Nov. 6, 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 made the six-hour and twenty-one minute trip in from Ann Arbor to Champaign. On the way they got ice cream, raced the Michigan State equipment truck on the highway and told more than 30 years worth of stories about Michigan football, half of which are suitable for print. In part two, 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.
The Plan is to Meet in the Lobby at 8:30 a.m. ...
The plan is to meet in the lobby at 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning and drive 200 yards to the Urbana Family Garden Restaurant for strong coffee and a hearty breakfast. Thanks to a heavy snooze hand, I wake up 15 minutes late and get to the restaurant by 9:15 a.m. as everyone is leaving. Falk spots me while climbing into the truck and squints his eyes.
"You're on double public probation, Ryan," he says. Falk will call me Ryan, Ron, Rob and (correctly) Rich over the course of our trip, but he never forgets my tardiness, mentioning it at least five times over the next three hours.
Jim expertly backs the truck and trailer into the loading dock at Memorial Stadium, handling the massive beast like a Smart Car. The first equipment bags roll off the truck at 9:41 a.m. and the countdown to the team's arrival begins. Row after row of old wooden stalls line the visitor's locker room at Memorial Stadium. Each stall has four hooks, a one-foot wide bench to sit on and an inexplicable three-foot section of metal grating behind it. Falk peels labels printed with the player's name and number off big sheets and sticks them on each locker. The quarterback stalls are side-by-side, O-linemen are clustered together, and defensive players line the side and back stalls of the locker room. Elliott Mealer's locker is closest to the showers, Craig Roh is closest to a smaller locker room that the coaches will use, and Tate Forcier is closest to the door to Memorial Stadium.
Remnants of visitors past remain. A time sheet is still tacked to a corkboard from Michigan State's game earlier in the month. A dry erase board in the corner is still covered with scribbles from Ohio State's visit. It reads:
1 - Do your JOB!
2 - Keep after the QB
3 - Tackle! (underlined three times)
Falk quips, "Those are our keys too!"
The Radio is the Second Oldest Thing in the Locker Room
Falk puts an ancient-looking, one-speaker radio on top of a stall and tunes in a light rock station, playing hits from Simply Red, the Bee Gees and Miley Cyrus. Falk purchased the radio in 1974 and it has played music for him and his men ever since. The radio is one year older than 36-year-old assistant equipment manager Rick Brandt, and other than a slightly wonky antenna, it has held up well over the years.
Seventy bags are dropped in their respective stalls and each bag is unpacked. Shoulder pads go on top of each locker, knee and thigh pads in the top left cubby, gloves and braces in the top right, helmets are hung on a peg, and the empty bags are placed in the back of each stall. One of the managers handles the training staff's gear, stacking ice chests, coolers and cases of Gatorade and water in a large training room off to the side. With everything unpacked, the managers address the helmets. They add paint thinner to pre-measured vials of Michigan blue paint, stirring the mixture in a small container and dabbing brushes in the mixture. They work from stall to stall, painting over scratches and scuffs on the blue sections of the helmets, rubbed off during the previous game and through a full week of practice. Each helmet comes out of the factory Green Bay Gold. A base coat of maize is applied and finally blue is added to create the winged helmet. The mangers spend extra time on the helmets of the offensive and defensive linemen, some of which sport deep ruts from battling giants in the trenches. On game day the helmets will be polished to a shine.
While the managers handle the helmets, Brandt takes an opaque bottle with "Reek Out" stenciled on the side and sprays select helmets. An odor-controlling substance designed by former NHLer Pat Verbeek, it tackles the strongest odors, but the managers joke that it's no match for Brandt's hockey equipment.
"I air my stuff out," Brandt says as the managers laugh and finish painting.
The air conditioners grind at maximum power in the locker room, and with rain and cold outside, everyone is bundled up.
"You can hang meat in here," barks Falk.
Everyone looks forward to lunch.
