The Eagles set this training camp experience up way back in 1996 when they set up shop at Lehigh University. The idea was to give fan from all over -- anywhere in the world, really -- a chance to visit practice, free of charge, and enjoy a day of rubbing elbows with the football team they loved so much.
It has evolved over the years to something beyond special: Training camp is a three-week festival for Eagles fans to make their way to the beautiful Lehigh Valley and enjoy a completely leisurely day, free of charge, watching the Eagles only a few yards away, literally, from the action.
There is no charge to attend. There is no charge to park. There is not an obligation to spend a dime to watch the Eagles.
The Eagles are in the process now of setting up the seating around the three practice fields at the Goodman Campus of Lehigh University. There are tents being constructed to house a merchandise area, an autograph area, corporate hospitality spots, media work areas and various vendors and concessions to make the time as pleasurable as possible for the fans who flock to Bethlehem, Pa. from all parts of the country and, in some cases, various outposts around the world.
Fans have long planned for the pilgrimage to Lehigh as part of their annual trek to training camp. There they exchange greetings with old friends and say hello to new acquaintances. They all wear green, every one of them, whether it is a Randall Cunningham jersey they have treasured for decades or the new Fletcher Cox Nike number ordered when the Eagles traded up in the first round of April's draft.
It's a party, and the fans come to enjoy and to critique and assign expectations based on what they've seen in practice.
And it is, above all the fun, serious business.
One of the challenges for the players new to this kind of environment -- and, not to besmirch the training camp atmosphere of the Houston Texans, but DeMeco Ryans is in for a new kind of experience called, as Eagles fans go, "true love," -- is to keep their focus in the cauldron of emotion coming from the thousands of fans who line the practice fields daily.
"It's different and it's impressive," said cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who joined the Eagles just prior to last year's training camp. "The fans are vocal, they know the game and they aren't going to hold back their expectations. It's a fun atmosphere, and I think the fans add to the intensity. I love it. I love the passion."
Training isn't what it used to be, of course. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement requires teams to have just one practice per day in pads, with the second practice a walkthrough. And if you haven't attended a walkthrough, well, it is just that. The players don't wear helmets or pads. They literally walk through the sets. There is not a hint of contact.
How will head coach Andy Reid approach the other practice each day? He's expected to have an intense afternoon practice in pads, with plenty of contact in the script. Reid wants a physical camp. He wants his team on edge for the start of the regular season. He wants his players to improve in the basics of the game, and he wants a physical, aggressive, nasty football team ready to go in Cleveland on September 9.
My Guide To Eagles Training Camp, 2012, tells you to make your way to Lehigh for the afternoon practices, and to settle in and see what you see. Bring your "A" game, as you will demand that the Eagles bring theirs. If you can't attend, we're showing it all live each afternoon at 2 p.m. on Training Camp Live!.
To me, training camp is always something special. I marvel at the thousands of fans who fill up the stands, who take seats on the hills, who peer over the crowds in front of them to get a peek at the Eagles in action. It is a unique, wonderful environment, one that is diminishing in today's NFL as teams more and more conduct their camps in the privacy of their year-round homes, away from the crowds.
The Eagles want you there. The Eagles need you there. Players hear you, trust me on that. Coaches respect you and your opinions. The energy coming from the crowd every day breaks up the monotony of training camp and lends a one-on-one element to the proceedings.
Training camp is about the team and, yeah, finding the best 53 players is the ultimate goal here for Reid and his coaching staff. But the fan element is real, it is important, and it is part of the bond that kicks off a season and makes the relationship between a team and its world-wide base of love so special.