An NFL training camp is a funhouse mirror in which the most important things that happen are the least known, and the most insignificant of occurrences – a missed block or a brief shoving match on a sweltering afternoon, perhaps – are the most thoroughly dissected.
At the moment, as the Eagles open the exhibition season on Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field, neither Carson Wentz nor Nick Foles will be available for the game.
Wentz, recovering from ACL surgery, was never expected to play before the start of the regular season, but he has been bubble-wrapped during nearly the entire camp. Maybe it’s all just precautionary. Foles, the MVP of the Super Bowl, has missed almost a week of practice with spasms in his neck. He says it’s nothing. Maybe so.
Nothing that happens Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers with the players who take part matters as much to the team as what is going on with those two guys who won’t. Nevertheless, the reflections that take place in the funhouse mirror, the jockeying for seats on the merry-go-round by the players at the bottom of the depth chart, will be scrutinized for clues, most of which will be rendered meaningless in the next month.
It is true, however, in the inside-out world of training camp that the least important football games of the year are actually the most important games in the entire lives of more than two dozen players. For some of them, the exhibition games are also the last games of lives that have been focused on nothing else since they were children.
Toward the back of the locker room at the NovaCare Complex, occupying one of the temporary lockers in the middle of the room, offensive lineman Aaron Evans is not planning to be one of those guys. He plans to be one of those training camp stories that emerge every year, the unheralded and undrafted free agent who impresses the coaching staff and whose play demands that he be kept around.
“I have big aspirations and goals, and I’ve worked too long to stop. I’ve been playing since I was 7 years old and told my whole life that I will be great,” Evan said after practice this week. “I have to make a statement. I have to prove that I can mentally handle it and be a productive player. They’ve taught me everything, and it’s up to me to capitalize on the knowledge that’s given me.”
The sheer arithmetic that is lined up to stop him is daunting. There are 16 offensive linemen in camp, and the team will keep eight to 10 on the 53-man roster, and perhaps one or two on the 10-man practice squad. Of those linemen in camp, nine were on the roster at some point last season. Two others were acquired in the April draft. All of them are ahead of Evans, who is also being asked to transition from tackle to guard because his size – he’s 6-foot-6, 319 pounds, but his wingspan isn’t as wide as NFL coaches prefer for a tackle – is working against him.
“It’s one of those tangible measurements they use to judge players, which I don’t think are always accurate, but I’m going to do what they want me to do,” Evans said. “I think I can play tackle at this level, but I need to wet my feet at guard and prove myself and make the team. I’ve got to do all that first, prove my merit, my grit, my worth.”
This is a painful process, but Evans, who has given himself a couple of tattoos with a sewing needle, isn’t afraid of pain. He played his final two seasons at Central Florida with a herniated disk in his back before finally collapsing at the end of last season and undergoing surgery.
“I had six epidurals last year. I could barely walk,” Evans said. “Tylenol and epidurals. I was in excruciating pain. I had to have treatment for two hours every day just so I could walk. I could barely sleep at night. I had to stick it out. There was too much at stake to just walk away because of some pain I knew I could eventually overcome. It’s in your head what you can or can’t do. This game is all mental.”
The January surgery alleviated the pain, but Evans’ draft status, previously projected in the sixth or seventh round, fell because of it. He was flown in for visits by 30 NFL teams, but he didn’t hear his name called until the Eagles contacted him after the draft.
“I thought this was the perfect program for me because of the culture they’ve set up here,” Evans said. “It’s a whole brotherhood they’ve created, and it’s refreshing.”
Thursday, he will get his first chance to be one of those surprising success stories when he plays again in a stadium that was one of his college favorites during two trips here with UCF to meet Temple. His last memory, nine months ago, is a good one, a 45-19 win. He’s hoping the next memory he makes will stack up to that.
In the funhouse mirror, it probably doesn’t mean that much to the Eagles in the long run. But it is everything for Aaron Evans and the others whose most important games ever are the ones that seem to matter the least.
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