The best part of football's training camp isn't watching the drills, seeing honing of skills or even being excited by the promise of a new season. It's enjoying the unexpected emergence of new performers and watching their indoctrination into the greater team culture.
Just this week, another young Detroit Lion had his moment. Lance Long, a journeyman wide receiver born in Michigan, has been performing well in camp. Tuesday, he made a stunning catch in the end zone and spiked the ball in celebration. As everybody knows, that's an ethical violation of the highest degree during training camp drills. The expected decorum is tossing the ball aside, putting your head down and jogging quietly back to the huddle.
The defense, particularly fiery safety Louis Delmas, didn't like being shown up by anyone on their team, much less a no name player. That may have been true, except for this caveat: The "Vanilla Gorilla" was hardly a no name performer by this point in camp. Long, thanks to his strong and diverse play making exploits thus far, earned himself that moniker from wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson much earlier. Veteran Nate Burleson seemed to love the name change just as much. Ever since, the Vanilla Gorilla has been rattling cages with his tough play.
In doing so, Long has joined in the proud tradition of the playful "hazing" of younger players that happens during training camp which often revolves around nicknames. Perhaps this is a dated reference, but George Plimpton's hilarious book Paper Lion details much of this during the 1960s. Ironically enough for Long, Plimpton wrote then that many classic Lions earned their nicknames in camp based on their play and physical characteristics. In his rookie year, Daryl Sanders was dubbed "Skunk" by veterans due to a white streak on his scalp. John Gordy was "The Bear" thanks to excessive body hair. Of particular interest to Long would be Pat "The Monk" Studstill, named for his apparent resemblance to a monkey.
What other time of year do such fascinating nuances come about? It can only happen during training camp, when players see each other every single day, are in close contact and constantly go back and forth with their oddities. As Plimpton's book shows, for better or worse, many of these nicknames stick forever and end up defining the player as much as his game ever will. Who could ever forget Dick "Night Train" Lane's name, a title that was earned during camp thanks to Lane's affinity for playing a certain record? Nobody recalls the generic name Dick Lane, but say "Night Train" and immediately, images of clothesline tackles flood into memory. Never mind Elvis, Wayne Walker, thanks to his elegance, will always remain "The King" around Detroit.
The more some things change in football, the more others stay the same. Thankfully, this is the one area which will never have to see a dreaded rule change or be phased out completely. As long as there are rookies and veterans, there will be camp shenanigans. As long as there are camp shenanigans, there will be hilarious and fitting nicknames as a result.
Whether or not the "Vanilla Gorilla" sticks around and becomes an international sensation, it's nice to see the camaraderie of camp is still endearing over time. Though the nicknames may have changed through the years, the football brotherhood always remains the same.
This is the one major reason dog days of the football summer are always something to look forward to.
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