On The Road with Michigan Football - Part 1

Nov. 5, 2009


When football players and coaches arrive in a visiting city before football Saturdays, the hard-working equipment staff is waiting for them. On Thursday (Oct. 29, a semi-truck loaded with football equipment, training supplies and video equipment made the 345-mile trip to Champaign, Ill., for the Wolverines' Halloween showdown with Illinois. Assistant Director for Athletic Media Relations Richard Retyi and Michigan Sports TV Director Patrick McLaughlin accompanied the equipment staff on the journey, chronicling what it's like to be on the road with Michigan football. Director of Equipment Operations Jon Falk and his staff gave MGoBlue.com behind-the-scenes access on what the equipment staff does before each road game and what it's like to travel with the winningest program in college football history.

In part one of this two-part series, the equipment staff makes the six-hour and twenty-one minute trip in from Ann Arbor to Champaign. On the way they get ice cream, race the Michigan State equipment truck on the highway and tell more than 30 years worth of stories about Michigan football, half of which are suitable for print. In part two (debuting Friday), the equipment staff rises early to prepare the locker room for Friday's walkthrough and get ready for game time. After the contest, they prepare for a long Halloween trip back to Ann Arbor where the work begins as soon as the truck arrives at Schembechler Hall.

"We Gotta Get the Hell Outta Here"
It's 6:22 p.m. on Thursday, the sun is setting and the truck isn't here.

"Dammit Jim, where are you," director of equipment operations Jon Falk barks. Stalking the loading area of Schembechler Hall, Falk swishes past dressed head to toe in Michigan blue with a big Block M on his baseball cap. Standing six-foot-two and walking a slight hitch in his step after suffering a broken leg on the sidelines in Iowa City four years ago, Falk pulls out his BlackBerry and barks again, "We gotta get the hell outta here."

Falk was a 23-year-old kid living with his mother and grandmother and had never left Oxford, Ohio, when he was handpicked by Bo Schembechler to be Michigan's head equipment manager in 1973. He was thrown out of Bo's office on his first day of work, arriving in Ann Arbor in a bright red '73 Chevy Nova and walking into Bo's office wearing a bright red Miami University jacket. Falk traded his Miami jacket for a Michigan one, sold the Nova four months later and overhauled his wardrobe. Today, Falk claims not to own a single piece of red or green clothing.

Helmets, Pads and Something Called a Hydrocollator
It's 6:27 p.m. and the truck rumbles into the parking lot, painted to resemble the winged helmet. Assistant equipment managers Bob Bland, Rick Brandt and Brett McGinnis along with a small army of student equipment managers finish loading the trailer, fitting equipment bags, training room gear and video cases into an expensive puzzle for the 345-mile trip to Champaign. Since the end of Thursday's practice, they have been scrubbing helmets with synthetic steel wool and water (they'll be painted and polished for game day), loading equipment bags into hampers and rolling them out to the trailer. The semi-trailer is already mostly full of necessary equipment for athletic medicine and the team's video staff, including tall black cabinets full of expensive electronics, three stationary bikes, 10 ice chests, eight water coolers, 20 cases of beverages and something called a hydrocollator.

Jim, who has been driving the equipment truck full-time since 2001, hops down from the cab and securely attaches the trailer to the truck. He has pale skin, a shaved head and a fire-red goatee and when the truck is unloaded the next day, he wears shorts and cutoff shirt, highlighting his massive calves and a tattoo on his right arm that reads "Irish Hillbilly".

Once the trailer is quadruple-locked, one of the equipment managers loads the most precious cargo of all into the cab -- $85.45 worth of Mr. Spot's. In a brown paper bag growing wet with delicious grease, Falk and his staff distribute 10 Philly cheese steaks and four orders of waffle fries to the eight-member travel party. A large cooler full of ice cold drinks is hoisted into the cab stocked liberally with Jon's favorite, Coke Zero.

At 6:42 p.m. the truck makes a wide right turn onto State Street and the six hour and twenty-one minute journey begins. For the first three hours, I drive three student equipment managers in a rented Kia Sportage, while Patrick McLaughlin interviews Falk on camera in the truck ahead of us. The plan is to drive west to Exit 30 and stop for ice cream, then switch places with McLaughlin for my own experience in the truck.

The Vultures are Circling
As they tear into their cheese steaks, the managers tell stories about working for Falk, giving the inside story on what it's like to be an equipment manager. The more they speak, the more of an enigma they become. They are sports fans, but they don't care much about hanging out with football players or ingratiating themselves with Saturday's stars. They major in computer science, business and engineering and admit that when they watch football games on TV they can't help noticing what gloves and shoes players are wearing or what methods the ball boys on the sidelines are using to keep the pigskin dry. They aren't sycophants or washed up high school jocks. They take some time figuring out.

