For the past 22 years — the Arizona Cardinals have swooped into Flagstaff for their annual training camp — the state’s football fans, including those from the Rim Country, have pretty much had their own way watching practices and scrimmages.
The team wasn’t overly popular due to its losing ways and fans could roam the Northern Arizona University sidelines at will, getting glimpses of their favorite players whether it was Pat Tillman or Edgerrin James.
That is expected to change.
But for the upcoming camp, the Red Birds are now the darlings of Arizona sports fans and practice sessions on the NAU campus could be overflowing with adoring boosters.
Opportunities for up close and personal peeks at stars, including everyone’s favorite signal caller, Kurt Warner, or the seeming-charmed Larry Fitzgerald, might be limited.
Funny what a little success and a trip to the Super Bowl can do for the image of NFL players and their team.
What Arizona’s appearance last winter on the world gridiron stage could mean for longtime Rim Country fans — who over the years have motored to Flagstaff for their yearly pro football fix — is they’ll no longer watch in virtual solitude.
That’s because Flagstaff officials are expecting huge crowds for the Cardinals 23 practices between July 29 and Aug. 20.
While the fields might be crowded, the good news is practices are open to the public. There is no admission or parking charge.
That’s a fry cry from games in University of Phoenix Stadium where prices might prompt fans to apply for second home mortgages to cover ticket, parking and concession costs.
Of course, most anodynic for those hopelessly hooked on the NFL is that in Flagstaff there’s the smell of fresh-cut grass and the snapping sounds of chinstraps buckling, shoulder pads slamming against one another and thundering bellows from coaches.
Also at NAU, there are plenty of opportunities for autographs. Some players and coaches are gracious enough to hang around after practice to sign at least a few autographs.
The key to getting them is to position correctly on one of the paths the players take to walk off the field and into the Walkup Skydome locker rooms.
The highlight of the camp, as it has been in past years, is the Red and White practice, which is preceded with an autograph session.
This year, it will begin at 11:30 a.m., Aug. 8 on the grass field next to Walkup.
While most past practice sessions were not particularly popular, the Red and White scrimmages have been big draws since coach Whisenhunt took over the team’s reigns two years ago.
Of course, any Cards fan worth his birdfeed knows that inclement weather caused by the summer monsoons can send workouts inside the Skydome.
Also on the camp agenda are two night practices — Aug. 5 and 18 in Lumberjack Stadium. They begin at 7:05 p.m. For much of camp, the Cardinals will have two-a-day practices often beginning at 9:05 a.m. and 3:05 p.m.
Some sessions are walk-throughs only; such as the one on the morning of Aug. 12 when the team will head to the airport to travel to Pittsburgh for a preseason opener the following day.
Words of warning to high country novices — always check the weather forecasts before traveling to Flagstaff. A sudden monsoon rain could leave you drenched.