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Packers create their own juice during a 'very strange' training camp opener

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

GREEN BAY – Military Drive was empty and damp, bereft of sound and color Saturday morning as less than two dozen media members quietly filed into Ray Nitschke Field.

The parking lot at Lambeau Field was near empty; the sound of a man running the stairs to the Oneida gate at Lambeau Field echoed. Then a sudden burst of rain grayed the pavement and the skies, throwing the new dark green tarps surrounding the practice field into a starker contrast.

There was no parade of bicycles. No smells from grills, shouts of player names or the quick snaps of a selfie.

“It’s strange, very strange,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Obviously this is my 16th training camp; riding a bike the first few years is something really, really special we all get to do and it’s fun to see the guys come in and find their one or two bike kids they kind of stick with. My bike kid, he was in the seventh and eighth and ninth grade I think when I was riding his bike. Now he’s 30, I think, he’s in a band, him and I still keep in touch, he lives on the West Coast.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is shown Saturday, August 15, 2020 during the team's first practice at training camp in Green Bay, Wis.

“That’s the beauty of playing in a small town and having great traditions like that. It is really strange. I think there’s a sadness around it, just because when the normalcy gets radically changed, nostalgically you miss some of those really fun traditions that kind of make Green Bay, Green Bay.”

It was just like a regular Saturday morning, but unlike any the Packers have experienced in their century-long history. The club played its first season during the pandemic of 1919, but the culture around the opening of late-summer practices obviously had yet to be established.

This training camp opened to no pomp – just players zooming from Lambeau to the practice parking area around the corner without worry of someone coming around the corner of a crowded lot.

When the players emerged from the Don Hutson Center there was no sound other than the music over the loudspeakers, a difference Rodgers couldn’t help but notice.

“So many of those fans, especially for the morning practices, would be there an hour early getting their spots,” he said. “I always thought that was such a really cool, special tradition.”

The team had to create its own juice, something the defense took to heart with a “D-Train” chant, reviving their self-ascribed nickname from a year ago, and filling the air with trash talk to the offense and celebrations if the ball hit the ground.

“It’s all about us, you know?” new middle linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “We know the circumstances that we’re going to play in – with no fans and things of that nature. But this is where you’ve got to dig deep and you’ve got to tell yourself, ‘This is the reason why you play the game.’ And it’s just for the love of the sport. And every time we step out on that field, we want to create an atmosphere to where we’re competing and we’re trying to be the best and we’re trying to win at everything we do.

“And coming out here on these practices, we were just setting that tone – our defense is going to be feared, and our defense is going to have a certain way that we play. And that’s what we were totally trying to focus on – focusing on us and controlling what we can control. That’s our approach to the game.

With access restrictions implemented by the NFL, there were far fewer people around the field as well besides the fans. PackersNews.com counted 17 credentialed people in the bleachers and about 20 team staff members who were scattered around the sidelines, socially distant.

General manager Brian Gutekunst and other top personnel executives were on the field, occasionally stopping to speak through their masks to one another but largely off by themselves.

Coaching instructions and the sounds of exertion from the field were easily heard, the players getting a first taste of what it’s like to go through 11-on-11 work with not even a bit of background noise to filter calls through. If a player was upset after a play, his self-admonishment and subsequent hand clap was clear. And on a long Tim Boyle completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a one-handed Allen Lazard grab from Rodgers and a Jordan Love touchdown throw to Jake Kumerow, there was no applause, just the cycling in of new personnel to run the next play.

“To be honest with you, it felt very similar to like an OTA practice in terms of just how quiet it can be during that time,” head coach Matt LaFleur said. “It just felt different from training camp and what we’re accustomed to, especially the first day when everybody’s excited. The fans, they’re excited because they want football back and it’s unfortunate we’re not going to have them there.”

When the practice ended after an hour and 55 minutes, the players quickly made their way back to their cars while LaFleur and his staff hurried up the street.

The area around Lambeau Field remained largely empty save for two fans who stood outside the chain link fence, bent over at the waist looking to catch any kind of glimpse of their team through a slightly open door of the Hutson Center.