of the field— television cameramen checking their equipment, reporters blowing on their microphones—and after a few minutes Barry Switzer magically wiggled his way to the center of the mass and answered questions for about five minutes. I also joined an enormous unfocused cluster only to have Michael Irvin show up and give his first press conference since joining practice. (There was a huge constellation of reporters that would appear in photo on the front page of the Austin American Statesman’s sports page in a shot taken with a wide angle lens from behind Michael Irvin while he answered questions. I would later hear one press guy asking another if he’d seen the photo, saying “It’s a classic, man. It’s got everybody.”)

But for reporters who have to go to training camp every day for a month, even the interviews must become tedious after a few days. It didn’t take me long to lose interest in the football team. When I asked T.V. sportscaster Michael Coleman of Tyler’s KLTV/ABC about this, he agreed. “There’s nothing. There’s nothing going on,” he laughed. How does the reporter cope with this? “I think we in the media have learned how to pace ourselves in covering this camp. I know the first year we shot every single play and it was like, wow! Once you’ve seen one football practice you’ve seen them all, but the first time you don’t show up and Emmit breaks a leg or Troy breaks a leg your news director’s like “‘You weren’t there?’”

Several newsmen told me that to make things interesting, they look for the story within the story and focus daily on a different player, each of whose struggle is unique and compelling. Overall, though, camp is a monotonous event to report. July and August, the dog days of summer, tend to be a dead spot in the calendar. Unless it’s an Olympic year, there’s only one major sport going on—baseball. All the rest of the year there are three, even four big-time television sports competing for our attention. It seems to me that mass media has cheated a little by turning training camp into such an over-hyped affair. Baseball’s pennant races are still undefined and impatience for football becomes so intense that they’ve just got to get a head start on things. Maybe the WNBA will be able to fill the void.

Happy Campers

I thought I knew why Cowboy fans would brave heat and traffic to be roped off eighty feet from a bunch of men practicing a game incomprehensible to most other people of the world. I figured that seeing a professional athlete in person is the same as seeing a movie star. There’s just something thrilling and weird about meeting someone in the flesh whom you’ve seen countless times on a screen. We non-famous humans find comforting confirmation that these familiar images exist in the same tangible, fleshy, damp world that we do. But that’s nothing secret or profound. I wanted to find out from the fans if there was something else, something that I’ve missed, some deep cultural knowledge that I never received because instead of P.E. in sixth grade I took choir. But there wasn’t any secret. The fans were out there to see the handful of guys on the team whose names they knew and to maniacally scream those names at the top of their lungs all day long.

Actually that’s not. For instance this one fan, when I asked him why he was there, dictated the following speech into my tape recorder:

Can I answer your question, too, what you asked for the first question, why I’m here today? I’m here mainly to see how the people support Michael Irvin and how Michael Irvin is going to react. Looks like he’s holding his own. That’s why I came today. Really, that was the main person I came to see. And to shout if I see him close, “Irvin, are you going to show up to play for the intensity of the game or for the millibucks that you gotta pay back? Which one?’ I’m supportive of him. I think the guy got a raw deal on that. I think people took advantage of his high profile athleticism and what he stands to pay. The man is a good man, has a good heart, he’s showing it, you know. He’s only human. And as a human being you make mistakes in this world, but you’ve gotta be man enough to face them. I think he’s done that. However, the media don’t seem to let him go. You’ve got to have a lot of heart to keep a hold of yourself, to keep your sanity, when people are just making up stories about you. And that’s tough. I think the players need to be protected by the league, you know by the NFL. They need to come up with something to protect them, you know, because they have families and their families also get hurt, you know, and the children have to go to school, you know, and people talk about that and that’s what we the people have to take into consideration, too.



Most fans were not so verbose. To the question, “Why are you here?” I would most often get a response like, “To see Emmit run,” or “To see how big Nate Newton really is,” or as one young woman put it, “To get Troy to sing happy birthday to me and see if he’ll marry me.” This teenager was standing in a cluster of fans wedged against a fence near which Aikman was sitting in his Club Car after practice, mobbed by reporters like ants on a crumb. By the time I joined the fray it was too late—I couldn’t hear a word Aikman was saying, only the cries of the girls by the fence, “Troy, come on Troy, wish Amy a happy birthday. Troy. Troy. Troy.” Then they launched into a spirited version of “Happy Birthday” as if to coax the unwilling (and, in fact, oblivious) Aikman into joining in.

That refrain, “Troy, Troy,” would become for me the emblematic anthem of Camp Cowboy, and would be the single most memorable sound of my experience. I heard it sung in many voices: from the drunk and increasingly apoplectic calls of heckling college students, to the sunny and expectant invitations of women, to the plaintive moans of the teenage boys behind the fence as they would helplessly watch Aikman’s Club Car drive by on the way to the cafeteria. There were calling fans everywhere and they all wanted something—an autograph, a conversation, a wet rag, an acknowledgment. It’s a wonder that the football team gets anything done at all; it’s a mystery to me why the team doesn’t just go to some small town and practice in peace. Actually, it’s not a mystery. Fans will find them anywhere.

Some of the loudest of the “Troy” shouting came from a specially designated set of bleachers labeled in bright colors, the “Kids’ Zone.” When I first arrived the benches were flush with kids holding shiny favors and clamoring around a couple of cheerleaders who were there in uniform to amuse them. (I would later hear a cheerleader tell a television reporter that their most commonly asked question by children is “are you the real cheerleaders?”) The kids seemed happy enough in their special section and would periodically erupt with the pandemic mantra, “Troy! Troy!” [a pause] “Emmit! Emmit!” [pause] “Michael! Michael!” Later when the Cowboy’s grinning mascot was around, the children would add “Huddle! Huddle!” to the incantation.

