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Destination: Cortland

Upward of 50,000 people are expected to descend on the SUNY Cortland campus soon for the New York Jets’ preseason training camp, and many of them won’t be serious football fans.

At last year’s event, the first Jets camp at the college, many of the 34,000 who attended were fathers, mothers, children and casual sports fans looking for a new way to enjoy family time. In doing so, they discovered one of the best summertime family entertainment bargains in Central New York.

Other than the $5 parking fee, all activities at the camp are free. There’s a children’s inflatable carnival attraction, “Generation Jets Fest,” located next to the playing field. All action on the field is open to the public, and there are plenty of opportunities to get autographs.

“Nothing will change this year, except we’ll probably get more people,” says Peter Koryzno, SUNY Cortland public relations director. “There’s a lot of excitement building.”

“Families will get to come out and engage with the team,” says Jessica Ciccone, speaking for the Jets. “It’s a lot of fun for everyone.”

The camp begins Aug. 1 and tentatively runs through Aug. 20; the length of the camp is subject to change, Jets team officials say. Typically, there is one morning practice and one afternoon practice. The a.m. session traditionally has more hitting and physical contact. Inter-squad scrimmages take place toward the end of the camp.

An autograph session follows each practice. The sessions are organized by position. For example, offensive linemen could be on hand after the morning session followed by defensive linemen in the afternoon, with running backs, receivers, quarterbacks and defensive backs making themselves available the following day.

The Jets’ decision to move its preseason preparation from Long Island to Cortland was announced in April 2009. The organization has since agreed to a three-year commitment. Jets fans and area families have had a chance to plan their summer vacations to include this venue. The team enjoyed a monumental run in last season’s playoffs, and has since acquired more talent, including star linebacker Jason Taylor, formerly of the Miami Dolphins.

“Given the Jets’ success, their off-season trades and how well the camp went last year, we wouldn’t be surprised if the number of people who come here doubles this year,” Koryzno says. “You’re up close and personal, and you can see everything.”

Koryzno adds that the players were respectful of the college facilities and the fans last year. There were no problems reported on campus or in the community.

“It was wonderful to have them. They were fantastic to work with. You often hear that professional athletes are not nice people, but from my experience with the Jets, nothing could be further from the truth,” he says.

Kerry Mincher, of Tioga County, brought her extended family to the camp last year. Her children, ages 4 and 5, and her nieces, ages 10 and 12, all had a great time playing at Generation Jets Fest.

The inflatable carnival is open during the practices, allowing children to climb, jump, and try a variety of football skills tests for throwing, catching, tackling and running. Parents are required to sign an insurance waiver if their kids play there, even though the area is supervised by Jets staff. Parents of young children are expected to watch their children and not rely entirely on the staff. Generation Jets Fest will be open an hour before each practice and will close an hour after the last practice of the day, so children get a chance to play there should they elect to watch a full day of practice.

“If you have kids, you can’t avoid that area,” Mincher says, adding that Generation Jets Fest was the high point of the trip for her young children. “Adults can watch the (football) action and the kids are happy to play there. But even if you don’t like football, it’s a great time.”

Ciccone, the Jets spokeswoman, says Generation Jets Fest offers enough variety to accommodate toddlers, school-age children and younger teen-agers. It also has climbing walls and slides, and is large enough to handle busloads of children who visit the camp as a field trip.

A concession stand will be located near the practice area. Pierre Gagnon, executive director of SUNY Cortland’s Auxiliary Services Corporation, said prices at the concession stand range from 50 cents for a Blowpop to $4.50 for nachos with cheese and salsa. Other items include hot dog ($2.75), hamburger ($3), breakfast sandwich ($3.50), fresh fruit ($1), soft pretzel ($2.50), king size candy bar ($2), juice ($2), chips ($1.50) and many other items priced from $1 to $3.

SUNY Cortland’s stadium complex rules will remain in effect for the training camp, Koryzno says. That means food and beverages, coolers, pets, backpacks, weapons, noisemaking devices, skateboards, sports equipment (balls or Frisbees) and banners, flags or signs that are attached to sticks or poles are not allowed in the stands or near the field. Alcohol is prohibited inside and outside the stadium.

The Cortland County Chamber of Commerce is hoping to attract visitors to city businesses. Director Bob Haight says chamber volunteers will be stationed near the camp to provide information and directions to businesses, and bus stops for the city transit system will be clearly marked. The fare is $1 per person regardless of which stop they choose, and there’s a pickup at each stop every 30 to 35 minutes.

Downtown Cortland is about a 20-minute walk from the training camp. Haight says there are several family-owned gift shops, clothing stores and cafes downtown, while the popular franchised eateries are located on a commercial strip nearby.

“One of the nice things about Cortland is we have a nice mix of chain restaurants and privately-owned restaurants,” he says. “Just about everything is low-cost. There are a few nice places that I’d say are medium-priced, but
nothing that is considered expensive.”

There are other attractions in and around Cortland for those who want a short break from the football action.

Yaman Park, just outside of the Cortland city limits and a short drive to campus, has a small lake with a swimming area, playground and picnic facilities. There’s also the Lime Hollow Center for Environment and Culture, which has trails and an education area.

“When you walk those trails,” Haight says, “you feel like you’re in the Adirondacks.”

The neighboring village of Homer, meanwhile, has live music at the village green at 7 p.m. every Wednesday. That’s a nice way to end the day after taking in a couple practice sessions, visiting some area attractions and going out to dinner, Haight says.

“I think a lot of people will find that this little neighboring county to the south has a lot to offer,” he says.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York