NEW YORK (AP) — The toughest opponent for many NFL players and coaches during the blazing hot days of training camp sits far above the football field.
The sun’s powerful ultraviolet rays are a leading cause of skin cancer, and shade is rare at most practice sites. So, slathered-on sunscreen, big bucket hats, long-sleeved T-shirts and slick sunglasses serve as lead blockers.
“I do it regularly, being red-haired with freckles, Irish heritage,” Dolphins offensive tackle Sam Young said of using sunscreen. “I go to a dermatologist once a year to make sure everything is good.”
Young doubles up on the protection by also wearing long sleeves during practice, despite steamy conditions that are more suited for lounging at the beach than playing on a football field.
“To me, it’s not worth the risk,” said Young, who grew up in South Florida and has family members who have had skin cancer. “I try to be as practical as I can about it. Sleeves mean one less thing to have to worry about.”
And, there are plenty of concerns for those who spend so many hours on sun-splashed fields.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The organization estimates there will be 5.4 million new cases of non-melanoma this year among 3.3 million people, and 91,270 new cases of melanoma — a more serious and aggressive form of skin cancer. Melanoma is usually curable, however, when detected in its early stages.
The NFL and American Cancer Society teamed up this summer to launch an initiative as part of its “Crucial Catch” campaign in which free sunscreen is being provided to players, coaches, fans, team employees and media at camps around the country. Some sites — such as at Jets and Giants camp — have several receptacles where people can get sunscreen from a dispenser, while packets of lotion are being handed out at others.
“One of the things we try do here that we haven’t done before (is) to look at the skin cancer part of it,” first-year Lions coach Matt Patricia said, “and see if there’s anything you have questions about as a person, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look right,’ or, ‘What do you think about this?'”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he’s had a spot “removed or checked on” in annual skin cancer checks during physical exams. He and some of his assistants normally wear long shirts under their T-shirts during practice — despite the Georgia heat and humidity.
“We all remind one another,” Quinn said. “For the players and for the coaches, we always have the lotion that we need or the spray to use. They’re pretty mindful.”
Well, some are.
Plenty of players acknowledge they often hit the field focused more on picking up blocks than putting on sunblock.
“I probably should, but I’m just too lazy,” said Washington rookie wide receiver Trey Quinn, who was “Mr. Irrelevant” as the last player selected in this year’s draft. “Hopefully my mom doesn’t see this. She’d probably recommend with my pale skin to wear a little sunscreen, but it’s available to us and it’s up to us to be adults and make decisions for ourselves.”
Most players and coaches don’t usually reapply sunscreen during practice, although the American Cancer Society recommends doing so after two hours in the sun.
Jets defensive end Henry Anderson usually remembers to put lotion on his arms before practice — not that it stays on long.
“Sometimes, I’ll get a little red because O-linemen are rubbing your arms and rubbing your skin and stuff,” he said. “I guess it does the job. I still get kind of burned here and there, but I just don’t really want to wear sleeves out to practice in this weather.”
The American Cancer Society says the lifetime risk of melanoma is higher for people who are white, especially those with fair skin that freckles or burns easily. But people of all skin colors are vulnerable, and sun damage can occur at any time of year.
Broncos linebacker Justin Simmons, who is black, recently wore tights and a long-sleeve shirt while practicing in the elevated altitude of Colorado. He also regularly wears sunscreen.
“When you’re out here, yeah, you have to,” Simmons said. “I just tan easy — very rarely does my skin break. But you have to put it on. You’re so much closer to the sun. It may feel a little bit more humid, like where I’m from in South Florida, and may not feel as humid here. But you’re so much closer and the sun is beaming on you.
“You have to protect your skin.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, Texans owner Bob McNair and Jaguars coach Doug Marrone are among some in the NFL community who have been successfully treated for melanomas.
But there have also been several who have been devastated by skin cancer, including former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who lost his wife Kaye to melanoma in 2010. Former NFL assistant coach Jim Johnson died from that form of cancer in 2009, while former coach Buddy Ryan and former NFL player and coach Jack Pardee also dealt with it.
“Down in Houston with Mr. McNair, he would always remind us, ‘Hey, make sure you put sunscreen on. It’s important,'” said Titans coach Mike Vrabel, a Texans assistant the past four seasons. “It’s something that he went through, and as you’re out there every single day, just being conscious of it.”
Vrabel’s quarterback certainly is. Marcus Mariota grew up in Hawaii, so he’s used to sunny days.
He doesn’t use sunscreen, but wears a long-sleeved hoodie at practice, something he started doing last year.
“But today was a steamer,” Mariota said recently. “I did consider putting on sunscreen. It’s just slippery and messy. I’m not a big fan.”
That’s a common sentiment among players, particularly in the heat and humidity of training camp.
“I don’t like doing it,” Giants backup quarterback Davis Webb said. “I don’t want it slipping on my hands, so I am not putting it on at practice. When I golf or I’m at the beach, I like to throw it on.”
Dolphins rookie kicker Jason Sanders grew up in sunny Orange County, California, but is using sunscreen this summer for the first time in his football career.
“I get my upper arms to prevent the farmer’s tan, and my neck, too,” he said. “I get it on my ears and neck, but stay away from my face because I sweat a lot out here. I would say two out of three days I put sunscreen on. Some days when I kick, I don’t want to be all lathered up. You can feel it when you’re sweating this much. I don’t want to get it anywhere near my eyes.”
Just as long as it gets on every other exposed area.
Between blocks and screens, NFL players and coaches are doing everything under the sun to protect themselves.
“I think we can always get more information on all of that topic in general,” Patricia said. “But (it’s) something we have to be conscious about when we’re out in the sun that long.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker and AP Sports Writers Tom Canavan, Pat Graham, Larry Lage, Brett Martel, Charles Odum, Stephen Whyno and Steve Wine contributed.