OXNARD, Calif. — The midway is buzzing. Dallas Cowboys fans jam the area to buy jerseys, T-shirts, hats and replica helmets. Some are chowing down on food. Others are content to sit and listen to a deejay play music.
This is a scene that has replayed over and over during the two-plus weeks the Cowboys have been in California for training camp.
It’s become a summer ritual. Just as fans in Green Bay watch the Packers players ride bikes to practice, the Cowboys have Oxnard.
“I like to bring the Cowboys to California,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on his team’s visit to the city of 200,000-plus people between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
“California is a great tradition for us. We’ve certainly got our 16 years here, 43 in all out here in California. It’s just a great tradition. We go out of our way to make it happen.”
Making it happen is a six-month process, if not longer, as the Cowboys move their operations from The Star — their state-of-the-art home in Frisco, Texas — to Oxnard, which is about 1,500 miles away. One of six NFL teams to hold camp away from the home facility, the Cowboys believe the benefits –which include comfortable 75-degree weather and a chance for players to bond — are many and varied.
For the second straight year, the team has taken over the River Ridge Residence Inn’s 32 buildings to house players, coaches and staff. Yes, Jones, the multibillion-dollar owner, sleeps in the same type of bed as the players.
The seven-figure cost to have camp in Oxnard requires close coordination among everyone from the football operations department, to coaches, to the athletic training staff, to the sports science staff to equipment staff and — since this is the Cowboys — the marketing department.
Bryan Wansley, their director of player development, and Cable Johnson, their director of team security, arrived in Oxnard on July 6 — 20 days before the coaches and players. They set up communication with city officials and security. Four days later, Jason McKay, their director of football administration and technology, arrived.
“It’s very barren out here,” said McKay, peering out over the two grass fields the Cowboys use for practice.
The sideline-long bleachers were in place and the field was mowed, but there was little else that indicated a training camp was coming.
Days bleed into days as the 15.5-acre River Ridge complex is transformed. Ten 53-foot long trucks each weighing 10,000 to 13,000 pounds arrive on separate days bringing the necessities, everything ranging from a leg-press machine with 500 pounds of weight to wristbands.
One difference over the team’s early stays in Oxnard: The Cowboys no longer have to pack most of their weight room. Since the move to The Star in 2016, the team has used the weights from their former practice facility, Valley Ranch, and leave them in California for the year, locked away. Some treadmills, Peloton bikes and other cardiovascular equipment also arrive via truck. The same goes for the blocking sled and offensive linemen chute.
Three different levels of fencing encircle the complex, with the last two separating the football offices and players’ rooms with 24-hour security.
Five tennis courts are turned into a weight room, a rookie locker room, media center and family and VIP viewing area. The fieldhouse is the one permanent building, holding 37 lockers and part of the athletic trainers’ offices.
The equipment staff has a triple-wide trailer filled with everything players would need from Frisco. The athletic training staff has a trailer, too.
At the front of the Residence Inn, the Cowboys have four double-wide trailers for the coaches and the scouting and video departments. That’s in addition to the hotel’s ballrooms that serve as the meeting room and dining hall.
“This year the team came on a Monday, so ideally you were trying to be done the previous Friday,” McKay said. “You’re dealing with vendors that don’t typically work on weekends, so you’re trying to have it where you can do a walkthrough on that Friday and say, ‘We’re good and we’re done.’ And then whatever little things that pop up, they pop up and you fix.”
This summer, the tower in the middle of the field where Jones, scouts or visiting luminaries watch practice needed to be repositioned before the first practice because it was askew.
Another issue was the state of the fields when they arrived since they do not get used much the other 10-plus months of the year. They were too soft and wet. An expert from Brazil, who has worked with FIFA for World Cups, was flown in to help get them ready. Each day a double-drum roller goes back and forth to compact the ground, but there are a number of bumps and dips that can make footing tricky.
Redoing the fields is a priority for 2023.
“I’d like us to do the whole footprint of this and clean it all up,” vice president of football operations/administration Todd Williams said.