The cab is unhooked from the trailer, and we drive out of Memorial Stadium to eat greasy food at a chain restaurant nearby where the staff dress as devils, referees, and law enforcement officials. Jim orders fried pickles, which are actually really good.
Hurry Up and Wait
The next three hours are waiting. Most equipment managers bring homework or a book to kill the downtime waiting for players and coaches to arrive for walkthrough. Once the players arrive, they find their lockers and walk out onto the field. Back inside the locker room, the jerseys are locked tight in a nondescript case and pushed into a lonely corner until game day. After 20 minutes in the stadium, everyone reboards the buses and the equipment staff heads back to the hotel. On some trips, armed guards are posted at the entrance to Michigan's locker room to deter unwanted visitors in the night. With multiple gates and tight security at Memorial Stadium, it would take a motivated menace to mess with the Wolverine gear on Devil's Night.
Game day arrives and the equipment crew wakes early on Saturday morning, breakfasting at the Urbana Garden Family Restaurant again. They are back at the stadium by 9:30 a.m. setting up phones and the communications system for the coaches' headsets, while a team goes through final preparations in the locker room. A student manager polishes each helmet to a glossy shine with Future Floor Wax, the secret ingredient that makes the winged helmets pop on TV. He rubs each helmet with a sock soaked in the wax, brilliantly bringing out the colors. Meanwhile, footballs are inflated, jerseys and pants are hung in stalls, and a game day program is placed in each locker.
Massive Pizza Delivery Boxes Distributing Hot and Fresh Footballs
Falk hangs a big white plastic clock next to a dry erase board listing the warmup times for each position group. Eight-by-ten sheets of paper with the same warmup times are taped to the end of each stall, impossible to miss. The buses pull up to Memorial Stadium at 12:22 p.m., and players and coaches discharge into the stadium. In the locker room, equipment managers are stationed in front of a giant trunk full of socks, sweatbands, "head structures" (beanies) and other gear. The players dress in everything but their shoulder pads and sit in their stalls, quietly flipping through the game program. Just outside the locker room entrance, Falk orchestrates more delicate work. Here, a team of managers rub long strips of Astroturf on footballs that will be used in the game, balls that were specially selected by the quarterbacks earlier in the week. The rough-hewn balls are stuffed into insulated duffel bags and stacked on the ground. As game time nears, the duffel bags will be lined with thermal heat pads, acting like massive pizza delivery boxes, distributing hot and fresh footballs all game long.
The student equipment managers double as ball boys during games, split on the home and visitor sides of the field. A ball is replaced every three plays or so or when it travels outside the numbers. Today's game is cool, but Friday's rain has passed and the elements don't play a factor. The same can't be said of the frigid temperatures when Michigan visited Iowa, the rain vs. Penn State or the flash monsoon at Michigan State. The Illinois contest is a quiet game for the equipment managers who do their part for the team. Each area of the program devotes itself to helping the team succeed on the field, and on this trip the equipment staff has done their job. There are no equipment malfunctions nor technical difficulties, and the staff attends to each of the coaches' and players' needs. That's all they can be expected to do, and Falk is proud of his men.
The Trip Back to Ann Arbor
After the game, the players return to the locker room, peel off their pads, pull tape off their wrists and ankles, and the packing begins anew. Game-worn shirts and pants are collected and put on the team plane so that laundry can begin as soon as the staff returns to Schembechler Hall. The rest of the equipment is packed and loaded onto the semi, which Jim pilots 450 miles back to Ann Arbor. Two student managers ride with him in the truck to help with the final stages of packing and go to work once the semi pulls back into Ann Arbor early Sunday morning.
On the team plane, Falk sits in the last row next to radio analyst Jim Brandstatter, and they chat while the plane cruises back to Michigan. The flight takes barely an hour, and by 10 p.m. the washing machines are running full steam at Schemechler Hall, scrubbing the residue of a Halloween loss off the beautiful maize and blue.