BETHLEHEM - Partly sunny, partly cloudy, mostly humid, entirely too early on a Sunday morning, a blast from an air horn begins the first of two practices for the Eagles. Jarring, piercing, demanding - in hell, there will be air horns.
The crowd in the stands is more sparse than in previous seasons. Some people say it is the price of gas, others an overall lack of buzz surrounding the current edition of the green fellas. More likely, it is that camp is a week longer than last year, thereby spacing out the legions a little bit on the Northeast Extension.
Whatever. It means nothing to Max Jean-Gilles, not the hour, not the attention, none of it.
All he knows is that, when the air horn sounds, when the crowd cheers the team's assembly on the practice field and the initial offensive huddle is formed, Jean-Gilles is in it. On this day, for this play, he is the starting right guard for the Philadelphia Eagles.
He is running with the No. 1s. How far, he does not know.
"I just want to try to take advantage of my situation," Jean-Gilles says, answering the questions a variety of ways but always getting back to those key words.
Take advantage of my situation . . .
But for the mystery that is Shawn Andrews these days, Jean-Gilles would be competing at left guard with Todd Herremans. The spot was thought to be open after Herremans had a down season in 2007. But Herremans looks great physically this summer, and Jean-Gilles is always fighting the weight that gives him an advantage in many situations but slows him in others, and you never know.
But Andrews is not here at Lehigh, an unexcused absence according to the Eagles, a public mystery as to why. Animal, vegetable or mineral - your guess as to Andrews' problem is as good as any. That he again needs to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player at right guard for this team goes without saying. That there remains plenty of time for that to happen also is true. This is much less a crisis at this point than it is a curiosity.
And for Jean-Gilles, all 357 pounds of him - down from 377 pounds not that long ago, still 10 pounds from his goal - it is an unexpected opportunity.
"I didn't know what the situation was until the night before [the start of training camp]," he said, referring to Andrews' being AWOL. "So it was, 'Get ready for right guard.' And I was, 'OK.' It's easy for me. I've played both before in college."
The defense might be ahead of the offense at this point in camp - and the defense was ahead yesterday morning, way ahead - but Jean-Gilles, now in his third season out of Georgia, looks pretty comfortable so far. It was his block that sprang Brian Westbrook on a 60-yard touchdown run during one of the two live periods of the practice. All together, the Eagles did 57 minutes of live hitting yesterday morning, a bunch.
But Jean-Gilles was smiling when it was over, and not just because it was over.
"He's improved tremendously," said Marty Mornhinweg, the Eagles' offensive coordinator. "He's a big guy and he's a strong guy. When he's on the field, he plays well - and he's worked hard on his weight.
"He's done several things very well. We all have a lot of hard work in front of us, and he sure does as well, but he's been impressive so far."
What he needs to work on, Mornhinweg said, are "the details. That's what wins games - the details. You saw today that our details aren't where we need them, and that goes for all of us including Max. But he sure is a big, strong man that can move pretty well."
The main details, Jean-Gilles said, are footwork and handwork. (Handwork: football euphemism for punching.)
"Almost all young guys don't use their hands as well as they need to," Mornhinweg said, and so they work endlessly on techniques to make them stronger and more explosive. Jean-Gilles said he spent the early summer hoisting sandbags, "to keep your hands up, ready to punch."
Whatever. At a certain point, the assumption is that Andrews will show up and Jean-Gilles will go back to fighting with Herremans at left guard. But that is for then - tomorrow, next week, whenever Andrews changes his mind. In the here and now, Jean-Gilles runs with the No. 1s and shrugs the time-honored football shrug, the one that says a player gets into trouble when he stops thinking about what is in front of him and starts thinking too much about why.
"If God wanted me to take advantage of a situation, here it is," he said. *
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