Days in the Life: A road game with MSU’s equipment staff

“We’re like roadies,” Phil Silva told me as he walked across a cluttered locker room at Reliant Stadium on Saturday.

Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Seal Family Football Complex

A combination of my fear of flying and an offer from last summer had me riding the equipment bus to Houston for Mississippi State’s season opener. I spent time with MSU’s equipment staff during fall camp last August and was told if I wanted some entertainment, I ought to join them for a road trip.

So, there I was. As I entered the complex, football players were leaving, heading home to rest before flying the next day. I walked down the mostly-empty hallways, through a couple staircases and ambled up to the door of the equipment room.

photoThere’s always a scene in movies where the main character is running away from bad guys, darts down a deserted alley and opens an innocuous looking door with no signage, only to find an unexpected crowd of movement, people, noises and things overwhelming the senses after the quiet alleyway.

So it was when I opened the door to the equipment room. The long empty hallway behind me and the inside of an overflowing anthill in front of me.

Their day had started long before, getting players ready for practice, taking care of them in practice, then fixing them all up after practice.

Somewhere in the hour and change after practice ended, they had to pack the semi-truck of all the equipment MSU would need in Houston – shoulder pads, jerseys, towels, undershirts, arm bands, each player’s individual bag, coaches’ needs, etc. – and they all had to shower and load their own ride.

The equipment bus left for Houston at 8 p.m., an estimated arrival time of 5 a.m.

The loading went smoothly enough, as did the ride to Texas, a mixture of sleeping, talking and watching the first night of college football on those phones with strong enough reception.

Upon arrival, we are finally charged with an instruction we like: go to sleep. Even if the sun is now on her way up.

Saturday, 7 a.m., Hyatt Regency lobby, Houston

Bagel and coffee in hand, I watched as all who rode the bus over filled the lobby with bags, breakfast and belongings. They were all packed. They wouldn’t leave Texas for another 14 hours, but this was goodbye to the hotel.

photo-1Typically, I’m told, they wouldn’t arrive to the stadium until about four hours before the game, but Reliant Stadium is used differently than college football cathedrals on SEC campuses. A true multi-purpose facility, it was being put to other uses Friday, meaning MSU couldn’t get in for either an equipment and training setup or a team walk-through like usual. It all had to be done Saturday morning.

So, off we went.

For the first game of the season, the group was orderly, grabbing their own bags without being told and toting them to the locker room where the Bulldogs would be held, about 1/3 of the way around the bowels of the stadium. Then back to the entrance, where the semi-truck of goods had been backed up to the loading dock.

One by one, two by two, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes smoothly, everything was rolled, carried or pushed to the locker room.

I walked back into the locker room after one load and saw the head of the whole operation, Phil Silva, walk through a door.

“I got attacked by a table,” he yelled with a laugh, pointing at his now-bleeding shin. “It’s just blood,” he told me when I looked worried, “I just got thin blood. It’ll be fine.”

photo-3And so it was. He continued barking out orders and directions, having his students unload all 70-something players’ bags and put them in lockers, which he had been labeling with the nametags they brought from Starkville.

“Shoulder pads on top, helmet in the cubby, shoes on the floor and hang any knee braces on the hooks,” he instructed. “Girdles in the back, pants right beside ‘em.”

“They got no clue,” Phil said to someone, maybe me, maybe the wall of the locker room. “Players just come in here before the game and, ‘Ooh, looks pretty.’ We’re like roadies. Somebody’s gotta do it.”

If he’s complaining through the smile he wears as he talks, it’s more for fun than out of annoyance. It’s not hard to see the love for players and students behind his gravelly Louisiana-bred jokes and wise-cracks.

Somewhere in the preparations, a group of students sat a table in the locker room applying decals to helmets, the silver and maroon ‘M-State’ on the back, SEC patches and other such emblems.

While they did so, ESPN’s College GameDay was on the TV in the background and a video feature was introduced.

A story about Penn State’s legendary equipment manager.

“Hey, look,” one of them said as ESPN cut to video clips of people in State College doing the same things as they were in Houston. “It’s us!”

‘Us,’ of course, being equipment managers.

Things are often referred to as a fraternity. Coaches, athletic directors, presidents and the like. But equipment managers, it turns out, are just as much a fraternity as anyone, if not moreso.

Shortly after the ESPN piece, a pair of orange-and-black-clad Oklahoma State people walked in, carrying a massive bag.

“You guys ready?” one of them asked.

Bewildered I looked at the group of MSU’s guys.

“Yeah, I think our bag is in the other room,” one replied. “I’ll be right back.”

It was an equipment exchange. Standard practice, it turns out. OSU, Georgia, Alabama, Michigan. Whoever the opponent, equipment staffs always trade.

It’s not much. Hats, shorts, t-shirts or even decals. Just a little something. But the collections people gain are tokens of experience, signs of how long they’ve been in the business, based on how many schools they can claim items from.

“Ha! No, I’m good,” Silva said when asked if he wanted a Cowboys hat. “I’ve got stuff from before you were born. Y’all just take care of each other.”

“We’ve heard a ton about you,” one of the OSU managers told Silva. “Our boss has told us stories.”

Silva, right, labeling lockers pre-game

Silva, right, labeling lockers pre-game

In an odd way, Silva may be more famous around the country within his profession than he is in his own state. I’ve never been somewhere with him when he didn’t know nearly everyone there.

The unpacking and setting up continues until close to lunch, both in the locker room and on the field, and at some point the conversation turns to the freshmen students, those who went through initiation before their first game and now have nearly-hairless heads.

“Take off your hat, lemme see how ugly you are,” Silva says to one. He takes it off laughing and hears Silva’s response. “You look like a gremlin!”

Noise of laughter struck up from everyone in earshot.

The freshman had passed the true initiation, not the shaving of his head, but earning a joke from Silva. He won’t make fun of you unless he likes you, and if you know him, you know where it comes from.

As players arrive, everything is in order and the task turns to attending their needs. Passing out towels, gloves, socks, wristbands, undershirts, whatever they may want.

If a player’s superstition has him more comfortable with three strategically placed armbands, the equipment crew is there to facilitate that desire.

2:30 p.m., Reliant Stadium, Houston

The game begins.

photo-4The focus is on the players, of course, but a watchful eye to the sideline shows a flurry of activity from the equipment staff.

Keeping up with balls for the team and for the refs.

Helping players with pads, gloves and other such issues.

Fixing chinstraps, adjusting facemasks, replacing misplaced items.

Then, once it’s all over, the quick work begins. Taking everything they unpacked, accepting returns from players of all they gave out, stacking shoulder pads, packing helmets, stuffing dirty girdles and socks into bags.

An hour after the last player has left the locker room for the airport, the truck is still being loaded with their equipment.

By 9 p.m., hours after the game has finished, everything is finally packed away. Staff is on the bus and they can finally relax at least for a time.

Upon arrival in Starkville shortly before 6 a.m. on Sunday, Jason Hubbard, Silva’s No. 2, tells the bus,

“You’ve got the rest of today off. Get some sleep, then we’re back here Monday morning to unload the truck and get ready for practice. Happy Labor Day.”

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