Robert Kraft was enjoying a stroll with his wife Myra around the Bryant College campus back in July of 1994. Just about six months after he and his family had finalized the purchase of the Patriots, the Krafts quickly developed a routine where they toured the picturesque landscape in Smithfield, Rhode Island, eventually stopping on a bridge overlooking a pond.
The two would often take time to reflect on that bridge with Myra regularly using the opportunity to feed some of the fish swimming below.
One day a rookie was enjoying some downtime when he happened upon his new bosses at the bridge, and he was a bit unsure of how to react. As an eighth-round pick, he wasn't even sure the owners would know who he was outside of the formal team environment.
"Bryant wasn't a bad campus. It was pretty nice with the little pond out there," the then-rookie explained. "During my rookie year in '94, I met Mr. Kraft and Myra feeding fish on that bridge. It wasn't a bad atmosphere at all. That's probably one of my first memories of NFL life … walking around that campus."
It turned out that Troy Brown's first real interaction with Robert Kraft took place at Bryant College (it wasn't a University then) as the Patriots prepared for the 1994 season. The two would enjoy many more conversations over the years as Brown was beginning a three-decade run in the organization, but the vast majority of them took place in Foxborough after the team left Smithfield to train at home prior to the 2003 season.
It's been 19 years since the Patriots last held training camp on the college campus. As Gillette Stadium opened for business in 2002, the team eventually built sufficient practice facilities adjacent to the building and a year later decided to keep all operation closer to home. The team has held camp and practices at the stadium ever since.
But prior to that 2003 training camp move, the Patriots called Bryant their summer home for 26 years, moving operations there in 1976. Bill Belichick explained some of the reasoning behind the move back in 2002 when his team wrapped up its final camp at Bryant.
"I think it's a little bit of a trade-off. I think there's some value to [training at a college campus]," Belichick said. "But on the flip side, when you go away, you just can't duplicate the facilities we have here. We could duplicate Foxboro Stadium but we couldn't duplicate [Gillette Stadium's] weight room, or this training room or the video equipment. The efficiency that we could have here would be a lot better than we could have at training camp [at Bryant]."
And with that an era ended, but not without some lasting memories left behind. While the Patriots history prior to Kraft's arrival is not overly impressive, many of the 26 teams hosted by Bryant were actually quite good. And some of the legendary figures on those teams remembered some of the crazy times that went along with NFL life on a college campus.
There are some wild anecdotes, like the one involving Steve McMichael's rattlesnakes, but mostly there are stories of camaraderie, laughter and team-bonding that come with dorm life. The likes of Andre Tippett, Steve Grogan, John Hannah, Steve Nelson, Mike Haynes, Pete Brock, Scott Zolak and countless others knew nothing of training camp life outside of Bryant. Others like Drew Bledsoe, Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Ted Johnson and many more experienced camp at both Bryant and Gillette. We caught up with a few of those former players to get their take on life at Bryant.
At the start
Prior to the arrival of Belichick and Tom Brady, many Patriots fans, particularly the older ones, believe the 1976 team was the best in franchise history. That group went 11-3 and lost a controversial last-second playoff game in Oakland, one that is still debated to this day due to referee Ben Dreith's infamous roughing the passer call that gave the Raiders new life and set up their game-winning touchdown.
Six months earlier, the Patriots convened for the first time at Bryant College for the start of camp after spending the previous years at various locales, most often at UMass in Amherst. Rookie center Pete Brock remembered getting off a plane and driving from Logan Airport to Smithfield, wondering how an NFL team could practice so far away from everything.
"It was all a new experience for me. Everyone was already set in their ways," Brock remembered. "I had just played in the college all-star game against Pittsburgh, the last one they held, and then I signed my contract and rode back from Logan with [director of player personnel] Bucko Kilroy. I'd met a bunch of guys at minicamp but really didn't know anybody. I was thinking this was a long way out in the middle of nowhere for an NFL training camp."
Turned out the distance from the airport to Bryant wasn't the only long trip Brock and his teammates would have a problem with. The team would head from the dorms to the gymnasium, where the training facilities and locker room area were situated. From there, it was a lengthy walk out to the practice fields, hundreds of yards down dirt paths leading to what amounted to little more than grassy openings.
