First came Cali, the birthday girl, bouncing more than running, until her father smoothly scooped the just-turned 3-year-old off the manicured grass. Next came Cassie, the younger daughter, all of 18 months, giving great effort, but trailing behind with those tiny little steps.
“She’s trying to catch up,’’ Sterling Shepard said.
No, it was not Family Day on a humid Tuesday at Giants training camp. Well, not officially, anyway. Most days are Family Day when it comes to the summer operation Joe Judge is running. His practices are hard, but there is a softness to what happens as soon as the final whistle sounds and the conditioning running is completed.
Hot. Tired. Sweaty. No matter. When the kids come racing onto the field, it is every father for himself.
“They don’t care. They’re like ‘Dad pick me up, Dad run around with me’ and I’m exhausted,’’ offensive lineman Nate Solder told The Post.
This was not the way it was a year ago, when COVID-19 protocols made the Giants’ training facility off-limits to all family members. No one knew exactly what Judge, a first-time head coach, would accept and what was verboten. He considers himself old-school in many ways, and old-school training camp was a two-a-day practice endurance grind; families were kept away for days at a time.
Judge embraces plenty of old-time methods, but this is not one of them.
“It doesn’t matter how tough or stressful the practice was, when you see your little ones and your significant other, it does put it in perspective and change the mood for a second,’’ Judge told The Post.
A post-practice scene at Giants camp is filled with youngsters spilling out from the patio adjacent to the team facility, beelining to their fathers like heat-seeking mini-missiles. Footballs take to the air. Cartwheels and foot-races give off a recess vibe.
That was not always the case. Charles Way, a former Giants fullback, arrived in 1995, when the Giants held camp at sweltering Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. Players stayed in dorm rooms and after a week, wives and kids arrived on the first weekend.
“Things have changed,’’ said Way, who worked for the Giants and the NFL in player development and engagement and currently is in real estate and asset management.
“You’ve seen how mental health, especially from the Olympics, have played a real critical role and how teams function and organize their daily schedule. When I played and when I was doing player development, it wasn’t totally at the forefront of people’s minds. They know now it’s part of the overall mental health of a player, to have your family members around when they can.’’
Judge had his family at practice Tuesday.
“You see his family here almost every day,’’ Shepard said. “They’re out here running around and that’s something he really emphasizes. You get to know the people that you’re playing with and what they’re fighting for and you’re able to fight for them because you know them on a personal level.’’
Shepard, 28, is the longest-tenured Giants player, entering his sixth season. He has had a great camp, on the field and off it.
“I can be having a really rough day, a terrible practice, but when you see your kids, they give you a bunch of energy, man,’’ he said. “It’s hard to explain, but yeah, they can make you feel like it’s a bright and shiny day even on your rainiest days.’’
Judge welcomes in retired Giants — Way and Justin Tuck were there Tuesday — and the former players always marvel how much less intense and grueling this camp is than the ones they endured. True enough, but it is not as if Judge is running Camp Comfort. The day usually starts at 7 a.m. and ends with a return to the team hotel (where most players stay during camp) nearly 12 hours later.
“There’s something that every family and child gets to feel part of the team just by going out there with their dad afterward and catching a ball or giving him a hug on the field,’’ Judge said. “It’s gonna be a long day. Just that 10 minutes right there is invaluable.’’
Way, after the 2006 season, might have turned the fortunes of the entire franchise around, as he implored then-coach Tom Coughlin to show his players the side of himself he put on display when horsing around with his grandchildren after a training camp practice. Coughlin took the advice to heart and his empathy helped the Giants to two Super Bowl triumphs.
“It’s good to have that balance,’’ Solder said. “You got to remember we’re human beings and we’re complex creatures, we can’t just compartmentalize ‘football player’ and ‘dad.’ It all impacts and affects everything.’’