NEW YORK—Although the ever-mounting accumulation of eyewitness testimony from battered, exhausted football players in all 32 NFL cities is vague, imprecise, and inconclusive, investigators say they are positive that, for the past several weeks, the league has been operating a brutal, grueling "camp system" with the full knowledge and consent of the NFL.
"I just don't have any words for the things I've been put through this past month," rookie Buffalo offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who was conscripted, or "drafted," from a serene college campus this spring and ordered to report to a camp in upstate New York by late July. "The things they made us do… They were always screaming, nothing was ever good enough… I… I was always running… There were whistles. Whistles everywhere. I can still hear them."
Although the testimony given by the survivors of these brutal camps differs greatly from player to player in both the exact details and the level of coherence, a telltale pattern of constant physical and mental testing on the part of NFL coaching staffs is beginning to emerge. However, because the players themselves seem unsure exactly what they have been put through, a complete picture may take some time to assemble.
"It seems that these men were forced to endure an unbelievably demanding regimen that would have literally killed lesser men," said Gene Upshaw, the president of the NFL players' union, who plans to issue a formal protest with the league but said it was "too early to tell" from the confused and rambling reports of the exhausted football players whether or not law enforcement would be involved. "As it is, we're seeing damaged joints, broken fingers, pulled and torn muscles, and almost everyone's bruised."
"What the hell was the NFL doing at these 'camps' of theirs?" Upshaw said. "What could make people do this to one another?"
"We were forced to run in place and then throw ourselves on the ground… They made some guys push the coaches around on big sleds, two or three at a time, sometimes as many as seven guys…" said Duke Preston, who was bussed to the same upstate New York-area camp as Ferguson. "They took the running backs and they… They hit them… Hit them with these huge… dummies…The dummies. The sons of bitches. I hate them. God help me, I hate them."
Investigators say that, in addition to the forced physical hardship endured by players, there is growing evidence that the men were also subjected to prolonged and calculated mental and emotional manipulation.
"We've sent people into these camps, and, well, frankly, they were blown away by the enormity of what they saw," said NFL Senior Director of Labor Relations Ed Tighe. "There are huge banners everywhere with mottos and slogans on them—'Pain Is Weakness Leaving The Body,' 'No Pain No Gain,' 'If I Would Achieve I Must Believe,' 'Blood Shed Today Is Blood Saved Sunday.' Not to mention the constant demand of unrealistic, impossible percentages of effort from the men. A truly ugly picture is beginning to form here."
"We never knew what would happen day to day," said Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis. "But everyone knew that some camps were worse than others. You didn't want to go to, say, Redskins camp, for instance. They called [punter Toby] Gowin in one day, said you're going to Washington. And he was, like, no. No, please, I'll get it right, I can do better. But they sent him off and he never… We never saw him again."
"And I was like, better him than me," Mathis said. "I'm so sorry… I got family."
Evidence also suggests that coaches conspired, among their staffs and with one another, to simultaneously erode player unity and increase their obedience to the team ideal.
"Just when we thought it was as bad…as bad as it could get," Preston said, "they—they turned us against one another. Guys we knew. The same guys they made us shower and eat the terrible food with and watch the damn tapes with. We had to…they told us to go out there and beat each other as bad as we could. And God help me, I did it."
"And if we didn't go at each other as hard as we could, the—the coaches… There was this big guy, Aaron Gibson, almost 400 pounds, and he wasn't doing so hot, and… And one day Coach Jauron had enough. And he sent a couple guys over, and they—they cut him. Just cut him, right in front of us, cut him just like that. It was all over for him and all we could do was watch," he continued.
"We knew if we said anything it was us next," Preston added. "I wish there was some way to tell him how sorry I am."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is still preparing for his inaugural season as head of the league, was reportedly informed of the camps' existence on Monday and has promised a full-scale investigation.
"I assure you that I don't yet know why these things were done to these men, but I mean to find out," Goodell said. "I promise you, on opening weekend we'll all find out exactly why these camps were built. And I think I speak for football fans everywhere when I say it had better be worth it."