Camp’s departure leaves void for fans

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ALBANY, N.Y. -- Unfortunately for local fans of the New York Giants, an annual trek probably made countless times in the past decade and a half will not happen in 2011.

The Giants, who have hosted their pre-season training camp at the State University at Albany since 1996, won’t be in New York’s capital city this summer because of the ongoing labor dispute and lockout in the National Football League.

Giants co-owner and CEO John Mara let the university and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings know on Friday that the NFC East franchise wouldn’t be traveling the three hours north. Mara said there isn’t enough time to move all the team’s equipment from New Jersey to Albany. If and when the lockout ends, the Giants will train in the practice facility in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Giants aren’t the only New York team to change their summer plans. The Jets, set to have their camp at SUNY-Cortland, decided two weeks ago to cancel and move their camp back to Long Island.

The 15-year marriage between the University at Albany and the Giants is the longest pre-season run in the history of the franchise. Mara said the team intends to return, but it’s a shame that infighting between the rich (the players) and the really rich (the owners) is getting in the way of the people who help pay those salaries: the fans.

Thousands of people have been to the camp over the past 15 years, not only to see the Giants in action, but also to get the autographs of their favorite players. After every practice, players walk from the practice field up to the locker rooms with fans on both sides of a small fence, trying to get their hats, shirts or footballs signed by everyone from quarterback Eli Manning to the new free agent rookie just signed to the squad.

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I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan for one reason: When I was growing up, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin were winning championships and I’ve never changed my allegiance.

My 12-year-old self would have given anything to be able to see them in their element, getting ready for the grind of a new season, and try to get autographs of the players I liked.

It’s something that Giants fans in Bennington and throughout the area have been able to be a part of since the days of Tyrone Wheatley and Ron Dayne running the ball, Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer catching touchdowns, and passes from the arm of Kerry Collins.

I also have personal connections to the camp, even though they aren’t my favorite team. My brother, a huge Giants fan, visited the camp while still living at home, and later when he would come home from college at C.W. Post on Long Island. He lives on Long Island now, and usually makes a point to take vacation days to hang out with his friends (also big Giants fans) at the camp. That’s gone, at least for this year.

My parents, who aren’t really sports fans at all, met Hilliard one day after a practice. They were standing in the line to get autographs with my brother, and while the wide receiver was signing my father’s hat, they struck up a conversation, one that eventually lasted 15 minutes. From then on, Ike was their guy, even after he moved on from the Giants.

It’s moments like these, countless memories from the 15 years the Giants have held training camp in Albany, that will be sorely missed at the end of July and the beginning of August. Hopefully, the league can end the lockout sooner rather than later, so there can be a season this fall and have Big Blue back in the Capital Region next summer.


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