As student-athletes, coaches and support staff return to campus to prepare for football season, equipment managers have already been on the scene for some time getting ready to go. In a general sense, as this season progresses in whatever form it takes, there will be few folks within a football program more deserving of the term “essential” than equipment managers.
The equipment managers will be the ones who identify every piece of equipment needed for a successful football program. From endzone markers to ozone purifiers, equipment managers will be responsible, in many ways, for making sure that the equipment that gets used remains clean and in good repair throughout the season.
This is not a duty that equipment managers have historically shied away from. These folks are used to dealing with staph and MRSA, so fighting microbes is fairly familiar territory. From high school through college, they will have their methods for dealing with coronavirus and helping to keep everyone safe.
Ed Chisholm is head equipment manager and head athletic trainer for Fort Worth Country Day in Fort Worth, Texas. As an athletic trainer with a background in medicine, he has a unique perspective on how coronavirus will impact the day-to-day lives of the equipment manager.
“We’re fortunate enough that our school lets me recondition our football equipment every year, so all my equipment has already been sent out and come back,” he says. “They were sanitized and cleaned, so I’m not worried about football, as it’s the sport that requires the most gear.”
Fort Worth Country Day also professionally launders its football uniforms after every game, which will kill coronavirus on the spot. Just as with hand washing, there is little more devastating to this coronavirus than good old fashioned hot water, soap and agitation. That’s because the outer layer of the coronavirus is covered in sort of a thin film of grease, what’s known as a lipid bilayer. By applying soap, hot water and scrubbing to that lipid bilayer, the virus effectively dismantles and is unable to infect target cells.
“My first concern, approaching everything, is safety of our student-athletes,” says Chisholm. “Before coronavirus, our concern was MRSA, so we’ve already had measures in place preventing that. That’s where we came up with our policy of reconditioning every year. We got rid of our pads and purchased anti-microbial shoulder pads. Things like that we put in place to prevent MRSA and those measures should help us with coronavirus as well.”
But what about the equipment that student-athletes may not have yet returned. Chisholm and his school nurse set up a system whereby parents and/or student-athletes first must clean their equipment at home and then return it to the school via curbside drop-off.
“They pull up, and they’re not allowed to get out of the vehicle. We’re wearing gloves and masks and we take their equipment — which they’ve put into plastic bags — and we put that into crates,” says Chisholm. “We’ll wait a week before we handle anything, then we’ll run it through our aerial sanitization system. Our doctors have assured us that a week inside these bags then running it through that system should definitely be enough. The virus should not survive those conditions.”
Killing Germs With Ozone
Colleges are taking similar precautions. While much of the new equipment that comes in will be clean — coming directly from the manufacturer — equipment managers still need to make sure they have a process in place to handle that equipment after student-athletes sweat through it on the practice field or in the weight room.
Dana Marquez, E.M.C., associate athletic director at Auburn University, has multiple equipment-related responsibilities at the perennial football
powerhouse. Those responsibilities include coordinating equipment and overseeing the purchasing, fitting, inventory, and maintenance needs for 21 varsity teams along with providing guidance to other areas in the athletic department. He supervises nine full-time assistant equipment managers and 34 student assistants.
Marquez is also responsible for the allocation, disbursement, and oversight of the athletic department’s $80+ million Under Armour contract.
Auburn had invested heavily in ozone cleaning prior to coronavirus, and it’s a great tool for killing all kinds of germs.
“It’s important to know that not everything is going to get rid of coronavirus, so you have to do the best you can,” he says. “We have two ozone chambers in our equipment room. Our laundry, helmets and shoulder pads go through that ozone chamber every week to kill any superbugs left on the inside of the helmet or on padding or foam. If we have an outbreak of any type, if it’s the flu or it’s allergy season, whatever it is, we get that information from our sports medicine team and we’ll do everything we can to sanitize it as much as possible.”
Trent Chestnut is head equipment manager for the University of Illinois, in a state particularly hard-hit by coronavirus. He also makes use of ozone chambers to sanitize equipment.
