Thousands of fans gathered in Ashburn, Va., last week for the opening of Washington Redskins training camp, separated from their oversize heroes by a long barricade. But when the players left the field and returned to the locker room, fans suddenly had unprecedented access to the players' thoughts and whims through their laptops and mobile devices.
For the first time, fans aren't dependent on media reports for training camp updates. Players themselves are divulging certain details, from the humorous to the inconsequential, using Twitter feeds.
"Had a six inch Sub for lunch and now I'm headed back to practice number 2. Ugh," tight end Chris Cooley told his 12,000-plus followers on the opening day of camp.
Rookie Keith Eloi, trying to make the team as a wide receiver, offered: "Man breaking in new cleats on the first day of practice might be the worst thing to go thru besides a knee injury!!!!"
While athletes have used blogs the past couple of years, they say Twitter is quicker, more accessible and less likely to be filtered through agents, publicists or team officials before publication. From the perspective of both fan and athlete, that's a good thing. But the National Football League is an image-obsessed league, routinely beset by athletes' off-the-field antics. Twitter has already grown into a social media tool over which the league has little to no control.
In all, 10 Redskins players use active Twitter accounts to keep in touch with friends and fans through 140-character bursts. It's part of a revolution that has touched other sports, but one that didn't boom in the NFL until after last season's Super Bowl. Since then, dozens of players throughout the league have opened Twitter accounts, giving fans an intriguing look at the offseason -- previously a period in which most players essentially disappeared from public view.
It has league officials and social media experts predicting the upcoming season will be unlike any before.
"I think Twitter has a huge opportunity for football players in particular to break out of the helmet and become a person over and above some number out on the field," said Kathleen Hessert, a media strategist who has encouraged athletes such as Shaquille O'Neal and Danica Patrick to Twitter. "Twitter is clearly becoming not only the technology du jour, and frankly, seeing as much success as athletes have had with it touching fans and creating new fans, I think anybody who doesn't look at it in the NFL is really just closing their eyes to reality."
Twitter has ruffled some feathers in recent weeks. While players test their boundaries and wrestle for their independence, league and teams have kept a careful eye on Twitter feeds, trying to maintain a semblance of order.
On Friday, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman punched into his Blackberry: "Coach said we cant tweet in the blding so i called my lawyer and found a lupo (loophole) in that contract...tweeting outside yeaaaaa."
It's an extension of an anticipated showdown between Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (formerly Chad Johnson) and the league. Last month, Ochocinco floated the idea that he would Twitter from the sidelines during regular season games.
The league sent out word almost immediately that it has a pre-existing rule barring the use of mobile devices from the bench area. Ochocinco, who has nearly 79,000 followers, immediately responded on his Twitter page: "Damn NFL and these rules, I am going by my own set of rules, I ain't hurting nobody or getting in trouble, I am putting my foot down!!"
"The NFL in many respects drives the sports industry in this country, and we're now about to go through our first season with Twitter as a viable media distribution outlet," said David Katz, a former executive at Yahoo who founded sportsfanlive.com and its offshoot site athletetweets.com, which aggregates Twitter feeds of athletes from all sports.
"It'll be interesting to see how the NFL reacts and adapts, what rules they create, and how the players will embrace it all, both in the preseason and during the regular season," he said
Redskins players say they tweet for a variety of reasons. In the past few months, almost all have picked up their frequency and found new purpose.
In the four weeks leading up to training camp, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, Twittering as (at)Dhall23, turned his 7,600-follower feed into a community forum each Monday, inviting fans to send him questions. Hall had previously used his page for simple life updates, but he saw potential for something bigger.
"It was getting boring and monotonous -- 'I'm coming off the practice field,' or 'I'm going to eat here.' It's played out," Hall said. "But to really go in there, answer questions live, I think the fans get more out of it, and I think I do, too."
Though some players, such as wide receivers Terrell Owens and Ochocinco, saw their existing popularity translate into thousands of followers, many NFL players see Twitter as a chance to introduce themselves to fans.
For years, the NFL has been a league content with its players buried under a helmet and bulky padding. Twitter humanizes the players in a way that allows them to author their own abbreviated narrative.
"It's all about the helmet, but when Twitter comes out, you get the real person," said Eloi, the rookie wide receiver.
Eloi was an undrafted free agent out of Division II Nebraska-Omaha and may be unfamiliar to many fans. But he's carved a small niche for himself on the Internet. With the help of buddies, his athletic feats have been the subject of YouTube videos. One that created a minor offseason sensation depicted Eloi showing off his 44-inch vertical leap, as the 5-foot-10-inch wide receiver stood in place and jumped into the bed of a pickup.
"It's very hard to get your name out there if you don't have people marketing you and doing advertising for you and doing this and doing that," said Eloi, who has almost 300 followers. "So thank goodness the Internet helped me out."
Experts say it's the intended byproduct of social media, drawing people together who otherwise might never connect.
"I don't think in my lifetime we've had a platform that allowed direct access and communication like this," said Reggie Bradford, CEO of Vitrue, an Atlanta-based marketing company that tracks social media.
For the most part, Bradford explained, few athletes and celebrities are currently using Twitter as a revenue stream. In these infant stages, it's more of a tool for branding and connecting with an audience.
"But there will be endorsement opportunities that come," he said. "If Shaq sends a couple of messages out per day, you're looking at a couple of billion impressions a year. That real estate would be valuable to somebody like Gatorade."
Most players say they aren't thinking about Twittering for dollars. Rookie Jeremy Jarmon, a Redskins defensive end, didn't even sign up to grow his fan base. For him, it was a simple way to stay in touch with friends.
"I use it, instead of sitting around, chatting with my buddies, chatting with my teammates and sending out separate text messages," he said.
As he embarks on his professional career, it's blossomed into something much bigger. Last week, Jarmon broke the news of his new contract with the Redskins before the mainstream media, before any agent leaked word and before the team's official news release. Jarmon's simple tweet: "Just signed with the Redskins! Let's get going!!!"
The next day he met with media members at Redskins Park and was asked about his Twitter use. Jarmon answered politely and had been out of the media room for just a couple of minutes before he tweeted from his phone: "Interesting questioned posed...why do I use Twitter?"
Social media observers predict that as players spend time with each other in the locker room, chatting about offseason and showing off their latest cell phones, Twitter use could spread quickly throughout the NFL. Already, it's become a valuable tool for many in league circles, from agents, such as Leigh Steinberg and Drew Rosenhaus to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who Twitters as (at)nflcommish, albeit infrequently.
But nothing is quite like the perspective of the player. Already, Twitter has changed the way the story of NFL training camp is told. Perhaps better than anyone, players can encapsulate a 34-practice camp into 140 quick characters.
"If u want to know what training camp is like," Redskins wide receiver Trent Shelton Twittered last week, "go run around all day then lock urself in a room then do it everyday lol."