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Behind the scenes: Outfitting the team

Posted Jun 14, 2011

Into his fourth decade with the Chargers, equipment manager Bob Wick has watched the evolution of football pads, helmets and jerseys while getting an up-close look at thousands of personalities that have come through Chargers Park.

SAN DIEGO – If you think your laundry is bad, try washing for an entire roster of large, sweaty men that roll around in the grass once a week.

Luckily for Chargers equipment manager Bob Wick, he’s got more than your standard home appliances. He and his staff employ three commercial washing machines and four dryers, each with a dry weight capacity of 75 pounds.

“During the season they’re probably going when we get here about 6 a.m. until we leave around 5 or 6 p.m.,” Wick said. “Also, on Mondays after a game, we wash all our game uniforms and game pants ourselves.

“All the soil on the jerseys from the grass, from the dirt, we get all that stuff out. Those are about an hour cycle. It’s really high on detergent. It attacks the soil.”

Meanwhile, Wick and his staff operate what amounts to a free mom-and-pop store across the hall from the locker room. Need bubblegum? Socks? A new chin strap? More air in your helmet? The equipment room is the place to go.

Head Coach Norv Turner will use Wick’s office as a temporary hub, perhaps catching snippets of the morning news on Wick’s TV while using its proximity to the locker room to communicate with players.

When coaches and players enter meetings, the equipment guys lay out helmets, practice jerseys and shoes in each player’s locker ahead of practice. They’ll tighten cleats, put on helmet decals and wait for the obligatory last-second rush on gloves, socks, even jocks.

At practice they hold the down-and-distance chains, spot the football, work the clock, shoot footballs from JUGS machines and draw up play calls on the white board.

“After practice it’s strictly just laundry,” Wick said. We collect it, wash it and hang it back up. And the coaches, we do their laundry throughout the day.”

During travel weeks, the equipment staff will begin to pack as soon as the uniforms are clean from the previous week’s game. By Tuesday, an average of 3,000 pounds is all but packed into 55 individual player bags (shoulder pads, helmets, shoes, knee and thigh pads), 21 trunks and 24 equipment bags. Later in the week, they’ll add jerseys that needed repairs from an on-call seamstress and other little items.

If a player busts a facemask during a game, Wick can’t run to Wal-Mart or the local sporting goods store. He and his crew must pack dozens of extra cleats (several styles for each size), helmets, facemasks, gloves, hats, and all the protective equipment.

“It’s almost like being in the pit crew in NASCAR when a player comes off and he wants to go right back in the game,” Wick said. “So you’ve got to be quick and get his helmet fixed or his cleats changed or his jersey sewn if it rips.

“Every now and then a player will want longer cleats put on his shoes. We do it really quick with our drill gun. A chin strap may break. It may unbuckle. They may need air in their helmets. Also the coach and quarterback (headset) system, we monitor that. If that doesn’t work we need to fix it ASAP. Those types of little things always keep us busy on Sundays.”

Wick, one of the longest-tenured employees in the building, joined the team as a ball boy and equipment assistant during training camp in 1979. He worked under Sid Brooks, a Korean and Vietnam War veteran who became the first African-American equipment manager in the NFL.

“(Brooks) was really tough and disciplined, which helped with my discipline and being on time,” Wick said. “(He was) always working. Never sitting around. He instilled a lot of very important values which I carry on today. He liked people, too. He loved the players. He had fun during all this.”

Now Wick is the gatekeeper for one of the NFL’s most memorable uniforms. Though he relishes conversations with players about families, kids, pets, things outside of football, there’s one question he hears repeated more often than anything.

“‘When are we wearing light blue?’” Wick recalls. “When we wear our light blue jerseys the players get all pumped up. A couple years ago we had AFL jerseys from the 50th anniversary and the guys got to wear black shoes and they were really pumped up.”

The Chargers went to the NFL playoffs for the first time in ’79, beating Denver 17-7 on Dec. 17 to secure first place in the AFC West under Head Coach Don Coryell and quarterback Dan Fouts. Wick recalls standing in the locker room after, the stadium still rocking, and getting hugs from coaches and players, exciting stuff for a recent high school graduate.

Players wore thicker pads then. Helmets and facemasks, now made of titanium, are much lighter. Jerseys and pants are made out of stretchy mesh material that repels water.

“Everything’s changed,” Wick said. “The jerseys don’t get water-logged if it’s raining like they did in the old days. I think the game’s faster. (Equipment) is lighter and smaller and the players want less of it.”
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