Mini-Camp Takes A Different Swing


Ryan Longwell was among the team captains, Friday.

June mini-camp continued for the Green Bay Packers Friday, not from Clarke Hinkle Field or the Don Hutson Center, but from Thornberry Creek golf course in Oneida, Wis.

Such team outings have become annual events in Mike Sherman's three-year tenure as head coach. Two years ago the team was surprised when -- in full practice gear -- they were ushered onto a bus and taken bowling. Last year, it was paintball. And this year, it was golf.

Make no mistake, this wasn't just a day off, or a mere reward for hard work during practice, this was something more: a calculated attempt to try and boost team chemistry, something that can be invaluable during an emotional NFL season.

"I think Mike Sherman can put on a clinic showing teams how to love one another," said 13-year NFL veteran LeRoy Butler. "It's the only way you can win a championship, with close, tight-knit teamwork. That's what events like this do . . . That's the only way you're going to win in this league is if everybody gets along."

While bowling and paintball had more impromptu organization, deciding to take the entire team golfing required a little more planning. Instead of giving the team a day-of surprise announcement, word was filtered down in the approaching weeks. In fact, veterans were informed in April to pack their golf clubs for June mini-camp, but 45 sets of clubs still needed to be rented to pull off the event.

Thursday, 30 foursomes were drafted from a pool of players and staff. Team captains were determined by age and experience in the league, meaning that the top-three picks went to 16-year veteran Frank Winters, Butler and 12-year veteran Brett Favre, respectively.

In the first round, captains selected from the player pool, the second round was reserved for staff selections and the third round was slated for, in the words of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, "everybody else."

"I was part of the junk," Gbaja-Biamila admitted. "But I was the best of the worst, I think."

For many captains, there wasn't much strategy -- pick a buddy, have a good time. But for Butler, who has spent mini-camps rehabbing his shoulder injury rather than challenging receivers on the field, it was a welcomed opportunity to compete.

His first-round draft choice? Punter and frequent golfer, Josh Bidwell.

"I tried to get someone who was a pretty good mid-iron player, and he's good at that," Butler said. "Frank took (Mark) Tauscher . . . Normally when you draft guys, you are going to draft your buddies. See, sometimes buddies overcome the idea to win, but in my case, I want to win."

Based on some of the golf swings displayed at the driving range Friday morning, Thursday's draft could have been the area where the tournament was won and lost.

For every relaxed swinger like Darren Sharper, there was someone picking up a club for the first time of his life and using it to dig a trench six inches behind the ball. For every Doug Pederson, who wanted to know the day's pin placements, there was a David Martin, who after hearing there would be a 'Closest to the Pin' contest on one of the holes asked Sharper, his captain, "What's a pin?"

With an abundance of roster turnover year to year, even teammates have trouble separating the avid golfers from the hackers and the never-hacked. And that's the point of the golf excursion entirely.

"You understand why Mike does things like that when guys look up at the board, and it's their turn to draft, and they have no clue who 20 guys are," Favre said. "When you go into training camp, or when you go into the first game, you want to know who the guy lining up next to you is and something about him, and that's really what mini-camps are about."

Said Sherman, "I think when you start a new season, I always look at it as starting over. We have a fair amount of new players on our team . . . I just think it brings the team together. Familiarity is the key, and that's what we're looking to accomplish here today."

Like any team, the Packers could use a dose of familiarity. For example, had seventh-year cornerback Tyrone Williams been more familiar with second-year wide receiver Robert Ferguson, he might not have drafted him in the first round.

Although he sang a different tune earlier in the week, after warming up on the driving range Friday, Ferguson admitted that the golf courses he frequents tend to be a little smaller than Thornberry Creek, although with more windmills.

"I'm a putt-putter, so I'm learning on the fly right now," Ferguson said. "This is the first time I've ever had anything in my hands other than a rubber putt-putt club, so it's a new experience for me . . .

"Actually, I lied a little bit (to get drafted). Ty assumed that I was a pretty good golfer. He didn't really know that I haven't golfed, so hopefully he won't find out."

It probably only took a few swings before Williams realized he'd drafted a lemon in Ferguson, but now he knows. And maybe during the round he learned something else about Ferguson, too, something that will contribute to a friendlier locker room and to the Packers having a winning season both on and off the field.

It's only mini-camp, but there's reason to think that no practice this season will have a greater lasting effect than this one, when the Packers took off their helmets and picked up golf clubs, exchanging lessons on football for lessons on each other.


Tournament results will not be announced to the team until Monday.

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