Fans return to training camp but must deal with restrictions

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Green Bay Packers’ linebacker Rashan Gary rides a bicycle to NFL football training camp Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

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GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones and his Green Bay Packers teammates have resumed an annual preseason ritual after a pandemic-imposed hiatus by riding bicycles to training camp workouts.

But at least for this year, the players can’t borrow those bikes from young fans.

The Packers’ change in protocol reflects how the NFL has adapted its training camp policy while welcoming back spectators, who weren’t allowed at workouts last summer. Fans can’t interact with players and must remain over 20 feet away from them.

The changes are particularly apparent in Green Bay, where fans have been loaning Packers players bikes to travel to practice since the 1950s.

“I love the tradition,” Jones said.“It’s special.”

That tradition was tweaked this year. No longer can fans loan their bicycles to players. The Packers instead have new Schwinn bikes they can use.

Similar changes have taken place at other training camps.

For instance, Matt Anderson of Richfield, Minnesota, brought his 14-year-old son to the Minnesota Vikings’ first workout. That typically would have been an ideal setting for the teenager to seek autographs from his favorite players.

Not this year.

The Vikings have compensated by conducting autograph sessions with Hall of Famers Carl Eller, Randall McDaniel and John Randle, plus other former players. Anderson says he still got a taste of what makes training camp special even under the current restrictions.

“The opportunity to get close to them, even (this year), you could give a shoutout to a player and get a reaction from them,” Anderson said. “That’s a unique thing from a football perspective, to have that proximity to a player and get that interaction with them.”

NFL officials say about 1 million people attended various training camp workouts across the country in 2019, the year before the pandemic. About 200,000 fans attended training camp sessions July 31, a day the NFL billed as “Back Together Saturday.”

Players appreciate the fans’ presence after going through training camp without any spectators last year.

“We talked about how people are giving up vacation time to come watch us practice,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “That sums it up right there. Honestly, it makes coming out to practice on a 95-degree day feel like a privilege, when you realize that’s what fans are doing.”

They like hearing the applause again.

When Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw a ball about 50 yards into a 2-foot hoop in the end zone Thursday,fans roared their approval. Only teammates would have been able to cheer that type of play a year ago.

“Last year it was pretty quiet,” Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling said. “You could hear the cars driving by and that was pretty much it.”

Packers officials said Thursday they have averaged about 2,100 fans per practice session and indicated it was slightly below their pre-pandemic figures. They noted the 2018 and ’19 attendance totals were higher than usual because of Packers Experience, a festival featuring live music and skills activities that wasn’t possible this year due to health protocols.

But the biggest change in Green Bay involves the bike tradition. In previous summers, a player often would use the same kid’s bike throughout training camp. Players built friendships with the kids who loaned them bikes.

“My bike rider, I’m still super close with him,” Jones said. “He’s always out there at practice. I see him all the time.”

Now the Packers have posted messages on the bike path reminding fans that players aren’t allowed to “take a selfie with you, play catch, provide an autograph, fist bump or even high-five.”

“I understand them,” said Ben Hurley, a 14-year-old Packers fan from Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin. “We’ve got to keep the players safe and have them ready to play, especially with the strict rules and the fines they can get. But it’s a little frustrating.”

Colin McCabe, a 19-year-old Packers fan, has attended training camp since he was about 12 and let players ride his bike to practice when he was younger. His 11-year-old brother, Liam, started loaning his bike to players at the age of four.

“It’s so different,” said McCabe, who lives about four blocks from the Packers’ practice fields. “I’m glad that it’s somewhat normal where we get to see the players walk down and ride bikes, but the whole tradition of players interacting with the kids and the fans, it’s way different. It’s the world we live in, but it’s kind of sad to see it change that way.”

It’s not the same as before the pandemic, but at least it isn’t a repeat of 2020.

Many NFL teams didn’t play any home games in front of paying spectators last year. They love seeing fans back and look forward to playing preseason games in front of crowds.

“After everything that we went through last year, it’s great to see fans out there today, and it’ll be great to see them this year,” Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said after a practice last week.

Having fans at training camp sites represents one giant step toward normalcy. Maybe next year the players and fans will be able to interact a little more.

“I really hope so, especially for my brother’s sake,” McCabe said. “He looks forward to this every season. He’ll wake up at like 4 in the morning when it comes to Packers training camp and be like, ‘Oh, we get to go today.’

“It’s better than Christmas for a lot of kids.”

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AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell and Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report.

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