Years ago, while coaching football at JEB Stuart High School (now Justice High) in Fairfax, Eric Ludden struck up a conversation with a sporting goods salesman.
Ludden perked up when the man mentioned that he played quarterback at TC Williams High School. The former player’s fond memories of the preparatory camp were of particular interest.
This was before the blockbuster 2000 film, which starred Denzel Washington as Herman Boone, a black coach who helped a newly integrated Titans program overcome racial tensions and win a Virginia state championship. In a pivotal scene, a disjointed collection of players come together over the course of several days in the idyllic solitude of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Intrigued by the idea of one day holding such a retreat himself, Ludden pressed for details: schedule, logistics, etc.
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Last week – and for 25 straight years – Ludden’s Massaponax program borrowed a page from the Titans’ script. The Panthers bused 48 players to Blue Ridge Camp in McCoy, a nearly four-hour drive in rural southwest Virginia.
“It’s our version of it,” Ludden said of the recent four-day field trip. “We get so much of the chemistry that you need in this game, we really build that… You have to build that with every team.”
Meanwhile, Riverbend head coach Nathan Yates, a former Massaponax assistant, set about establishing his own tradition. The Bears took part of their varsity roster to Camp Accovac in Millsboro.
“I’ve seen the bonds that the kids form when they’re immersed together,” Yates said. “There are no cell phones, they can’t go home and be alone. You are forced to make friends. It brings them together because it’s tough and they get through it together.”
The camps are remote. Massaponax senior Tommy Lagana said he had to travel a considerable distance to get cell phone signal to be interviewed for this story.
“This is where we really become a team because we can only talk to each other,” said Lagana, a standout center and nose tackle. “We’re learning more and more from each other, more about what we’re capable of. We all get closer in general because we just see each other every day.”
Players slept in a barracks-like room full of bunk beds. Ludden said he paired veteran players like Lagana with those new to the camp experience.
“They can lean on each other,” he explained.
Both Massaponax and Riverbend’s camp adhered to similar schedules.
After the wake-up call at 6 a.m., there was early training followed by breakfast. Afternoon sessions were usually split into offense and defense. Position briefings and walkthroughs were spread throughout the day.
“We’ve lived together and we’ve been through ups and downs together,” said Riverbend senior linebacker/H-back MarcAnthony Parker. “That was mentally very tough for us.”
While team bonding was paramount, football training itself proved instrumental in preparing for a season that begins in less than three weeks.
The most physically demanding aspect of camp “wasn’t the conditioning, just the full pads clashing in the heat,” Parker said. “The physicality of getting back into that full pad mode.”
Camp Accovac had a pool and a beach volleyball court where Parker and the bears, free from digital distractions, hung out when they were free from the day’s commitments.
While there was some downtime at Massaponax camp as well, Lagana and his teammates had a different preference when it came to filling it.
“Sleep because we walk pretty hard,” he said, laughing. “Most of the time, people go back to bed and take a little nap.”