“Our system is large, like a walk-in deep freezer, and we have three rolling racks that we use,” says Chestnut. “We’ll put shoulder pads, helmets, cleats, knee braces, you name it. A lot of our stuff that we just can’t launder in a machine, we can put it in the ozone machine and it’ll kill all that staph, any kind of MRSA, viruses. You name it, it kills it. There’s no liquid or anything. It’s just blowing ozone gas, circulating it through the machine. We use it during football every day, even a couple of cycles a day, but I could see that increasing.”
Killing Germs With Laundry, Cleansing
Sometimes, the simplest tools are the most effective. Simply wiping down equipment with surface disinfectants and appropriately laundering clothing, towels and other fabrics, are tools equipment managers use regularly to great effect.
Equipment managers are well known for their abilities to process vast amounts of laundry. That process now takes on added meaning in colleges and high schools across the country.
“Our laundry also goes through its own process,” says Marquez. “Our detergent has a chance to kill any bugs and the temperature of the water does too. We’ll even send our laundry through the ozone chambers after everything is washed and dried.”
Auburn’s helmets and shoulder pads get dismantled and washed every week.
“Our practice helmets get taken apart every Tuesday,” says Marquez. “All the pads come out, the helmet gets washed, it all is sent through the ozone chamber, and it gets put back together. Shoulder pads get done every Wednesday and Thursday. Our game helmets go through the same process on Wednesday and Thursday.”
This is a process that Auburn’s had in place for many years. When staff and student-athletes return, Marquez is looking at deploying masks for everyone and hand sanitizer around every corner.
Storage and Travel
Once equipment managers re-think and re-implement their sanitization processes, the next step will be understanding how to properly store equipment and then travel with that equipment to away games.
Storage is key to making sure that once it has been cleaned, equipment stays clean in the equipment room. Chisholm uses Spacesaver high-density storage systems in his equipment room. They help him keep everything organized, and that helps everything stay clean.
“Our helmets are on racks, and air can easily flow under them and around them,” says Chisholm. “Our uniform tops are on hangers, definitely free flowing, and they have plenty of air flow and movement around them. Shorts are on hangers too.”
That’s a key point, because solid ventilation is widely understood to mitigate the potential for transmission of coronavirus in humans. Keeping the air free flowing helps to keep virus particles from gaining a centralized foothold on any given surface.
Chestnut and Marquez use similar types of Spacesaver systems, though they’ve configured their systems differently to obtain maximum air flow and cleanliness.
“We have a long skinny slot where we can hang athletes’ dress clothes, their sport coat and slacks we use for the alumni walk,” says Chestnut. “Then we also have a shelf just for their helmets and one for their game jerseys. There are four different shelves per player. We sanitize those on a regular basis once reconditioning comes in. We’ll be doing that a lot more often than we did last season.”
One of the major differences for the 2020 season over last year will also be how equipment managers deal with away games. Marquez knows that while he can go to the ends of the earth to keep Auburn facilities and equipment as clean as possible, all bets are off walking into an opposing team’s facilities.
“Road games will probably be the biggest shift that we’re looking at from a preparation standpoint, because we won’t know what each university is doing,” says Marquez. “We’re planning on taking our static sprayer with us and disinfecting our locker room before our team arrives and before we start loading into the locker room itself. That’ll be a big change for us, how we travel and what that looks like.”
It’s a new world in athletics, and choosing to come back and play is really only the first choice to be made. Once coaches, administrators, strength coaches, equipment managers and all other support staff choose to bring student- athletes back into the fold, it is incumbent upon those same people to make sure student-athletes are as safe as possible. This is especially difficult in an environment where unknowns continually rear up to shake our confidence in what we’re doing.
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But if there’s anyone who’s battled germs, microbes and bugs of all types, it’s your equipment manager.
“I’ve tried to explain this to people over my 31-year career,” says Marquez. “We are a very essential group that doesn’t just affect the student-athletes, but we affect the entire athletic department in one way, shape or form. In our case, it’s about receiving product, because we oversee our shipping and receiving room. It’s making sure that, before we issue our product — not just to student-athletes, but to our staff, our coaches and our administration — those items are also sanitized and that those people are prepared to receive that product for the year. And then we make sure to keep everything clean. That’s about as essential as you can get.”
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine.
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