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Anatomy of a Bolts' Road Trip
It’s early on a Friday morning at Chargers Park and players are making their way into the locker room, grabbing a quick bite to eat before morning meetings. Coaches are busy at work in their offices upstairs and much of the front office staff has yet to arrive.
However, across the hall from the locker room, there’s quite a stir in the equipment room. In the midst of the bustle of activity of the equipment staff is scores of equipment set out across a large counter top that will soon make the trip with the team across the country. Hats, jerseys, helmets, pads, cold-weather gear, rain gear, everything. In the background are royal blue trunks adorned with lightning bolts that will protect equipment as it travels.
Moving an NFL team, along with its equipment and staff, is no easy task. It’s really the equivalent of relocating a business. And when a team successfully travels to and from another location, it’s the culmination of many stages of planning and plenty of hard work on the part of multiple people.
When all is said and done with the 2012 season, the Chargers will have traveled 25,766 miles, third in the NFL behind the Oakland Raiders who will travel 28,692 and the Seattle Seahawks, who will travel 26,200.
Each April when the NFL releases the official schedule, the first stage of the process in preparing for the road trips begins for Director of Business Operations John Hinek and his assistant John Leatherwood. In what takes nearly a month to complete, Hinek and Leatherwood check hotels in the cities where the team will be playing in order to assure their availability. A specific airline is also contracted to coordinate the flights. For 11 out of the previous 12 years, the Chargers have contracted Delta to charter their flights during the season, using a Boeing 757 for trips on the West Coast and a 767 for those to the East Coast. The 2012 road schedule included three-hour time-zone trips east to Pittsburgh, New York, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
But that’s far from the end of it. A road trip is full of seemingly infinite details that must be carefully planned and coordinated, from the buses that take the team to and from the airport, to the food that is served at the hotel and on the plane. Hinek and Leatherwood are a constant presence during the trip, always on-hand to make sure there are no hiccups.
“Road trips are the most fun part of my job,” said Hinek. “We all have things that we have to do and things that we like to do. But that part is fun for me because there’s a lot that goes into it. When you come back and it’s been a successful trip, there’s a small amount of gratification in that. Maybe you help ease the travel burdens for the guys. It’s exciting and can be very gratifying if you’re doing well.”
Preparing and packing all of the equipment for game day falls into the hands of veteran equipment manager Bob Wick, who joined the team in 1979 as a ball boy. Wick and his staff face a sizable task when preparing for road trips, particularly those with the likelihood of inclement weather, which requires them to pack additional gear to keep the players and coaches warm and dry.
Items that have to be brought along for cold-weather situations include long-sleeve shirts, gloves, hot-packs for shoes and gloves, long tights to go underneath pants, gloves, stocking caps, and hand and feet warmers. An extra set of detachable cleats are packed for each player as well, and the spikes can be changed out per a players’ preference or for unfavorable and wet conditions.
While the average traveler only has to worry about themselves and one or two bags, Wick and his staff are responsible for all the players and the entire coaching staff. And if you’ve ever had the feeling that you’ve forgotten something, you can only imagine what it may feel like when the responsibility of an entire team’s equipment rests on your shoulders. But Wick has been doing it for so long that he hardly bats an eye.
“You just have to double-check everything and reassure yourself during the week that everything is packed,” Wick said with a smile.
Another perk of traveling as an NFL team is the lack of long lines at the airport. At a set time before departure, TSA agents arrive at Chargers Park and begin screening the equipment truck, buses, drivers, staff, players and guests. At various stations, agents check the travel party and the bags, which are then loaded onto the buses. From there it’s right onto the tarmac and onto the airplane; no hassle and no lines or traffic.
On board the plane, a majority of the first-class section is reserved for players, which is based on seniority. For players like Nick Hardwick and Philip Rivers, they prefer to be back in the open seating area with most of their teammates.
“I like it back there in coach,” said Hardwick. “I get three seats to myself and I lay across the three seats. It’s pretty quiet and more spacious. First-class really isn’t my scene.”
When the team arrives at their destination, Assistant Director of Public Relations Scott Yoffe is already there and hard at work to make their arrival as seamless as possible. On a three-day trip, Yoffe typically flies out a day before the team and coordinates with the hotel staff, putting together a packet for each member of the team which includes an itinerary, room keys, a rooming list and any credentials for the game. Once again, no long lines to check in at the hotel. Each person is handed their packet, then it’s right off to their room.
In a sense, the team hotel functions much like the Chargers’ training facility at Chargers Park while they’re on the road. Banquet rooms are used to serve food and to hold team and group meetings. The meetings must also be set up with audio-video technology in order for various groups to study film, just as they would in the team meeting rooms at Chargers Park.
The Chargers’ security team also is a busy group on the road. They are responsible for securing the team’s presence at the hotel, no easy task for large hotels and a travel party of this size.
When the game is over, it’s all-hands on deck to make sure that all of the equipment and the players are on the plane for their journey back to San Diego. While many of the players take the extra time in the air to rest their bodies, others enjoy the camaraderie with their teammates.
“One of the things that I love about road trips is being with my buddies on the plane ride home after the game,” Hardwick said. “Home games are great because you have that home crowd. But afterward, everyone goes out to the parking lot and goes home. You don’t get a chance to tell all the war stories from the game. On the plane we’re all kind of huddled up and telling stories about the day. It’s nice to have a couple of hours to debrief.”
While there is little doubt that players love playing at home, visiting other stadiums and taking in those experiences are certainly not lost on them.
“One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed is going to places like Heinz Field or Mile High,” said Danario Alexander. “I remember my first time in Mile High, I got chills because I remember watching games in that place on TV as a kid. To see all those people there, it’s amazing. And to actually be able to be there, living that moment playing in the NFL, that’s a pretty big deal. I try and take it all in.”