"We walked everywhere," Brock said. "Nobody thought of golf carts back then. The walk from the locker room and the gymnasium out to the fields was endless. The Patriots did a great job of improving those fields from year to year, but at first it was more of a bulldozer situation. It looked like they just cleared an area and that's where we practiced. We were in the middle of the woods with trees all around so the breeze stopped and the humidity was pretty tough."
Troy Brown remembered the golf carts being like life preservers. Once you achieved veteran status and were allowed to ride, life became a lot easier. There was nothing like the sight of a cart full of offensive linemen, sometimes piled five-high, dragging some 1,500 pounds worth of humanity down those paths. Not surprisingly, the players started taking liberties with their transportation and soon they found themselves walking again.
"Being a rookie and I wasn't able to drive a golf cart, but the veterans were," Brown said with a laugh. "I just remember the guys taking the governors off those things to the point where [Bill] Parcells had to say enough is enough. There were a few guys riding bicycles after that. We had one of the longest walks from the dorms to the locker room set up in the gymnasium to the fields. We all used some different modes of transportation. At some point we were told no transportation and had to make the walk down that dirt path. That wasn't much fun."
Any port in a storm
Aside from the unpleasant memory of the long walk to practice, the other reminder of Bryant on everyone's mind was much happier: Parente's, a small restaurant located within walking distance of campus. This is where the players would unwind during their off days, and often where the true team camaraderie was forged.
Pitchers of beers and chicken wings would be consumed and laughs would ensue – even during times when that wasn't supposed to be the case. Anytime they had a chance, the players would congregate at the only place close enough to do so.
"It wouldn't be Bryant College without mentioning Parente's," Brown said. "It was a daily trip … especially when Parcells or Pete [Carroll] would give us the night off. Guys would just scream right after.
Scott Zolak, the former backup quarterback and current color analyst on 98.5 The Sports Hub, remembers trips to the establishment even without getting the time off.
"It was a really a great place," Zolak said. "It had great wings, bar food, pitchers of beer … and we had so many laughs there. I would eat lunch there a lot with by Dad, who never missed a practice throughout my career.
"We would be set up in suites and Drew had one on the corner and he had a golf cart. So he and I would open the windows and we would slide out and head to Parente's. They had it all."
Brock remembered the restaurant as well, known as O'Brien's at the time. Quarterback Steve Grogan's birthday is July 23, so it always fell during camp, offering a perfect opportunity to let loose a bit. "We'd always take him out," he said. "Things got pretty silly once in a while."
Silly only begins to describe some of the shenanigans that took place when NFL players were let loose on a college campus. Fights over spots in food and bathroom lines, finding suitable beds and ways to stay cool are just a few of the memorable elements that were brought up.
Rather than delving into every memory, we'll instead let the players explain some of the stories that stuck with them through the years.
*Tippett explained how their rookie initiations really consisted of just having the youngsters sing their college fight song, but still he remembered one incident where a player was reluctant to play along.
"This one rookie refused to sing because he was too cool. We used to do this between practices, and he wouldn't do it. He just happened to be on the offensive side of the ball, so the second session gets started and we lit him up, made his practice miserable. He thought he was in a scrimmage and we were treating it like it was a game. We were killing the offense and they couldn't get their work in. Finally Rod Rust, our defensive coordinator at the time, calls the entire defense together, even the guys on the sidelines, for a quick meeting. He says 'Enough is enough. I think the young man got the message.' Then we went back to practicing normal after that. Later we paid him a visit to make sure he was ready to sing.
*Brown, Zolak and Brock offered some rookie stories as well. The first involved Stephen Neal, a college wrestler with little-to-no football experience who developed into a starting guard.
"I remember Stephen Neal using some of his old wrestling techniques to seal his door shut so he couldn't get his hair cut," Brown said. "We had some pretty big guys trying to get in and they couldn't. Steve was a strong dude."
*Zolak's involved an eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer, running back Curtis Martin. "We cut everyone's hair. No one was exempt. Except we couldn't catch Curtis. He took off into the woods and no one could catch him. It took us like two-and-a-half weeks before they finally dragged him back in like he was a prisoner of war or something."