There is definitely a hierarchy for student managers. Some are paid, some are unpaid, but they have a foxhole mentality. Stories of students showing up late to Michigan Stadium for 6 a.m. game day calls are mostly unprintable and they laugh while telling stories of Falk's disciplinary system of secret probation, double secret probation, public probation and the worst, double public probation. They talk about the vultures circling -- Falk's euphemism for paid student managers in danger of losing their privilege to an unpaid student manager. "They're always circling," they bark, doing their best Falk impersonation, making vulture wings with their arms.

At Exit 30 I hand Patrick the keys to the Kia and climb into the cab of the equipment truck, which stills smells faintly like Mr. Spot's. The truck has two seats up front, Jim driving and Falk riding shotgun, as well as a bed in the back with a thin mattress, on which Brandt and I sit for the next three-plus hours.

Racing Sparty Down Interstate 94
Merging onto the highway, the first thing we see is Michigan State's equipment truck barreling ahead of us. A semi like ours, the MSU truck is painted Sparty green and white, headed for a game in Minneapolis.

"I guess they didn't want any ice cream," Falk laughs, pulling out his BlackBerry. "Jim, get up there and pass `em."

Falk dials up Bob Knickerbocker, Michigan State's head equipment man. The two joke and laugh as Jim edges up on MSU truck, changing lanes and passing MSU's travel party a few miles later with Falk waving out the passenger side. The two trucks trade the lead, drafting down I-94 for a few miles until Jim passes the green semi for the last time and we don't see the Spartans again.

The fraternity between equipment managers is strong. When Jon had his leg broken on the sideline during a game in Iowa City in 2005, equipment managers from across the country called and sent gifts to his hospital room. One man who didn't call was Knickerbocker. A few days after surgery as Falk recovered in his hospital room, in walked Knickerbocker who had made the trip from Lansing to visit his injured friend.

Equipment men are intelligent, conscientious, have a high attention to detail and rarely grow up wanting to be equipment managers. Falk's football career ended in eighth grade with his face in the dirt and a broken nose, a casualty of a tackle in the days before facemasks. He remained close to the sport by serving as team manager through high school and then working as an equipment manager at Miami University while studying for a physical education degree. As a sophomore, then head football coach Bo Schembechler took him with the team to San Francisco for a game at the University of Pacific, the first time Falk had been anywhere near the West Coast. After graduation, Falk worked two years as a full-time equipment manager at Miami until Bo offered him the Michigan job in 1973. He's been in Ann Arbor ever since.

"I have 17 Big Ten rings and I want to get to 20," Falk says, twisting the 1997 national championship ring on his right ring finger. "Maybe then I'll retire."

Caramel Creamies, Broken Axes and Remy Hamilton's Missing Kicking Net

The truck turns onto Interstate 57 ("Dark as hell with nothing but cornfields on both sides," Falk says) and Falk uses a flashlight to read a map in the passenger seat, popping Caramel Creamies into his mouth and sipping from a can of Coke Zero as we rumble into Illinois. Falk has rubbed shoulders with a number of celebrities as head equipment man for one of the most storied football programs in America. Falk has met Bo Derek, Bob Hope and TV's Al Bundy, Ed O'Neill. Falk remembers standing on the sidelines at the Rose Bowl with O'Neill shortly after the series finale of Married With Children, talking about syndication and getting a crash course in network television.

Falk has traveled with famous company too, including the Paul Bunyan Trophy and the Little Brown Jug. One year Paul Bunyan's axe broke on a trip to Lansing and Falk had to take it to the Michigan State wood shop for emergency repairs. Another year, Falk's daughter almost knocked the Little Brown Jug off a table. He's very protective of these trophies and is proud that nothing has happened to them on his watch.

There have been screw-ups. Everyone remembers Remy Hamilton's game-winning field goal to beat Notre Dame in 1994 but who knows that he hit it without warming up on the sideline. With less than a minute remaining and the Wolverines trailing by one, the equipment staff began packing up Michigan's non-essential gear on the sidelines and rolling it out of the stadium. But as the Wolverines drove to midfield and past, a frantic Remy Hamilton ran up to Falk, hollering "Where is the kicking net? Where is the kicking net?"

Falk looked around the sideline and sure enough, the kicking net was gone. He could see the net being carried away by his staff and shouted at them, but the noise of the stadium swallowed his words. He turned to Remy and said, "You're just going to have to kick it." And he did, giving Michigan the win.

The truck edges closer to Champaign and Falk turns on the radio, settling on a familiar song that he and Jim pick up mid-chorus, singing softly as we plow through the dark.

"Oooooooh child, things are going to get easier, oooooooh child things will get brighter."

Finally, at 1:02 a.m. ET we pull up into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn and park behind the hotel to lessen the chances of someone breaking into the vehicle or vandalizing the beautiful maize and blue truck. The road weary crew checks into the hotel and it's off to bed before an early start on Friday morning.

In part two (debuting Friday), the equipment staff rise early to prepare the locker room for Friday's walkthrough and get ready for game time. After the contest, they prepare for a long Halloween trip back to Ann Arbor where the work begins as soon as the truck arrives at Schembechler Hall.

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