MSU Equipment Staff: A Day In The Life
by Bob Carskadon
Six a.m., Wednesday:
"Hey, Mr. Phil, can I get some more thigh pads?"
"Where are the ones from yesterday?" asked the gravelly, Cajun voice.
"They're not in my locker."
"I guess they crawled out, did they? Here ya go."
"Mr. Phil," another voice called, leaning through the window, "do you know where my cleats are? I can't find them."
"You know that thing you sit your big butt on every day in your locker?"
"Lift it up."
Phil Silva had been in the equipment room since 4:15 that morning, washing jerseys, tracking down cleats and stuffing lockers with girdles and shorts.
When players arrived to the locker room at six for the beginning of the first day of two-a-days in fall camp, everything was in place.
Magically, it seems to the 100-plus Mississippi State football players, the jersey they tossed in a bag at the end of the previous day of practice out at South Farm has re-appeared, hanging in their locker without a trace of sweat or dirt. Undershirts, shorts, pants, towels, wristbands, girdles and cleats, all lost to the cosmos when they left the day before, have quietly returned in the night while they slept, clean and fresh as if they still had the tags on.
Like some mix of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, a big-kitchen chef and the manager of a Macy's, Silva and his staff of 15 stock Dan Mullen's team - and coaches - with every item necessary.
Jason Hubbard, the full-time No. 2 man for Silva, and Donald Huffman, the coordinator of the students, still have plenty do, however, once the team arrives. Inevitably, players will want more pads, extra socks, new undershirts, or in the case of running back LaDarius Perkins, enough wristbands to cover both of his arms. Hubbard takes the requests, hopping over to massive drawers, opening them to reveal piles of socks and stacks of neatly-folded, dry-fit shirts or sprinting down the long, rectangular room to grab a new pair of gold cleats for running back Derrick Milton.
"Not the ones with the high tops," he says. "You remember, the ones I wore in the spring."
"I know exactly what you're talking about," Hubbard says before returning with the shiny kicks.
A freshman, not yet used to the sarcastic-but-loving jokes coming from the equipment room - connected to the locker room by a large, drive-thru style window - had waited his turn in line. Silva happened to walk by as he reached the front.
"Can I get an extra shoelace?"
"Which foot?" Silva asks.
Then he cracks up laughing at the confused look on the freshman's face.
"Don't worry, I got your shoelace," he says.
When football players get out to The Farm, they step out of the vans, through the chain-link fence and pick up their shoulder pads. All the mud from the previous day is cleaned off and their jerseys are already on them. All they have to do is find their number in the line along the field and pick it up. Again, everything they need is magically there.
After a little bit of stretching, practice starts, footballs start flying and coaches start yelling. Or that's what most eyes notice anyway. Weaving in and out of the 100-some-odd players and coaches, 13 students working for Hubbard and Silva are setting up cones, feeding balls to coaches and helping players fix loose shoulder pads or oddly-fitting hip protectors.
Walker Eaton, one of the more experienced equipment managers, is assigned to help wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando. Jogging back-and-forth with a detailed practice timeline in his hand, Eaton is making sure that as periods end and units go to new drills, the cones are already set up and balls are in place, maximizing the time coaches have with their players.
In the middle of one session, another student runs up to Eaton.
"He decided to do a different drill next period and we don't have the cones for it."
After double-checking for the cones himself, Eaton says, "Well, we can cut these cones into fours and make it work, then I can still use them later for my receivers' drill."
Quickly, Eaton assigned someone to keep corralling balls and handing them to Mirando one-by-one while he hurried off to find the spare cones and turn them into something he could use. All the while, coaches and players continue to practice, going from drill-to-drill where everything they need is, yet again, magically there.
Once practice ends, the 13 students recover and pack the various balls and cones, as well as anything else that got left behind. Near the exit, Hubbard is back, standing behind a massive yellow container on wheels.
"Line your shoulder pads up by the fence, drop your jersey in here!" he yells.
The shoulder pads go back across campus on a trailer, while the pile of sweat and dirt-stained jerseys is loaded into the back of Hubbard's truck. The pads will get a quick hose-down before being transported back to The Farm, and the jerseys go straight into the washer. The setup is smart, though. The team has three sets of practice jerseys, so the ones from the first practice won't be worn again until the following day. The second set of jerseys go onto the freshly-cleaned shoulder pads, so that the showers and two hours of relative calm the players get between practices aren't rendered moot by putting on used jerseys that sat out in the hot August sun.
