Photos by: Chris Burau
It is as unlikely a pairing as there ever could be, one of the richest and most popular franchises in the history of sports, the Dallas Cowboys, often referred to as “America’s Team,” and Oxnard, the overlooked Southern California city best known for the hardcore punk rock scene it spawned and, more recently, for being a hotbed for the world of professional boxing.
Yet, despite their completely different social and financial backgrounds, the Dallas Cowboys have once again chosen Oxnard to be the home base for their annual summer training camp. The VCReporter braved the massive players, frenzied crowds and the occasional hater to bring back this firsthand, no-holds-barred report.
For a serious Dallas Cowboys fan, the team’s summer training camp in Oxnard is heaven. Upon arriving at the grounds, it actually feels as if one has been transported to Texas. From the muddy parking lot to the mulch-covered grounds, it looks and feels like the Lone Star state despite being a stone’s throw away from the Pacific Ocean. In addition, PA speakers blast country music hits like the appropriately titled “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” providing a Texas-centric soundtrack for the festivities.
Before entering the practice fields, there’s a makeshift county fair-style area dedicated solely to the Cowboys. Bookending the exits are two massive tractor-trailers that double as Cowboys merchandise stores, hawking everything from cooking grills to limited edition neon shirts reading, “Cowboys in Oxnard.” A stage, provided by the city of Oxnard, has an MC type holding raffles and dancing contests to win all sorts of Cowboys-related prizes, including coveted field passes, and there are food vendors selling items like grease-dripping, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, which one assumes are not on the team’s nutritionist’s approved meal list.
A must-see for all who visit the Cowboys training camp is the museum on wheels that houses the team’s five Lombardi Trophies, which are are protected by a glass case that seems thick enough to survive a small nuclear explosion. The museum also has life-size replicas, down to the facial hair, of past Cowboys legends like Emmitt Smith. The replicas look so good, for a second you almost wonder if they froze and cased up poor old Emmitt once his playing days were done, making good on the “once a Cowboy, always a Cowboy” mantra.
There’s also the obligatory tribute area for the famed Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, who are hailed as being a cut above all other cheerleading squads on planet Earth for their ability to, well, cheer very well, or so the plaques and signs would have one believe.
Moving onto the actual practice area, two full-scale fields sit directly next to each other, and fans fill tent-covered bleachers and press against fences to catch all the action or, often, the lack thereof. Many are so in awe of having such close access to the players that they forget they are watching a practice, cheering wildly every time someone catches a pass, even during a casual warm up session between two nameless players on the sidelines.
Mainly, though, the fans scream, beg and plead for autographs after practices end. Many players, including the team’s biggest stars like Dez Bryant, Tony Romo and Jason Witten, to their credit, oblige and spend a respectable amount of time signing helmets, hats, jerseys and more with a focus on the many kids in attendance.
One of the Cowboys most popular players,
wide receiver Dez Bryant, signs autographs for fans.
One thing you can’t help but notice, however, is how big the players are, physically. The linemen, in particular, look like actual giants next to the many trainers, water boys and coaching staff, all of whom clearly take their jobs and their team very seriously.
In monogramed Cowboys T-shirts, polos, jackets, shorts, socks, hats and, most likely, underwear, those that work for the organization and even more so, controversial and hands-on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, or “Mr. Jones,” as he is referred to at least 50 times in the course of a one-minute conversation with any staff, are overtly proud to be part of the Cowboys family.
One also notices Texas accents littering the air, from Cowboys staff and their families or from the many members of the Dallas media who troll the sidelines looking for some angle or breaking news story to send back to their listeners, viewers and readers back home in Texas. One can imagine the better part of the entire city of Dallas fuming mad that the beloved “Boys” are two-timing with a So Cal city they’ve never heard of.
On the field, there’s a relaxed vibe from the veterans and stars with multimillion-dollar contracts and guaranteed spots on the roster; but for the rookies and fringe players looking to impress and make the final cut, the demeanor is decidedly different. For the fans, it’s a few hours to be up close to their heroes, but for some of the men on the field, what happens at these practices could change the course of their existence, especially from a financial standpoint. Fame and fortune, failure and obscurity hang on every tackle and catch.
