CINCINNATI — While the Cincinnati Bengals players waited out a weather delay at the start of an August training camp practice, Sam Staley capitalized on an opportunity to create some good vibes.
As a storm moved away from the practice fields, Staley pressed the play button on the iPad resting beneath a canopy and started Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York,” the brass notes spreading from a sound system underneath a black tent with orange trim.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, a native of Staten Island, New York, smiled and flashed a thumbs-up in Staley’s direction. Defensive assistant Mark Duffner, standing alone in one of the end zones, slightly swung his feet as if he were in a kick line.
Soon, players started reappearing to begin practice. Staley scampered back to the sound system, switched off the Sinatra and cranked up Money Man’s “Big Money.” Bengals defensive tackle DJ Reader nodded along to the rap track, head moving around 77 beats per minute.
It was time to get serious.
Officially, Staley is one of the Bengals’ assistant equipment managers. Unofficially, he holds another title — practice DJ. Like many others around the league, he has an important responsibility. Those in charge of the soundtrack are in charge of playing the right songs that help NFL teams have a focused practice in advance of game day. The job is approached in different ways, from playing curated lists of the players’ — and coaches’ — favorites songs, to more scientific methods of synching the beats per minute of each track to specific team periods. Playing music during practice is becoming more prevalent throughout the league, and hitting the right notes can go a long way toward achieving peak preparation during the week.
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That responsibility isn’t lost on fellow DJs such as Sarah Hogan, who runs the music for the Atlanta Falcons and recalled a day when the aggressive and high-energy vocals from Meek Mill gave the players a boost.
“They were so pumped by the end of warm-up,” Hogan told ESPN. “We had the best practice. And I was like, ‘I feel like I impacted the practice.’ I was so pumped about it.”
Setups across the NFL are continuing to evolve. When Kyle Shanahan took over as the San Francisco 49ers‘ coach in 2017, assistant Nick Kray went viral for carrying a boombox that blasted Fast Life Yungstaz’s “Swag Surfin” on the way from the locker room to the field.
First-year Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel — who was on that staff with Shanahan — has treated the practice playlist as a reward, giving players an orange jersey for the day and allowing them to select tracks. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has also turned up his team’s usage one year after wide receiver Chase Claypool publicly wondered if music could help practice.
“I think it actually makes a difference,” said Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton, who joined the team in 2021 after four seasons with the Steelers. “You get tired of hearing the pads pop and you just want to have something to juice you up.”
CINCINNATI AND ATLANTA are among the majority of NFL teams that play music at practice, according to an ESPN survey.
Staley, 32, has been one of Cincinnati’s equipment managers for the past seven years. In the last four, when Zac Taylor was hired as head coach, Staley’s role has expanded to playing the music on the practice field because his music taste was closer to what the players like.
“Players tend to get moving around and enjoying that and waking up,” said Duffner, who started his coaching career in 1975 and said music usage has increased significantly over the past 10 years. “It’s a positive thing. It’s kind of an igniter to their energy.”
Factors for practice DJs to consider include the desired mood, whether anyone other than players will be within earshot and if the music is suitable for public consumption.
Staley, whose duties including making sure the players have the right cleats for turf or grass to setting up equipment around the field at practices and game day, uses an iPad that is restricted to clean versions of songs.
Bengals practice playlist for the day:
“Red Light” – Future
“Bigg Facts” – Moneybagg Yo
“Hall of Fame” – Young Dolph
“7.62” – YFN Lucci
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) August 18, 2022
That setting can’t be changed without Staley’s password after someone once played an explicit track. Still, he’ll give all additions to the 375-song playlist titled “Bengals” — culled from what he hears in the locker room and what’s featured on the “Rap Life” playlist on Apple Music — a once-over just to make sure they are safe for the ears of fans and ownership, who always attend practice.
“Our job is to make it easier for everybody,” Staley said. “Obviously, coaches go out and coach. Players go out and play. But if there’s anything that we can make easier, then that’s what we’re here to do.”
When Hogan started playing music for the Falcons in 2016, the team’s assistant director of coaching operations repeated a limited list off an iPod. That changed one night in 2017, when she picked the brain of a DJ spinning tracks on her native Long Island, New York. Six years later, she has a library of 1,000 songs that speaks to how complex the process can be.
“There’s a whole method to the madness,” Hogan said.
Using mp3poolonline.com, a subscription-based resource for DJs, Hogan will play anything from Billy Joel and The Notorious B.I.G. to Young Dolph. The songs, which don’t get repeated for three weeks, are labeled 1 through 5 based on beats per minute.
The higher the number, the faster the song. Ones and twos are reserved for slow sessions like special teams and walkthroughs. Fours and fives, which push around 95 BPMs, are for competition periods like 1-on-1s and team drills.
Players and coaches have taken note over the years. Former Atlanta coach Dan Quinn gifted Hogan a black No. 1 Falcons jersey with “DJ Giggy” across the back, a tribute to Gigantino, her maiden name.
“For me, I just don’t want to be a detriment to the practice,” Hogan said. “I want to be someone that positively impacts it. So yes, I take it very seriously.”
Amilcar Hill, who goes by DJ Milk and is half of the two-man crew who plays music for the Buffalo Bills, said the daily playlist depends on that day’s vibes and the intensity required for certain drills.
Like Hogan, Hill and Yousef “DJ Yes” Jackson will spin a wide variety of tracks. When current New York Giants coach Brian Daboll was Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, they frequently included Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” in the mix, one of Daboll’s favorites. But whether it’s throwback hip-hop or MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” the reactions are the same.
“You’re catering to partially what the team wants to hear,” Hill said. “And then at the same time, also trying to deliver the energy that the coach is looking for during that part of the practice.”
THE SONG CHOICES don’t always hit the ear in the right place, however. During Cincinnati’s preparation for the AFC divisional playoff game in January against the Tennessee Titans, Staley opted for some throwback JAY-Z. Less than 30 minutes later, Moneybagg Yo was playing instead.
During an early August practice, Staley took another risk. On this day, the team had a full-padded practice, a part of training camp that requires a heightened intensity.
As the team stretched, Staley opted to play a song by Rod Wave, a 23-year-old artist known for singing over hip-hop instrumentals.
While some coaches accused Staley of getting into his feelings, the players’ reactions justified the song choice.
“I understand it’s a full-padded practice,” Staley said. “Everybody wants to get juiced. But sometimes Rod Wave gets you juiced, man. You never know.”
Whether it’s in Cincinnati, Atlanta or somewhere else in the league, music remains an integral part of practice and an extension of a fundamental habit established long ago.
Said Duffner: “Even the seven dwarfs whistled when they went to work.”