Patriots Training Camp, photograph by Christopher Klein

Call it a Punxsutawney Phil moment. A sure sign that a barren season is finally behind us and better days have arrived. As I was driving around my neighborhood yesterday, I saw a 70-year-old woman shuffling away from her mailbox. She was wearing a gray T-shirt with some lettering on the front and back. As I drove closer I saw that the front said “I Hate Peyton Manning.” The back: “Eli Sucks Too”.

The new football season is here! The new football season is here!

At times, it looked like the NFL lockout could jeopardize part or all of the season, but with the new deal now signed and sealed, the players are back on the gridiron. The New England Patriots will open their public training camp on Thursday, and fans will notice some changes this year due to the new agreement between the players and the owners:

Don’t expect to see much hitting during the first few days of camp. Players have hopefully kept in shape during the off-season, but they will still take a little longer than normal to get back into the swing of things. The Patriots have announced that “initial practices will likely be scaled back a bit while the players continue to work toward playing shape.” So if you’re going to make one trip down to Foxborough, plan to do it towards the end of training camp.

Expect to see more walk-throughs and drills this year. One of the changes under the new agreement is that there are no more two-a-day sessions in full pads. The Patriots have usually held training camp sessions in both the morning and afternoon. Full-pad practices are usually more interesting to watch. Particularly on hot days, it might be a better bet to see padded practices in the morning sessions. (The Patriots have already announced that the first two days of camp will be unpadded.)

Training camp rosters are bigger. Under the new agreement, training camp rosters expand from 80 players to 90, so there’s even more reason to get a roster sheet.

Here are some more tips for fans going to New England Patriots Training Camp:

Where: Patriots training camp is held on the practice fields next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

Schedule: The tentative schedule calls for two-a-day practices for the opening days of training camp with practices from 9:30 to 11:30 AM and 3:30 to 5:30 PM on July 28 and July 29. The schedule is always tentative based on the desires of the coaching staff and oftentimes the weather. Practice times will be announced on the Patriots web site and you can double-check it by calling the team’s hot line at 508-549-0001.

Parking: The practice is free to attend, and the parking is free as well. (Yes, I said it, “Free.”) Parking is along the west side of the stadium, and it’s a short walk over to the fields. From US 1, enter the parking lots at P8 from the south and P6 from the north. Lots open an hour before each practice.

Seating: There are bleachers along the side of one practice field on which to sit. Another popular spot is on the hillside that lies behind the end zones of the practice fields and in front of the stadium. Wherever you sit, you’re pretty close to the action. If you have a camera with a good zoom lens, you should get some good shots.

Food and Drink: There are concession stands that sell food and drinks. Be prepared to pay normal stadium prices for food and beverages, however, if you buy it there. Adjoining Patriot Place has plenty of restaurants and bars where you can get a meal, too. (For a good, cheap meal, I highly recommend Five Guys Burgers at Patriot Place.)

For the Kids: Along the west side of the stadium during Training Camp is the Patriots Experience, filled with interactive games that allow young fans to test their kicking, passing, and tackling skills on a variety of obstacle courses, football tosses, and other similar challenges. It’s a popular draw for families. (All fans participating in Patriots Experience must sign a waiver form, available at training camp. It’s usually online as well at the Patriots web site.) Note that the hours for the Patriots Experience are not the same as the practice schedule; so check the web site. (In general, the hours are usually 11-4.) Kids will also enjoy all the interactive exhibits at the Hall at Patriot Place. Even if you don’t have kids, a visit to this museum dedicated to the Patriots franchise is an absolute must for Pats fans.

Tom Brady signs autographs at training camp. Photo by Michael Dwyer of the Associated Press

Scoring Autographs: The players enter and leave the field near the hillside, so it’s a good spot to get autographs, and a designated group of players, which rotates from practice to practice, will often sign along the front row of the bleachers when practice is over.

With as many as 90 players on the field, plenty of new faces (particularly this year as the feeding frenzy on free agents begins), and uniforms without names on the back, it may be tough knowing who you are watching, so print out a roster from the Patriots web site before you go or pick up a complimentary roster from the Patriots Football Weekly tent.

For more tips on enhancing your experience at Patriots Training Camp–and for all the information you’d ever want to know about spectator sports around Boston–check out The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston.