I remember my first NFL training camp. My dad took me to Lehigh University to see Andy Reid and the Eagles sweat out tacos and fast food on an athletic complex far too big for an NCAA Patriot League organization. It was so magical that I set my heart on attending Lehigh University when I graduated high school. I wasn’t accepted, but whatever.
#HardKnocks is a well-produced, entertaining chronicle of the Los Angeles Rams’ training camp. The Rams are in a pivotal year: they are moving back to Los Angeles after 22 years in St. Louis (The Rams were located in Los Angeles between 1946 and 1994), and they just scooped up a #1 draft pick in quarterback Jared Goff. These changes warrant media attention regardless, so why not make a TV show about a team moving back to Hollywood? Everybody loves a comeback.
I don’t know why HBO calls it Hard Knocks, as Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher seems like a decent guy who runs a tight ship, but nothing crazy. He sets some basic ground rules for his players like “show up on time” and “no guests in the dormitory.” Right away, though, receiver Deon Long violates this policy by bringing a girl into his training camp dorm room. Jeff Fisher calls Long into his office, and cuts him in front of the cameras. Ruthless. This is where the series gets weird to me. I’m sitting there like… I just watched an athlete lose his job. He was hurt. He shook Fisher’s hand and took it like a man, but the audience is offered no choice but to take Fisher’s side.
The other weird component of the show is screen time given to assistant coaches. Head coaches know how to act when they’re being recorded. Assistant coaches don’t all possess that talent. It seems like the assistant coaches are either toning down their uncivilized football rhetoric for the camera, or beefing up otherwise boring speeches with uncomfortable F-bombs.
The assistant coaches have their moments, though. One coach discovers that Jared Goff, the 2016 NFL #1 overall draft pick out of Cal Berkeley, doesn’t know where the sun rises and sets. From then on, it’s a source of entertainment as they find out several other Rams also have no frame of reference for this daily occurrence. Wide receiver Pharoah Cooper guesses, “The air?” When Goff clarifies that he means which direction the sun rises (north, south, east, west), Cooper confidently says “west.” Athletes will understand, these are the beautiful moments when inside jokes are born during downtime with a team.
The best character other than head coach Jeff Fisher is Center Eric Kush (cool name). He runs through his tank top collection for the camera, as well as his sock bank. He bought enough black Nike mid-calfs to last him through training camp without washing any. Genius. Episode 2 also features an appearance from Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, who confirm that all rappers think they can play football and all football players think they can rap.
The biggest downfall of Hard Knocks is that the program runs for an hour, and HBO means no commercials. It gets slow at times. At one point, you’re literally watching Aaron Donald play ping pong with UCLA students. But the series as a whole is an extraordinary exploration of football training camp, set on the campus of UCLA Irvine, home of the Anteaters. Check it out Tuesday nights on HBO.