Hunter Hillenmeyer wore a Bears uniform for eight seasons, so there's no question he knew his way around training camp. He's now the co-founder of OverDog, a company that lets fans play video games with athletes.
RedEye asked the former linebacker what he needed to survive at camp, which begins for the Bears on Wednesday in Bourbonnais.
Oh yeah, he also dishes on some of the best pranks. Watch out, rookies!
What items are on a veteran's packing list that a rookie would not know to bring?
[Laughs.] You know what? I think it usually goes in the other direction. Vets tend to go minimalist. They just bring the basics and don't bring any of the fluff. The weirdest things that I brought that I don't think a rookie would know is 2-foot-wide, heavy duty aluminum foil that you would use to black your windows out. Because your nap time in between practices is almost the best sleep you get. Because when you're sleeping at night, you're so paranoid you're going to sleep through your 5 a.m. wakeup that I would wake up every hour on the hour. Throw in the fact that you're drinking so much Gatorade and staying hydrated that you have to walk down the hall and go to the bathroom every 25 minutes, and having blacked out windows for great naps is absolutely at the top of your list of important things for training camp.
There are a couple other goofy nuances of training camp. I would always bring a new season of some show. Like now, I would probably be taking two seasons worth of "Game of Thrones" to catch up. I always had some show I was catching up on in training camp. I would get home after our last meeting – which usually ended around 9 or 10 o'clock – and power through two or three episodes of that and then go to bed.
What were you watching during your last year with the Bears?
I think my last two seasons, one of them I spent on "The Sopranos" and the other one I spent on "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia."
So if the veterans know how to pare down the list, what are the items that rookies bring that you learn not to bring?
A college training camp is like two weeks, and an NFL training camp is like a month and change, and you have [preseason] games during it. So it's just a different mentality. You do have to get a little more settled in to an NFL training camp just because they're so long. But at the same time they have everything down there relative to the isolation of a college training camp. You have a moment to run to Walgreens and get something that you need in the NFL. So whether it's a fan, or the TV shows, or you want to run out and get a sandwich at lunch, you actually have a little more freedom in NFL training camp than you do in college.
Were there any rookies during your time who really got it quickly? Who were the first guys to pick up on the tin foil attitude?
You know what? When you're a rookie in training camp, the best thing you can do is find a vet and mirror everything they do. This is going to be difficult to describe, but our AC in the dorm rooms were window units, and maybe it's because they're not used to having college students there in the summer, those window units you have to turn up to full blast to keep your room cold.
But the problem is that there's four floors in these dorms. The offensive line and defensive line are on the first floor, and then all the other vets are on the second floor, all the young, first contract guys are on the third floor, and all the rookies are on the top floor. If you have anybody above you, those AC units put off a ton of condensation. And the result is that they drip on the unit the floor below them. So you're trying to sleep or you're trying to take a nap, and you've got this rhythmic, tin roof sound coming from right outside your window when you're trying to sleep. That always drove me up a wall.
And so it was around my third training camp where I learned that if you would go to the room above you, hang your head out the window, and drop a few towels on top of your air conditioning unit, that you could get rid of the drip noise from keeping you up during nap and nighttime. And I always thought that was my ultimate vet move, to find a way to get rid of the drip noise from the AC unit above mine. That's something that I don't think any rookie would be able to figure out in their first year. [Laughs.]
Are you worried at all though while you're taking these afternoon naps about getting pranked?
[Laughs.] You obviously talked to Peanut [Charles Tillman].
Yes. So Peanut has this thing — and this isn't even exclusively training camp — but Peanut gets more of a kick scaring people than any person I've ever met at any stage in my life. So if you ever leave your dorm room unlocked, there's a pretty good chance that Peanut has realized that, snuck into your room, and is hiding in your closet waiting for you to lay down, feel like you're comfortable enough and start to close your eyes to take a nap, and he's then going to jump out of your closet and scare you within an inch of your life. The dude never gets tired of it. He will stalk your room and wait for you to go brush your teeth and come hide in your closet and just camp out for like 20 minutes if you decide to go grab a Gatorade or talk to your buddy down the hall. I've never seen somebody willing to put in such recon and diligence to pull off the perfect prank. And Peanut was three doors down from me, so I was a very common victim of his adolescence.
