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Saints like slice of Almost Heaven

By Rick Ryan, Assistant Sports Editor
CHRIS DORST | Saturday Gazette-Mail Saints receiver Robert Meachem reaches for a pass with Champ Bailey defending during training camp Friday at The Greenbrier.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — It was business as usual Friday morning as the New Orleans Saints kicked off their preseason training camp.

Usual, that is, if you call uprooting and relocating camp more than 900 miles to a gleaming $30 million facility that didn’t exist four months ago a typical day.

Actually, it was anything but typical, from the start of practice when Masters champion Bubba Watson, a Greenbrier property owner and longtime Saints fan, trotted onto the field to take a pass from Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees — and promptly dropped it.

It even extended to the end of practice when players and coaches, giving interviews at an outdoor location in one corner of the grass fields, had to momentarily pause as noisy trains chugged through the valley below.

Saints coach Sean Payton, for one, appreciates the mix of the state-of-the-art football digs with The Greenbrier’s down-home country charm.

“No. 1, you’ve got to find this place,’’ Payton said, “but it’s kind of magnificent when you do. You’re trying to reduce the outside distractions and come together as a team and a coaching staff and focus on one goal, so there are some benefits [coming to a small town].’’

Brees, the undeniable face of the franchise, was practically giddy about the bold adventure of holding three weeks of preseason workouts in this corner of West Virginia.

“Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable, isn’t it?’’ he said after Friday’s early practice session.

Brees said he knew it was going to be different before the drills even began.

“Typically during stretches,’’ he said, “within two minutes of stretching in New Orleans, you’re soaking wet and the grass is hot as you’re laying on it. I kind of leaned over to Pierre [Thomas, running back] as we were laying down on the grass during our stretches and I said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever laid on cool grass.’ The grass is like 55 degrees.

“So it was very pleasant, and you feel like you can go all day. I feel like we could’ve called 200 plays out there and been perfectly fine.’’

The cooler climate is one of the big factors for moving camp from the swampy summer of the Gulf Coast to the nearly 2,000-foot elevation of the Allegheny Mountains.

After a drizzly, 60-degree day on Thursday when players reported and did conditioning tests, skies were sunny Friday morning and the temperature barely cracked into the 70s when morning drills concluded about 11:30 a.m.

Certainly, moving training camps a long distance to remove distractions and work out in less-scorching conditions isn’t a new idea in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys still train in Oxnard, Calif., and the Kansas City Chiefs used to hold preseason camp in River Falls, Wisc.

Still, the Saints seem to think they’ve struck gold in the hills of West Virginia.

“I think [the weather] is part of the reason for being here,’’ Brees said. “Especially with the ability to [teach] a lot of younger players. We do have a solid veteran group, but we do have a lot of younger players who we’re trying to assimilate very quickly into what we’re doing, and you want to maximize reps. This [climate] allows you do that.’’

Greenbrier owner Jim Justice and his staff have provided the Saints with two grass fields running parallel to each other at the top of a large hill adjacent to the sprawling AdvoCare Sports Performance Center, with an artificial turf field below in the event of rain.

“If the fields can hold up, we’ll practice on the grass fields,’’ said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. “If not, we can work on the field turf field. We’re anticipating good weather.’’

The first injury of camp appeared to be suffered by wide receiver Kenny Stills, who pulled up lame running a pass pattern with a right quadriceps injury. He sat out the rest of the morning session. Stills had similar tightness in his quad two weeks ago.

The Saints did get one other receiver back, however, when Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham returned to the field after being out most of the offseason as his contract was being negotiated. Graham turned in the fastest time during the team’s conditioning test Thursday.

Safety Jairus Byrd, a free-agent acquisition in the offseason, started camp on the physically unable to perform list with a back injury.

At least one Saints player is captivated by the history of The Greenbrier, which opened in 1778.

“Actually, I’ve never been to the resort,’’ said kicker Shayne Graham, a native of Radford, Va., who played at Virginia Tech. “Growing up just a few miles down the road in Virginia, this is one of those places we could never afford to come to when I was a kid.

“But you knew how beautiful it was, you knew the history behind it, knowing everything from pre-Civil War to Civil War to involvement with the military and the government, so you know it’s a pretty cool thing. I’ve always been big on history, so for me this is like staying at the White House. I’ve known about it, but have never been able to be here.’’

Shayne Graham said players’ early reviews of the facility are uniformly positive.

“I think the guys are very impressed,’’ he said. “A lot of guys come from urban city areas or super-small towns way out west, so to be able to come out and see this right here when you’re practicing is something we don’t see in New Orleans. We don’t see mountains out there — the biggest mountains we have are overpasses.

“And the weather, even when it’s hot, it’s not burning you to death. They did a great job here. It’s a beautiful facility. It’s amazing.’’

Kenny Vaccaro, a second-year strong safety from Texas, likewise has never been The Greenbrier before, but said he has family members attending classes at West Virginia University who plan to visit this month.

“They’re coming to see me,’’ Vaccaro said. “I know driving in, there’s not much. There’s a lot of trees, that’s about it.

“But we’re blessed the people let us come in here and have training camp here. New Orleans is so humid and, man, this is heaven.’’

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.


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