Sunday, August 03, 2008
Special Reporter to the Daily Sun
A man in wrap-around sunglasses and a Cardinals’ jersey stood on the sidelines of the practice field. He was close enough to hear the pro players pant as they executed a drill.
Suddenly, a kicker walked up and asked, “Hey, where’d you get that jersey, man? T.J. Maxx?” Caught off guard, the fan said, “No, I got it for Christmas.”
Both men wore No. 1 and grinned at each other.
Then, in characteristic good humor, Neil Rackers laughed and slapped the man on the back as he said, “You got ripped off.”
Welcome to Cardinals training camp at NAU in Flagstaff, where “It’s all about the kids” and it’s easy for every adult to become one again. You’re close enough to reach out to a player or have them reach out to you. Throughout 30 practices and games over four weeks, players indulge fans with autographs and a sneak-peek at upcoming season action.
ROCK MUSIC WELCOME
Serious autograph hounds converged Saturday morning, toting every kind of Cardinal paraphernalia. Rock music welcomed the streaming river of red jerseys to the 50-yard line, where the players furiously scrawled on anything that could handle a Sharpie.
Don Curry of Glendale carried his son, Blake, on his shoulders. They arrived at 8:30 a.m. to be at the front of the most important line — Larry Fitzgerald’s.
“After that, we don’t have a game plan. We’re gonna’ take them one at a time.”
The lines moved nearly as quickly as Anquan Boldin going out for a pass, so it was possible to get around to countless players.
Regular camp attendees Jason and Jillian March drove up from Tucson. They showed off a bag of signable gear as Jason explained, “We have a Sports Room, and I’m a diehard Cardinals fan.”
Little daughter Jillian piped up, “I love the Cardinals, and it’s his birthday.” They celebrate every year with the team.
Mascot Big Red, with his furry head and tail, posed for a photo with Jillian. Then, another child stuck his head inside the bird’s beak to whisper, “Good luck.”
Nearby, “110 percent fan-tastic fan” Brett Anderson, from Mesa, competes for attention by sporting red-dyed head plus a gold and black beak-painted face.
A BUILD LIKE BO JACKSON
Curt Mansfield, born and raised in Flagstaff, comes out to camp nearly every day. Speaking of the individual players, he said, “Hightower — he’s a breakout back. He’s got a build like Bo Jackson. An amazing kid to watch is No. 19, Lance (Long). He can jump — he’s gonna make the team.”
The praise continued for the coaches.
“I love to listen to Kevin Spencer run Special Teams,” Mansfield said. “I would’ve loved to have him coach me back in the day. He fires you up. And I like the way Whisenhunt runs camp.”
A string of fans echoed this sentiment. Henry Garcia pointed to a signature on his visor and whooped, “I just met Whisenhunt.”
Garcia spilled some quick advice for the team. But when asked if he shared that with Ken Whisenhunt, who became an NFL head coach for the first time when hired for Arizona in 2007, Garcia said, “Oh, no! I was like a little girl. I choked up.”
BOOING THE REFS
The Red and White practice began with its refereed, live play action. After watching practices all week, father and son fan, Jim and Jerry LaChapelle from Casa Grande considered players as Fantasy Football picks.
As the action moved downfield to the Red Zone, Jim said, “Look at Fitzgerald, catching it in traffic. He’s one of the best receivers in the league.”
“Ooh, fantastic! Is it in?” Jerry asked.
Jim saw the ref’s call. “No, it’s out of bounds, in the chairs.”
“The fans are booing the ref,” Jerry laughed. “That’s what we come for — we gotta practice too!”
Paul Talamonti and Toby Goodfarb of Phoenix were rounding up picnics for the family and shared the day’s happiness.
“This is the best time of year. We have high hopes. I brought the kids up here — that’s what it’s all about. I thought it’d be crowded, but this was well-organized. I got Kurt Warner’s auto- graph — he’s a stand-up guy,” said Talamonti.
Goodfarb followed up: “And no excuses this season. How do you go wrong with two good quarterbacks? Everyone around the country is doing this right now — talking about their teams — but we’re in the conversation this year.”