Players, however, are somewhat of a moot point, even though training camp is technically about getting them in shape and ready for the upcoming season where the Cowboys are under massive pressure to go to the playoffs after last year’s disappointing showing. What really makes the event interesting is the lifeblood of professional football, the fans.
THE HOME TEAM
It’s well known that California’s Central Coast doesn’t have a professional sports team, let alone an NFL franchise. More depressing to area football fanatics is that Los Angeles, once the home of two NFL teams, the Raiders and the Rams, currently has no team at all. With Ventura County sports fans having usually rooted for L.A, teams by default, with the Cowboys’ long history of holding training camps in the area, having spent almost 30 years in Thousand Oaks before hopping back and forth between Texas and Oxnard over the past decade, Ventura County’s football team of choice is now, hands down, the Dallas Cowboys.
The turnout for the open-to-the-public training camp, which is completely free, varies wildly due depending on the day of the week. A “light” crowd on a weekday could see fewer than 2,000 people. On a weekend, especially on a scrimmage day, however, there could be substantially more than 10,000 people, including whole families with babies and toddlers decked out in Cowboys gear. This all has to put a smile on the face of Cowboys brass, since children are literally forced, from leaving the womb, to like the Cowboys, thus creating another generation of merchandise- and ticket-buying fans, proving that sports fandom in general is more cultlike than anyone wants to admit.
With the parking lot full of out-of-state plates, it’s also clear that it’s not just Ventura County in the house. Team officials estimate that all 50 states will be represented during the course of the training camp, not to mention several countries. The Dallas Cowboys transcend Dallas and have a worldwide fan base, being the richest sports team in the world, second only to English soccer franchise Manchester United, and that international fandom is another reason the camp is so popular in Oxnard. Hardcore Cowboy fans can do a few days at training camp then take the rest of the family down to places like Hollywood and Disneyland for the ultimate Southern California summer vacation.
As one mother of two, packing her kids into an SUV with New Mexico plates, said hurriedly, “I drop my husband off at the camp, then I spend the afternoon at the beach with the kids. When the Cowboys have an off day, we all go to Disneyland. Beats the heck out of when the Cowboys train in San Antonio. There, you only got the Alamo, and hot weather. We love coming out here. It’s turning into a summer tradition for my family. I sure hope the Cowboys stay (in Oxnard).”
Fans welcome the Cowboys on opening day with a familiar sign.
It’s a true coup for Oxnard, a city of 200,000 with a somewhat varied reputation, to land the NFL’s wealthiest franchise, helping turn the city into a money-generating playground for not just a few days, but almost a full month. The massive boom in the local economy, with hotels and restaurants bursting at the seams, makes Oxnard something it’s never been in its history, a tourist destination.
That’s why it’s no surprise that Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn welcomed the Cowboys’ billionaire owner, 70-year-old Jerry Jones, at a ceremony on the opening day of training camp. The mayor, who accepted a game ball and custom jersey from Jones, had a smile on his face so big it looked as though surgery might be required to remove it.
When talking to actual fans about what it means to have the Cowboys come to Oxnard, they seem to care little about the positive ramifications for the city. Many launch into superfan mode, screaming about the Cowboys’ superiority, as the bizarre magic of being in the stands at an NFL game, where it’s OK to act more or less like an idiot, applies to training camp as well.
Taking a break from the action on the field and in an oversize foam Cowboys hat, Benny Meza, a 27-year-old from Baldwin Park, seems almost hypnotized, staring at his reflection on the Super Bowl trophies. These are so revered, many become quiet when passing by them in the museum, reflecting on the overall training camp experience.
“It’s surreal,” Meza said. “Seeing the trophies in person. Seeing all the players in person. It’s so different than watching on TV. It connects you more. To see all these fans. To know they’re all from California. Makes you feel like you’re family with all these people. You love the same thing. I’ve rooted for them my whole life. Ever since I was a little boy and saw that star, I just knew who my team was.”
Though Meza sums it up more poetically than most in attendance, there is a very small underground element that doesn’t quite share the same sentiment. Yes, there are those at the training camp who do the unthinkable; they hate, with an unbridled passion, the Dallas Cowboys.