In a perverse and inexplicable way, I found myself empathizing with the players and the distress they must feel every time they have to pass by one of these whiny kids. Aikman can’t sign all the autographs and the crowds are insatiable. I saw Michael Irvin make a rare and unexpected stop near one of the fences. A group of youngsters ran up with memorabilia as soon as Irvin got out of his car. He signed and talked for a few minutes (one kid borrowed my pen) and then drove off. After he left a kid whirled around with his newly autographed #88 jersey and cried, “I can’t believe he stopped, dude. I thought he was gonna keep on going. Then he signed my jersey. This shit’s worth money!” A minute later, a television reporter who had been watching asked the kid for an interview and wanted to know what he thought of the Cowboys having camp here. “Man, it’s fun. I love the Cowboys and stuff, you know, and I’m sure proud that Michael Irvin signed my jersey for me, you know. I really appreciate it and he signed my hat too.”


We all know the team. Even if you’ve never sat in front of a television, sipped beer, and eaten potato chips from your arm chair on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a matter of cultural literacy to at least be familiar with the Big Three: Troy Aikman, Emmit Smith, Michael Irvin. These are the guys that make the whole thing go. Positionally, they’re the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. They’re the prime movers on offense and at training camp these three guys are the celebrities that everyone’s there to see.



In the last couple of years, the Cowboys have been all over the news, from the sports page to the front page. They’ve managed to be the dominant team in football and have kept the tabloids busier than Elvis. And this combination of football prowess and bad-boy philandering is crack cocaine for sports fans, talk radio hosts, and newspaper columnists who fuel the hype machine that accompanies the team everywhere it goes.

Unquestionably the big story heading into camp was Michael Irvin. He’s been connected to more scandals in the past year than Bill Clinton, and even with the microscope of public attention more finely focused on him than ever, he’s continued to court trouble. All the way until July 17th, the day before players were due to report for camp, his arrival was in doubt due to a scandal-infested year. Among the accusations, the juicier include: Irvin found in a hotel with two topless dancers and ten grams of cocaine, Irvin and teammate Erik Williams accused of raping a woman at gun point (a charge of which they were recently absolved), the exposure of a Dallas plot to assassinate Irvin, defensive lineman Leon Lett suspended for substance abuse, and Irvin’s bizarre junket to San Francisco that’s left him accused of roughing a guy up in the basement of a strip club following an argument over a cellular phone. Earlier in the summer in the midst of all this public disgrace, Irvin claimed he was considering retirement. So the arrival of the prodigal receiver on check-in day was simultaneously the answer to and source of many questions.

On the field, the Cowboys story is not so sordid. Last year, they lost in the playoffs to an upstart expansion team, confirmation of their declining gridiron puissance. They’ve been hit hard by free-agency, and mid-July saw the retirement of two of Dallas’ best players, Jay Novacek and Charles Haley. The questions are manifold: Despite the losses of key cogs, can the three big stars affect a return to Superbowl form? Or have scandals and distractions earthed this former high-flying incarnation of one of the NFL’s great teams?

With regard to these questions, training camp becomes serious business. These days a professional football team is a streamlined, profit-oriented capitalist entity whose success in the marketplace depends on, among other things, the appearance that it will be competitive in the league. When you consider the precision and complexity required in running just one play in football, six weeks seems a devastatingly short period of time to prepare. Plays must be drilled, players are evaluated and either retained or cast off, muscles are conditioned, minds must be focused. And a rueful seriousness pervades this atmosphere which is unabashedly darwinistic. Indeed, the primal element of men fighting each other for survival in the severely limited environment of the team’s final roster often boils down to a mano a mano struggle where an older member of the species must fend off the cunning advances of a younger newcomer. Such a spartan atmosphere is necessary to foster an acuity and determination that will endure all 16 games of the season.

What’s Afield

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp 2009 will be held in San Antonio at the Alamodome once again. It starts Tuesday, July 28 and continues through August 18. The remaining practice schedule follows, with morning sessions starting at 8:50am and afternoon sessions starting at 3:15pm.

Tuesday, July 28 – Kickoff Event at 7:00pm with Intocable and Randy Rogers Band
Wednesday, July 29 – Afternoon practice at 2:15
Thursday, July 30 – Regular practices
Friday, July 31 – Afternoon practice at 2:15
Saturday, August 1 – Regular practices
Sunday, August 2 – Morning walk thru session and regular afternoon practice
Monday, August 3 – Regular practices
Tuesday, August 4 – Afternoon practice at 2:15
Wednesday, August 5 – Regular practices
Thursday, August 6 – Afternoon practice at 2:15
Friday, August 7 – Afternoon practice at 2:15
Saturday, August 8 – Regular practices
Sunday, August 9 – Morning walk thru session and regular afternoon practice
Monday, August 10 – Regular practices
Tuesday, August 11 – Afternoon practice at 2:15
Wednesday, August 12 – Walk thru session at 10:45
Thursday, August 13 – Away game vs. Oakland Raiders; Oakland, California
Friday, August 14 – No Practice
Saturday, August 15 – Walk thru sessions at regular practice times
Sunday, August 16 – Regular practices
Monday, August 17 – Afternoon practice at 2:15
Tuesday, August 18 – Regular practices
Wednesday, August 19 – Morning practice at 10:45

Parking: Paid parking available on site ($10 for cars and $25 for busses). For bus routes or alternative parking visit the Alamodome website. For more info call 210/207-3663 or email [email protected].

Encouraged: lawn chairs, asking for autographs (though players are not required to give them out), hats, sunscreen and drinking lots of liquids

Prohibited: coolers and ice chests, pets, crossing the fence

Arrive early for best bleacher seating

Souvenirs are sold on the premises.

The current Cowboys’ roster.