Is It Football Season Yet?

Cardinals open camp July 25

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Hoping to score a much-needed fix following a summer of withdrawal, football junkies annually make the pilgrimage to Flagstaff where their gridiron addictions can be soothed on the sidelines of an Arizona Cardinals' practice.

Most anodynic for those hopelessly hooked on the NFL is the smell of fresh-cut grass, the snapping sounds of chin straps buckling, up close and personal looks at favorite players, coach Ken Wisenhunt's thundering bellows and, best of all, it's free.

Ask any gridiron druggie and he or she will tell you the sojourns are much more assuasive than watching a game from the $15 seats in the upper corner reaches of University of Phoenix Stadium where the action seems miles away, the players miniscule and action is interrupted every few minutes for a TV timeout.

The training camp sessions take place each summer on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff where the Cards spend four weeks preparing for the season.

A fringe benefit for NFL hopheads is that significant others can go along, even if they aren't willowing under the effects of pigskin withdrawal.

You see, in Flagstaff there's plenty more to do than football. Popular respites include taking scenic sky rides at the Arizona Snowbowl, enjoying picnic lunches at the arboretum, taking in the Riordan Mansion, shopping in historic downtown and exploring the heavens at Lowell Observatory.

But for the football habituate, the main line runs through the grass fields adjacent to the Walkup Skydome and inside the dome should monsoon rain force the Cardinals indoors, which often happens.

Among those who frequent Cards' practices is former Payson High School football star Greg Alexander who is laying plans to again attend when the camp opens July 25 and continues until Aug. 21.

During that time, the Cardinals will participate in 30 practices, including two night sessions in Lumberjack Stadium.

Those will be held 7:05 to 9:15 p.m. July 30 and Aug. 13.

The most popular practice among fans is the special Red & White session to be held 11:15 a.m. to 1:35 p.m. Aug. 2 on the NAU practice field.

The practice is preceded by an autograph session and wraps up with a lively goal-line scrimmage.

Last year, thousands of fans sat elbow-to-elbow in the stands and on the surrounding grass berms watching the Redbirds go through their paces.

The sight of the overflow crowd, drew the attention of longtime Card fan David Garner.

"There are thousands of people; it's a sea of red," he said. "There's more people here than there were at some games when the team played in Sun Devil Stadium."

The Cardinals played in the Arizona State University Stadium until 2006, when the team moved to newly built University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

Ironclad proof Cardinal brass weren't expecting the overflow crowd to show up for last summer's practice existed in the number of porta-potties that were positioned just outside the entrance.

With only four available, lines to use them wound 50 to 60 yards around a second practice field where punters and kickers were working out.

The Cardinals say they will remedy that malady this summer and ample facilities will be available.

During the Cards stay, most two-a-day practices, which are free and open to the public, begin at 9:05 a.m. and 3:05 p.m. Traditionally they last for about 1-1/2 hours.

However, before making the trek to Flagstaff, check the team's Web site, www.azcardinals.com, for current practice information.

If the Cardinals are forced indoors by rain, they should be able to go through full workouts rather than be limited to walkthroughs as they were in the past. That's because the old rock-hard artificial turf in the Skydome has been replaced by a softer, high-tech RealGrass Matrix surface that is said to be a top of the line product.

The rookies, the QBs

Among the attractions at training camp, no matter where practices are held, will be the debut of first round draft pick, No. 16 overall, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

No one knows how good the new cornerback will be, but with a last name that has 16 letters and a hyphen, it will surely fill up the back of his Cardinals jersey.

Rodgers-Cromartie was drafted out of Tennessee State where he was an NFL Draft Report All-American and an All-Ohio Valley first team selection.

Some fans were left scratching their noggins when the Cardinals drafted a defensive back from a Division 1-AA school saying he hadn't really played big-time collegiate football.

But longtime followers remember that one of the Cardinals most premier cornerbacks, Aeneas Williams, was from Southern University.

Also new on the Cardinals roster in Flagstaff will be second round pick Calais Campbell of Miami (Fla.). At 6 feet, 7 inches and almost 300 pounds, Campbell, who plays defensive end, won't be hard to spot on the practice field.

As appealing as it might be for fans to check out the two new guys on the roster, all eyes will be focused on quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart.

As camp wears on, the drama over which deserves to get the starting nod from Wisenhunt will intensify.

The coach has said Leinart is the starting signal caller but Warner was the man behind center most of last season and responded with a gutsy showing in which he completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 3,417 yards.

The knock on the former Super Bowl MVP is that he threw too many interceptions (17) but most of the year he was playing with a dislocated elbow and behind a line that leaked worse than the Gulf Coast levees during Katrina.

The bash on Leinart is that he spends too much time on youtube partying with underage girls.

But what the heck, the former Heisman Trophy winner is a good looking guy who wants to someday be a movie or television actor.

Maybe getting smashed on youtube was just a practice run at this future acting career.

And darn, how can you expect a multimillionaire who once smooched with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton to concentrate on throwing a spiral?

On ESPN

In addition to fans having the opportunity to view Leinart, Warner and the rest of the Cardinals in Flagstaff, supporters can tune into ESPN Aug. 7 and watch the team in its preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium. The game is being televised nationally.

Arizona also has preseason games Aug. 16 in Kansas City and Aug. 23 at Oakland.

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