Two weekends ago, more than 1,200 hopeful pro football prospects packed up their helmets, cleats, and parents’ checkbooks and headed down to Thibodaux, LA for the Manning Passing Academy. The Academy, now in its 14th year overall and fifth year on the beautiful campus of Nicholls State University, is one of the most respected and well known summer football camps in the country. Founded by former Saints’ great Archie Manning and his sons – Cooper, Peyton and Eli – this camp boasts a wide array of talent not only from the campers, but especially from the counselors.
Being a former high school football coach, who once had the privilege of working this camp, I know firsthand how impressive the collection of counselors at this camp can be. When I worked it, some of the counselors happened to be former Texas QB Colt McCoy, ex-Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, and even #1 overall NFL draft pick Jamarcus Russell (Insert comment here ______). 2011 was no different, as future #1 overall pick and Stanford Cardinal QB Andrew Luck, Oklahoma St. QB Brandon Weeden, and LSU starting QB Jordan Jefferson were among the notables at this year’s camp.
As a member of the Colonel Athletic Association, and as a former counselor, I usually attend a practice or two and make the welcome social at Bubba’s II in Thibodaux. The social is an interesting event, as the crowded restaurant is filled with NFL and college star players, coaches from the pro, college, and high school levels, as well as well known media personalities such as ESPN analyst Chris Mortensen and NFL network draft guru Mike Mayock. It is an impressive array of talent squeezed in to tiny Thibodaux, and the camp itself as well as the national exposure is invaluable to both Nicholls State and the city of Thibodaux. I mean really, how often can one see an ESPN Sportscenter report live from John L. Guidry Stadium?
The faces change from year to year, but there are always some constants at Manning Camp, such as:
1.) The Mannings themselves, while polite for the most part, tend to be stand-offish and short with most people. I know you guys are super rich and super famous, but c’mon man!
2.) The college kids stay off to the side, trading stories and talking a little trash, all the while making plans to check out the Thibodaux nightlife
3.) A former NFL QB, a counselor who will remain nameless, will get wasted, act an ass, and hit on 18 year old girl after 18 year old girl at Rox’s bar
4.) Doug Swanner will cook some damn good food and have some damn cold beer in the new and improved Bubba’s II Sports Bar, and
5.) The Air it Out competition, a throwing competition between all the college and pro QB counselors at the camp, will be an exciting watch
But this year, there was one big difference: Gruden.
I’ve been through five or so Manning Passing Academies. I’ve met some really good guys, like Brandon Stokely, Colt McCoy, and former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez to name a few. They were the more down to earth guys, a real pleasure to speak with – much more so than some others. As I passed through Bubba’s I looked over and saw this short, loud, blonde headed guy in full coaching gear laughing wildly as if he were in joy and pain at the same time. I peered over and saw that it was ESPN Monday Night Football analyst and former Raider and Buccaneer coach Jon Gruden. It was his first time at the camp. The first thing that passed through my head was, “Those other guys are great, but I gotta meet THIS guy.”
Through all the years, I’ve never randomly walked up and introduced myself to one of these famous football players or coaches. I refuse. If we were in a social situation, I would shake their hand and let them know who I was, and if they were cool enough to have a conversation I would and if they acted like jerks I’d blow them off. For example, I always refused to go up to Peyton Manning like a little kid and hope that he would shake my throwing hand. No way. No how. Not me.
But this was Jon Gruden! From Monday Night Football, from Gruden’s QB camp – I had to meet THIS guy!
I swallowed my pride, stepped up to the top of Coach Gruden’s head, and said, “Hi coach, my name’s David LeBoeuf. I played football here at Nicholls in college. I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate your work on ESPN and think you do an awesome job, and also when you were with Bucs you were a pain in the Saints’asses and I couldn’t stand you. But you’re cool now – how are you enjoying Thibodaux?”
He looked up with that Chucky scowl and – not knowing whether he was going to laugh or claw my face off – said “Hell yeah man, I love the Saints. My favorite team! And I love Thibodaux…I think I’m going to look for an apartment here!”
He talked to me for about five minutes about the Saints, Nicholls football, and Terrelle Pryor’s QB camp session (which I’m sworn to secrecy, at least on paper). He probably would’ve talked longer, but he had to go and teach the Bubba’s kitchen staff’s kids – who had showed up to meet the players – how to get into 3-point stances and the proper way to catch a football with their hands. He worked with the kids for about 15 minutes in the middle of the restaurant. It was awesome to watch.
Jon Gruden was the most down to earth, football loving guy I’ve ever met at this camp. He loves the game, loves talking about it, and is crazy about coaching it. I don’t know if he will ever get into coaching again, because he swears he loves his gig on Monday Night Football, but I have big time respect for what he does and what he stands for.
So here’s to you Gruden! Keep it up on MNF, keep spreading that knowledge, and let me know if you are still interested in that apartment. I know a guy.