The big change for this year is the dining hall.
The Cowboys brought in their chef from The Star, Andrew Trollinger. He brought three other chefs from Legends Hospitality at SoFi Stadium and LAFC to help prepare the food. The quality of the food was also improved, with director of sports performance Scott Sehnert noting the produce in California is second to none.
“The players are used to the food prepared a certain way, used to the menus and Andrew also just gets some of the tweaks that we do to some of the recipes that really continue to make them taste great but also help the guys recover, fuel well for training that we’re going through,” Sehnert said. “You love consistency in anything and so when we come across the country, the food can be one of those inconsistent parts.”
There is some consistency in the menu — players can get chicken breast, a turkey burger or hamburger each night if they choose — but Sehnert and Trollinger change things up, with Sehnert tailoring the meals to the type of practice that can help players recover and fuel up for the next day. There are special days where food trucks come in or a Los Angeles barbecue expert cooks dinner.
“It goes against a lot of the ways they’ve always eaten, especially for the younger guys,” Sehnert said. “They’ve been able to get through high school and college off of some great talent and some good coaching, but they may not have had to worry about their nutrition, their sleep and some of the other aspects, so they tend to learn from some of the guys on their second and third contracts that they do everything to continue to play at a high level.”
Linebacker Micah Parsons said he cut out fried food in his diet and lost more than five pounds.
The equipment staff arrived eight days before camp started. Before operating out of the triple-wide, they had a narrow sliver of the fieldhouse with boxes stacked on top of boxes from floor to ceiling.
“Every time we needed something we always had six-to-eight boxes stacked on top of the one we needed,” said equipment director Mike McCord, who is in his 34th year with the team.
Laundry is sent out to a local vendor so practice jerseys, shorts, pants, sweats and whatever a player needs fresh.
“They basically take The Star and try to make it as much as it is there, here,” said All-Pro guard Zack Martin, who has been to Oxnard all but once in his nine seasons.
Coach Mike McCarthy had never been to Oxnard before last year. When he arrived last summer, Williams gave him a tour and McCarthy quickly learned what Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett, his predecessors, did. It was ideal.
When McCarthy was the Green Bay Packers coach, his teams practiced at their complex. As an assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990s, he spent camp in River Falls, Wisconsin, as five other teams formed what was called the “Cheese League” for camp.
“Today, clearly you’re not on the field as much as we were 25 years ago, so the physical demand of training camp is not even close to what it used to be,” McCarthy said. “That might be a reason why teams stay home more now, but there’s pros and cons to everything.
“The fact that you do go away as a group there’s a lot of value in that. The travel, the time on the road together is a great opportunity to get closer emotionally and spiritually. I believe in all of that.”
McCarthy credited part of the Cowboys’ 6-1 start to last season on the time spent in Oxnard. The cool temperatures allowed for a high “workload capacity” that would not have taken place in the 100-degree temperatures back home.
Players love the weather, with the high temperature averaging around 75 degrees this August.
“You can still build the same camaraderie but we’re in Oxnard compared to Dallas, where it’s scorching hot,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “I’m pretty sure we’re all happy to be here in Cali right now.”
The Cowboys are not in Oxnard as long this summer because of practices at the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers, which brings a new set of circumstances to work through for the operations staff.
Some of the trucks will begin heading back to Frisco on Thursday and the tear-down process will begin on Aug. 15.
“That goes a lot quicker than setting it up,” McKay said of the tear down.
By Aug. 21, just about everything and everybody will be back at The Star. Training camp will be winding down but executives will review their Oxnard experience.
“We’ll start to tweak some things or fix things for the next year if it didn’t work out the way we wanted,” Williams said.
The Cowboys have a deal with the city of Oxnard through 2024 with an option for 2025. The tradition will continue.
“We know a lot of work goes into this and I hope the young guys like it because I love coming out here,” Martin said. “… I’m sure you could [replicate it] somewhat back home, but I think there’s something to be said about leaving the facility and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going for a month and this is training camp.’ And then when you get back, in my mind, it’s time to start the regular season.”