But you didn't start locking your door though?
I locked my door, but nobody locks their door when you walk down the hall to brush your teeth and get a glass of water. And that was when he would swoop in for the kill.
Are there any good stories of anybody getting him back?
Yeah, you know, he was also the biggest target because he got so many people. The other thing that always seemed to evolve in training camp was, for whatever reason, the linebackers and the defensive line always have a little bit of a rivalry. We take the same elevator up to team meetings, we have dorm rooms that are near each other. And there tended to be this battle where we would each prey on the younger guys in the other one's room. And it escalated. It was like this tit for tat, you know, what would have been the worst possible outcome of the Cold War, where everyone retaliates with a little bit more aggression.
So what started out as, like, they would pull a rookie onto the elevator and unclip his name tag and throw it out on the wrong floor, which was a relatively minor offense because the guy could just go upstairs and get it. By the end of training camp, we would pull, or one of our guys would get pulled, onto the elevator with a bunch of people from the opposite position group, and by the time the elevator doors opened two floors up, he would have popcorn in his hair, three or four Gatorades dumped on his head, his underwear was torn because he had a wedgie, and his playbook was torn into like 500 pieces and thrown all over the elevator.
No! You even ripped up the playbook?
[Laughs.] Oh yeah. It was everything. And these poor guys would basically get beat up, and then tossed back to the rest of their position group. This process evolved over three or four training camps in a row. We'd start out with a truce, and then somebody would break it, and then it would gradually escalate to where we were on the edge of nuclear holocaust by the time training camp ended because everybody was so on edge.
Tommie Harris one year put — I'm trying to think of what the most common brand names are, for just like a normal, Flexall warm-you-up sort of thing. We have this Tabasco sauce version of Flexall that's called Tiger Balm. And you need about a thumbnail worth of this to get an entire hamstring warmed up and feeling like you just ran a marathon that it's so hot and ready to go. Guys use a lot of that in training camp because they need to keep their body warmed up and not pull any muscles. So it escalated to the point where I showed up to practice one day, and unbeknownst to me until we were about 10 minutes into stretch, Tommie Harris had coated my jock strap in Tiger Balm. I literally cannot begin to describe how painful that was, but there was full retaliation, and for the rest of training camp after Tommie did that to me, everybody, the first thing they would do when they got to their locker before practice was smell everything to make sure they hadn't been victimized.
Overall, do you have any favorite training camp story about the fun?
Despite having just told all of those stories, I always thought that training camp was worse in anticipation than it actually was going through it. Other than the physical toll on your body, there's something very simple and poignant — you have this singularity of purpose with 80 or 90 other guys, and you spend every hour of every day all working toward the same goal. You're taking great care of your body. Other than a few guys who go out and get a few beers every now and then, nobody's really out that much. There was just this mindset of "It's time to get back to work." Most guys are ready to work by the time training camp comes around.
So I know this article is kind of a funny take on things, but one of my favorite parts of training camp is when you're like three weeks in, you've probably had no more than a beer at the most over those three weeks, and you get a night off, and you go with your whole position group – there's this Mexican spot down there called La Siesta. And we would all go to La Siesta and everybody would get a margarita or something. And when you haven't had a sip of alcohol and you've been sweating and working out like we have for three weeks, it doesn't take more than maybe one margarita before you're already feeling like, "woooooo!"
I always just loved that first break in training camp where you and your buddies have been working your asses off, and you get this first glimpse of life returning to normal, and you feel good about how hard you've been working. In the end, I think a lot of guys share that mindset, that training camp, when you're done, you feel really good about what you just did and what you just put yourself through.
Last thing: Is there anything about training camp that you miss?
Probably that part that I just described. I have a ritual now where I have to do something fun instead of being at training camp the first day. So I'm playing golf on Thursday when they're having their first training camp practice. And this is my favorite time of year to be a former Bear, but when you're rolling out of training camp and driving back to your house, especially if you're a guy who knows you made the team, and you're very comfortable with your roster spot and you can kind of turn your attention from training camp to the regular season, that is just a fantastic feeling. And I know that a lot of guys can relate to that.
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @readjack.
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