The trip to the lanes during mini-camp has become an anticipated offseason event, as WR Ike Hilliard learned last year
A year ago, Mark Jones was in New York, preparing to head into his first training camp with the Giants. Like every team in the league, the Giants were finishing up an offseason training program and sending their players off for a little rest before training camp.
In most ways other than geography, Jones' second summer in the NFL was like his first, which he spent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After all, every team in the league is on the same basic schedule, with the same freedoms and restrictions, and Jones was once again ready to fight for a job.
But, here in late June in New York, there was one little tradition from his summer in Tampa that Jones wished he was still in on.
"I missed it last year," he said. "It was definitely in the back of my mind because we had nothing like this. Nothing at all. I missed it."
"This" was the Buccaneers now-traditional trip to the bowling alley during the team's June mini-camp. Every summer, at some point during the only full-team mandatory camp of the offseason, Head Coach Jon Gruden would pack the entire team into a fleet of buses and head off to Pin Chasers a few miles from team headquarters.
Gruden runs a fast-paced, maximum-effort camp, whether it's a three-day affair in June or the big one in Orlando in August. He demands a lot of his players on the field, but he also understands the need to blow off a little steam and build team unity in a setting away from football. Thus this annual trip to the lanes, and other similar outings during training camp. It was this type of side trip that Jones, who was a late-round draft pick by the Bucs in 2004, missed during his year up north.
Jones landed with the Giants as a rookie after the Bucs reluctantly waived him before the '04 season. Tampa Bay got him back off waivers last year and made him their primary punt-returner. He's looking to reprise that role in 2006, and he was thrilled to be back at the June bowling outing after a year elsewhere.
In fact, he was so pleased that he rolled the game of his life.
Six different Bucs bowled a game of at least 200 during the two-round affair on Wednesday, but Jones inclusion in that group was probably the most surprising. Even the way he hit the double-century mark was theatrical. After knocking down eight pins to start the 10th, Jones needed to pick up the spare and hit at least nine pins with his last ball to reach 200. He got the spare and then hit exactly nine with his last roll to hit 200 on the nose.
"It was dramatic," Jones admitted. "I bowled my best game today and I was happy and surprised at the same time. That was the first time I've ever bowled a 200. I've never even got close to it."
Jones didn't have the best score of the day; that belonged to kicker Matt Bryant, who shot a 211 in his second game. That too was dramatic, because linebacker Shelton Quarles rolled a 209 in his first game then followed with a 210 in game two. Jones, fullback Jerald Sowell (204), wide receiver Ben Nelson (201) and tight end Anthony Becht (201) were the other Bucs to break 200.
Before Bryant's late charge, Quarles was the obvious ringer, putting together two different streaks of at least four straight strikes. Amid a group of amateurs with questionable styles, Quarles succeeded with a heavy hook, throwing the ball nearly halfway down the lane where it would bite hard into the pocket. In each game, it was a split in the seventh frame that kept Quarles from really racking up a high score.
Quarles' group put up the two best team scores of the afternoon, a 667 in game one and a 662 in game two. The veteran linebacker was nominally aligned with tight end Dave Moore, wide receiver Ike Hilliard and defensive end Greg Spires, but Spires wasn't able to make it to the event. That left the other three to pick up Spires' rolls, and suffice it to say that Quarles took the majority of the extra turns.
Just to Quarles' left was a group made up of rookie guard Davin Joseph, second-year tight end Alex Smith and two veterans, wide receiver Joey Galloway and center John Wade. This was an interesting group, to put it mildly. Joseph, the 315-pound guard, had a straight-up walking style that produced a slow, gentle roll and mixed results. He did manage to pick up a three-pin split in the second frame of the first game. Wade was an average, straight-ahead bowler and Smith liked to throw the ball hard, if not necessarily accurately. Galloway would best be described as…entertaining.
"We had a lot of fun," said Galloway, who tried to use verbal gymnastics to conceal his bowling shortcomings. "Some of these guys are actually terrible bowlers. Some of us are pretty good. I'm in one of those categories. I'm not going to say which one."
We'll let the scores say that, Joey – 102 in the first game, 99 in the second. Of course, there were a few Bucs who were far worse. Safety Jermaine Phillips reportedly rolled a 51 in the second game, though there is evidence that his young son, Jordan (also known as 'Li'l Flip') took a few of those turns. New Buc receiver David Boston apparently bowled a 70 in game two, but he also threw a lively ball; his 24 m.p.h. chuck in the first game was the hardest one seen in an informal survey. Center Jason Nerys (71), tight end Tim Massaquoi (78) and tackle Sam Lightbody (75) also made it clear that bowling was not among their usual activities.
The scores, though, were basically irrelevant. Jones didn't remember what he bowled two years ago, just that he was there, sharing non-football time with his teammates. That's part of the beauty of this particular activity, the four-man teams that forge bonds between rookies and veterans, long-time Bucs and new signees.
Quarles, Hilliard and Moore were pretty well-acquainted already, but some of the foursomes were intriguing mixes of veterans and rookies or younger players. For instance, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland shared a lane with fellow defensive starter Phillips, punter Josh Bidwell and rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, unquestionably the team's leader, was teamed with Linebackers Coach Joe Barry and two rookies – wide receiver Maurice Stovall and cornerback Alan Zemaitis.
Brooks' team didn't do much – his 129 in the first game and 138 in the second were both team highs – but the camaraderie of the afternoon transcended the scores. Even Jones, on the best bowling day of his life, wasn't too tied up in the scoreboard. He had a good time interacting with third-year guard Jeb Terry, rookie linebacker Anthony Trucks and Director of Pro Personnel Mark Dominik, an eclectic group if there has ever been one.
"This is a great way for everyone to get to know each other," said Jones. "The young guys get to meet the older guys, to find out who's who and what they're all about. You never know who you're going to be on a team with, but that's the idea. We just come out here and have a good time."