INDIANAPOLIS – Be water.
That’s the title of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary about the legacy of Bruce Lee released last month. It’s derived from one of the legendary martial artist’s most famous quotes.
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water,” Lee told Canadian journalist Pierre Berton in 1971, paraphrasing his character from the first episode of TV crime drama “Longstreet” earlier that year. “Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
The philosophy is integral to Lee’s creation of Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial art designed to transcend forms and adapt to situations as needed. But it also has practical applications in the NFL this summer.
Be formless, shapeless, like water. The words might as well be stenciled on the walls inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center as the Indianapolis Colts begin a training camp like no other.
The NBA and NHL are set to restart their respective regular seasons inside bubbles the leagues hope are insulated from the resurgent coronavirus pandemic. As of Wednesday afternoon, neither league had reported a positive result from thousands of coronavirus tests of coaches and players in weeks.
But football will not be played inside a bubble this fall. The NFL’s plan is more similar to Major League Baseball’s, with teams playing out of their home cities and relying on testing and tracing to secure health and safety. Baseball’s plan has been heavily criticized this week with the Miami Marlins in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak that has temporarily paused the team’s season.
There’s still little known about how and why the Marlins’ outbreak occurred, but the NFL is watching and taking notes.
Teams are prohibited from commenting on the number of positive coronavirus tests in their locker rooms or identifying affected players. But the Colts placed two players – wide receiver Malik Henry and cornerback Jackson Porter – on the Covid reserve list earlier this week. Players on that list might have tested positive or come into close contact with someone who has.
Rookies have been in training camp for about a week, and Indianapolis veterans began reporting for testing Tuesday. Everyone involved knows adaptation will be essential in the days ahead.
“We’re in unknown territory,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “Each and every day’s a new day. We’re gonna learn something new each and every day, and we’re gonna have to adjust on the fly ’cause if you don’t, then you could have problems.
“So we’ve gotta be pretty nimble on our feet and then also nimble mentally to be able to see and adjust to anything that happens.”
While the calendar reveals it’s nearly August, it feels more like April in the NFL. Rookies and free agents are entering team facilities for the first time, and full-team on-field work still is weeks away.
There will be no preseason games this summer, and players are walking around Indianapolis’ facility with “contact tracers” inside their wristbands. The card-like devices include a blinking light that changes color and pace depending on proximity to others. It’s a tangible way to keep personnel aware of the 6-foot social distancing guidelines inside the building.
It’s also an example of the countless off-field issues players will be dealing with as they prepare for the season opener Sept. 13 at Jacksonville.
Reich believes the Colts have the right people and protocols in place to make it all work.
“It’ll be challenging,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be challenging, it’ll be fun and I believe we’ve got the right guys and the right organization to handle whatever uncertainty comes our way, but also we have the right guys to stay focused on getting better and looking forward to winning a lot of games this year.”
There has been a spirit of cooperation throughout the league. Ballard and Reich have enjoyed conversations with their counterparts in other NFL cities, discussing what’s working, what is not and what can be done to make things better.
It’s a task the league as a whole is intent to get right.
Fans across the country will be watching expectantly to see whether the NFL can pull it off.
And the challenge already is stoking the competitive fires.
“I think we all want to make this a go and make this work,” Ballard said. “’Cause everybody’s saying we can’t do it. There ain’t nothing better than proving people wrong – that we can do it. And we can do it safely.”