*Brock explained how one of his rookie teammates took his precautions a step further. "Steve McMichael, a defensive lineman who had a terrific career with the Chicago Bears, heard about all the hazing done to rookies. He decided to bring some backup in the form of rattlesnakes. He filled a gunny sack with rattlesnakes back home in Texas and decided to bring them to Bryant as protection. The only thing is, he put them in his trunk and when he arrived he realized he lost his backup when they didn't survive the heat."
Some other memorable moments included:
*Brown arriving at a team meeting, only to be greeted with an awful odor. "[Offensive coordinator] Ray Perkins was riding his bike from the dorms to the meeting rooms and got sprayed by a skunk. Nobody could figure out where the smell was coming from until the ball boy told us. It was bad."
*"If we had some time after practice after dinner sometimes we'd go down to the Lincoln Dog Track and that was always fun. The offensive linemen liked to hunt and fish and do outdoor stuff. The ponds held an unharvested amount of bullfrogs. We'd put these spears on bamboo poles and fill a gunny sack full of bullfrogs. Then we'd have the cook fry us up some frog legs for supper. We were down there with flashlights hunting." – Brock
*"My rookie year we had been in camp for 5-10 days before the veterans reported. We had a 9-on-7 drill with Sam Cunningham and Tony Collins in the backfield, John Hannah the pulling guard, Lin Dawson at tight end. Dawson blocks down and I shoot through the line of scrimmage. Hannah bounces past me and I'm thinking I'm going to blow TC up. My pad level is high and at the last minute Sam Bam runs me over like a tank truck. All I can hear is the fans on the sideline all going 'Ooooooohh!!!' Welcome to the NFL. Based off that first play, I learned to play with a low pad level." – Tippett
*Speaking of that long walk to practice, Zolak says there was one thing you always had to keep in mind. "You just had to make sure you timed it right so when you got dressed and made your way to practice you didn't have to walk out with Parcells. If you got stuck with him, he'd go into his carnival routine. We'd walk with the fans right there behind the ropes and Parcells would immediately turn it on. He would start with the jokes. 'Hey Zolak, is your girlfriend coming today? She make you any cookies?' Then me and Drew would be together and he'd start on the both of us. 'You two couldn't hit a bull's ass …' It was just non-stop. So, we'd always try to time it right."
*Some veterans talked about the day Russ Francis decided to jump in a helicopter and fly himself to Martha's Vineyard for lunch between practices. Brock didn't remember that flight but did recall one involving linebacker Jim Romaniszyn, a linebacker who was cut the day before. "Jim had his pilot's license and went to the airport near Smithfield and he decided his exit was getting into his airplane and buzzing the field as he tilted his wings as if to say good-bye. That was his exit."
*Tippett's last season happened to be Parcells' first, and the veteran was hoping for some leeway in his 12th year. "I recall through the years guys like Julius Adams, Hannah, Grogan, [Steve] Nellie [Nelson], [Stanley] Morgan being older veterans having the afternoon off. I would think, man I can't wait until I'm in my 11th or 12th year, so I could get the same treatment. Well, I remember asking Bill after a week or so of camp when would he be instituting the veteran afternoon off rule. He looked at me like I was crazy, 'Are you hurt? How come you can't practice in the afternoon?' So, I retell the story of past camps of coaches and this unwritten rule. We go back and forth for a while and he wasn't having it. Needless to say I never got any afternoons off."
Nowadays most NFL teams practice in their own facilities, away from college campuses that once dominated the league's summer landscape. As Belichick said, the amenities are just too advanced to be moved around or duplicated away from home, and the conveniences are just too numerous to overlook.
"I don't think there's anything I miss about going to a college campus," said Brown, who spent his final six seasons at camp in Foxborough. "It wasn't very convenient. First sleeping in a horrible bed. It was the middle of summer, no air conditioning, and we were walking all across campus so there was just nothing convenient about it. I liked being at Foxborough much better. There were a lot fewer distractions."
Still, not everybody felt the same way. "I loved Bryant College," Zolak said. "It was a perfect place to have camp."