The new season of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals began with running backs coach Hue Jackson taking some young players to dinner and telling them that training camp is a long, hard grind, but it’s a grind that leads to an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream of making it in the NFL.
That pretty well explains the appeal of Hard Knocks, the great HBO show that chronicles training camp for superstars and for marginal players trying to make a roster. The new season, which premiered on Tuesday night, introduced the cast of characters on the Bengals — some of whom are NFL stars, and some of whom will be out of work a month from now.
Among the star players is quarterback Andy Dalton, who was first seen getting put through the paces in a workout with his wife, a pilates instructor. Dalton later took some ribbing from teammates and coaches because he wears a rubber wedding ring while practicing.
A perhaps less likable — but more compelling — Bengal is new linebacker James Harrison, who is making his presence felt with his fierce attitude. Head coach Marvin Lewis said he likes the toughness — even meanness — that Harrison brings to the team, including team outings as seemingly innocuous as a trip to a local bowling alley.
“We took him bowling and he said, ‘I’m going to kick someone’s ass,’” Lewis said. “That’s how he goes through life.”
There wasn’t much action beyond introducing the players in the first half hour of the show, but that changed when it was time for the Oklahoma drill, the hard-hitting training camp staple that some teams have eliminated for fear of injury. The Bengals still use it, and the highlight of their practice came when tight end Jermaine Gresham challenged defensive tackle Geno Atkins. The two kept going at it even after the drill was over, and players on both offense and defense hooted and hollered as a scuffle broke out at the drill’s conclusion.
Those are the most exciting moments of training camp, but the quieter moments are also compelling. Larry Black, a young defensive tackle, sat on the field trying to hold back tears after suffering a dislocated ankle. Black has since been placed on injured reserve and is out for the season.
The reality of the NFL — and of Hard Knocks — is we’ll see a lot more big, tough football players trying to hold back tears as they lose their opportunities to injuries, or to the simple fact that the Bengals need to reduce their roster from 90 players at the start of camp to 53 at the start of the regular season. Those are terrible moments for the players involved, but they make for great television.