After lunch and meetings, the cycle starts anew as the team prepares for the second practice of the day. Perkins is back for more wristbands, rolled-up socks fly through the window at random to offensive linemen and someone else can't find their thigh pads.
"Yours must've crawled out your locker, too," Silva cracks.
The operation Silva, Hubbard and Huffman run is a hectic one, but the detail and organization of it has an almost military-like feel. The equipment staff gets to know the players personally over the course of weeks, seasons and careers, but everything goes by numbers. The cleats have numbers. Shorts have numbers. Girdles have numbers. Pads have numbers. Generally, they match the ones on jerseys, but with over 100 players on the roster and only 99 jersey numbers to choose from, the staff can't always have it so easy.
After a practice, Silva sounds like a head chef barking orders at his kitchen, looking for ingredients and making sure dishes go out on time.
"We're missing cleats 98, 45, 23 and 124, let's find them now."
As the bakers dozen of students scrambles, more orders flow, then Silva joins Hubbard in the laundry room. While the process is remarkably similar to laundry at home, with lights (white jerseys and pants) and darks (maroon) being separated into different loads and Tide sheets finding their way into the dryer, the machines look like something from the set of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The industrial size dryers and washing machines are bigger than some studio apartments and strong enough to handle a load of 200 cleats.
"I'm the highest paid laundry man in the SEC," Silva jokes. "These machines almost never stop running from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m."
Silva, obviously, is much more than just a laundry man, especially when the season starts and his crew is tasked with transporting each and every thing the team needs (everything from jerseys and pads to headsets and sideline fans) to the stadium on game day, whether that stadium happens to be across campus or in Lexington, Kentucky or Eugene, Oregon. And as the laundry runs each day for nearly 17 hours, so does Silva, arriving with his paper and coffee each morning before the sun comes up and leaving each night after the sun has set and primetime TV has concluded.
But, it turns out, the New Orleans native wouldn't change it for anything. He's been at MSU for 29 years, turning down offers to go elsewhere, content to remain the highest-paid laundry man in the conference and happy to raise his children in Starkville.
Silva loves his job. He loves his students and he loves the players.
"They're all like sons to me," he said.
While the freshmen may not always realize when he's joking around, the older players know how much Silva cares and they relish a chance to talk to him when the days slow down. After the second practice Wednesday night, many of them stopped by the window, not looking for socks or shirts, but just to say hey, including senior cornerback and All-American Johnthan Banks, who also happens to be a proud father.
"How's your boy, Banks?" Silva asked.
"He's getting' too old, Mr. Phil. He tried to hang up on me on FaceTime last night."
"Master P!" yelled senior guard Tobias Smith, walking up next to Banks.
"Tobias, don't come over here acting like you did anything today," Silva joked. "How much are you weighing now? You look good."
Some of the happiest moments in his life, Silva said, come from his former players and equipment managers returning to campus.
"A lot of the guys come back and see me," Silva said. "The best is hearing about these great families they have, how well they're doing, how happy they are."
While some players recognize and appreciate what the equipment staff does every day, arriving before them and leaving after them each day, most of the guys in the locker room don't realize how much goes on behind the scenes, Silva said.
"They think all of their stuff just magically appears."
But Silva, who was surprised with the honor of having the equipment room in the new football facility named after him, is content to go unnoticed.
On games days, he says, he outfits the coaches in the best gear Adidas can provide, making sure they stand out when people look down at the sidelines. Behind the coaches and then the players, Silva makes sure his full staff wears the same thing, doing his best to make them blend in with the players.
"We don't wanna stand out," Silva says.
And they don't. But, maybe just this once, they deserve to.
Oh, on Thursday, biblical rain and lightning forced the team practice indoors. The equipment staff had 45 minutes to move everything from The Farm to The Palmeiro Center, in the rain, with only a pickup truck, a small trailer and the back of an SUV. Five minutes after they finished the move and setup, the team walked in, with no idea of the cross-campus scamper that had just happened.