THE VISITING TEAM
The boos start slowly at one end of the tent but they pick up steam quickly and seem to travel down the sidelines like a wave. It’s shocking and almost a little scary. Even security perks up to see what the commotion is about. Then it becomes plain to see, a man in a New York Giants hat is walking past the bleachers and he’s not incognito about it either. He is holding his hat high, proudly showing allegiance to one of the Cowboys’ archenemies.
A couple of heavily tattooed types appear caught up in the moment. It’s not discussed, or maybe even known by out-of-town fans, but true locals are aware that a certain Oxnard neighborhood gang wears Cowboys apparel, which has led to several area sports bars and restaurants refusing to air Cowboys games altogether. Forgetting the family surroundings, some hurl obscenities, as well as some, possibly playful, threats of violence at the Giants fan.
Catching up with him moments later, covered in sweat, seemingly on an adrenaline high after his grand march of defiance, he explains his actions.
“I am a Giants fan all day, every day. I’ve come here to see Tony Romo throw interceptions,” loudly proclaims Los Angeles resident Paul Hollingsworth, whose blasphemy shocks all who walk past.
“If I can’t root for my Giants in person, I’ll do the next best thing and boo the Cowboys in person.”
Even though he despises the Cowboys, he does admit that the event being in Oxnard is pretty darn cool.
“Come on man? An NFL training camp around here? I’m having an excellent time. I love all these miserable fans. I can’t be mad about the boos. I’d be booing, too, if I was a Cowboys fan.”
Hardcore Cowboys fans, Daniel Reyes and Benny Meza,
pose with the team’s Lombardi trophies.
While Hollingsworth may be having fun with it, deserving of a segment on New York City sports talk radio, other haters take things much more seriously.
Late afternoon on a weekday, while the Cowboys practice, a man sits alone by a Porta Potty far away from the field, with a disgusted look on his face. He has on a worn-out Philadelphia Eagles hat and he’s scrolling through his cell phone. The Eagles are bitter divisional rivals to the Cowboys; and Philadelphia fans are widely considered, and proud to be, some of the most disgruntled fans in all of sports. His comments do nothing to alter the city’s dubious reputation.
While he won’t give his name, the current Ventura County resident who grew up in Pennsylvania explains that he was dragged to the event by a friend who wanted to take some pictures.
“I guess this is what it would feel like to cheat on your wife,” the man says dejectedly. “Actually, this probably feels worse.”
It’s clear that he’s not kidding, especially when he likens the training camp to the infamous Nuremburg rally, even if it’s in the context of a fictional action movie.
“Remember that Indiana Jones movie where Indy dresses up like a Nazi and wanders into that rally where he bumps into Hitler and he wants to do something but he can’t ’cause he’ll get killed? That’s how it feels. If my friends back home even knew I was here, they wouldn’t even speak to me again. I’m seriously sick to my stomach.”
He then wanders off, presumably to find some antacids, which are probably available at the merch truck, but in Cowboys packaging, of course, which will probably add to the suffering Eagles fan’s afternoon jaunt into his personal sports hell.
THE FINAL SCORE
Maybe that’s why the odd pairing works after all. Those who claim Oxnard, love it unconditionally, while others look at the city as the black sheep of Ventura County. Same goes for the Cowboys. Their most ardent supporters live and breathe the team as if it were religion, but detractors will go so far as to actually spend money and travel long distances to hate them in person. Both the team and the city have been misunderstood over the years, have had questionable and controversial management, and they currently both have a lot to prove.
It’s true, the Cowboys are the pride and joy of and technically belong to the city of Dallas but at the end of the day, like a good mistress, Oxnard very well may understand and appreciate them more than their longtime squeeze.
So here’s to many more years of summer flings between America’s Team and the ’Nard, the little city that wooed the big franchise.
The Dallas Cowboys training camp takes place at River Ridge Playing Fields, 2101 W. Vineyard Ave., Oxnard, and runs until Friday, Aug. 16. For more information and to see the remaining open-to-the-public practice schedule, go to www.visitoxnard.com/cowboys or www.dallascowboys.com/team/training-camp.html