Remember the Cheese League?
In the mid-1990s, there were several National Football League teams regularly travelling to small college towns for training camp. That group included the Vikings and their annual excursion here to Mankato. Meanwhile, the Bears, Chiefs, Saints and Jaguars went to Wisconsin — Platteville, River Falls, La Crosse and Stevens Point, respectively — while the Packers stayed just a couple of miles away from Green Bay in De Pere.
Eventually, most of those teams moved closer to their homes or, in some cases, right to their normal practice fields, (the Packers continue to lodge and dine at St. Norbert College but practice at their facility outside of Lambeau Field). The Vikings, of course, remained in Mankato, and this year returned to Minnesota State University for the 48th year in a row.
According to the NFL, just 13 of the league’s 32 teams actually leave home for training camp anymore. In 2000, there were 26 teams (of the then-31) that hit the road.
Between the boom of new stadiums, new team headquarters and practice facilities, organized team activities (OTAs) in the offseason and practice limitations in the new collective bargaining agreement, the need for training camps, at least as we’ve known them, seems to be growing more and more obsolete.
But that’s on the field.
Off the field, training camp sure seems relevant, at least around these parts.
One needs to look no further than Saturday night at Blakeslee Stadium when a Vikings-estimated crowd of 12,000 fans jam-packed the place for camp’s lone night practice/scrimmage. According to a tweet from Jeff Anderson, Vikings director of corporate communications, the team estimated that 25,000 people attended camp during the three day stretch of last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Fans have been clamoring for autographs like never before, especially with the knowledge that the league’s best player and reigning MVP, Adrian Peterson, rarely shies away from the crowds waiting for him after every practice. The squeals coming from the fence lines are reminiscent of a 1964 Beatles performance, and the running back’s reaction is a far cry from that of aloof stars like Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper.
Jake’s Stadium Pizza got a national plug in Sports Illustrated a couple of issues back when NFL writer Peter King called it “one of the best meals on” his training camp tour “by far.”
Just before camp began, the Vikings and Minnesota State extended their contract through 2015, making it an even 50 years of training camp in Mankato. In 2016, the new Vikings stadium will be finished in downtown Minneapolis. It will not have a practice facility, as that remains in Eden Prairie, but given the NFL’s most recent trends, one wonders what will happen in three years.
“We have outstanding relationships with MSU and the Mankato community. ...” Anderson told The Free Press last month. “Training camp is a strong tradition for us.”
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.