Anyone who has ever watched an NFL game knows that equipment is a big part of the sport of professional football. Every part of the player's body is covered and protected by some sort of equipment.
Have you ever wondered where all of this equipment comes from, what the players wear or how the team manages the huge amount of equipment that goes into each game? In this article, we'll take a fascinating tour through the locker room of the Carolina Panthers, an NFL team based in Charlotte, N.C., and find out just what it takes to suit up on game day -- it all begins with the equipment manager!
Professional football puts incredible physical stress on the players -- imagine what it would be like to be regularly hammered by a 230-pound object (like a linebacker) moving at terrific speeds! Without the protective equipment, the game would be nearly impossible -- injuries would wipe out the entire team immediately. Even with the equipment, the players have to be in incredible shape to handle the pounding they endure.
Thanks to Atlanta Falcons equipment manager Brian Boigner, Carolina Panthers equipment manager Jackie Miles, and Falcons cornerback Juran Bolden for all their help with this article.
Equipment is an integral part of professional football, and an NFL team uses a huge amount of it! You see some of it at each game -- the balls, helmets, jerseys, shoes and so on. Much of it, however, is invisible -- the pads are a good example. There's a good bit of equipment that most people never think about, like the cleats that screw into the bottom of the players' shoes, or the sweats that the team wears during practice. Some of it is just plain unexpected, like the chemical hand-warmers, heated benches and chewing gum the team uses. And all of it has a multiplier of 53, the number of players on a team's roster during the normal season.
That multiplier is what changes the job of equipment management into an incredibly interesting logistical position for any team. For example, a typical NFL team consumes somewhere around 2,500 pairs of shoes in a single season! Someone has to keep track of everything or the team can't play.
Equipment Manager's Duties
The role of equipment manager has become an extremely important one for every NFL team. The equipment manager has two big areas of responsibility:
Protecting the players - First and foremost, an equipment manager's job is to fit each player on the team with a customized array of equipment that will provide maximum protection against injury.
Managing the logistics - The equipment manager must handle the tons of equipment the team uses on a daily basis, keep all of it repaired and in stock and move it around for all of the road games.
These twin responsibilities have made equipment management both a science and an incredibly demanding role on any NFL team. For the Carolina Panthers, the job of equipment manager falls on the shoulders of Jackie Miles.
The Locker Room
Miles' world is an extremely interesting one. It involves everything from knowing each player -- his preferences and individual injuries -- personally so that the right equipment provides maximum protection, to making sure that all of that equipment is on hand in the locker room.
It also involves an unbelievable number of parts stored in bins, cabinets, racks and crates.
When you think of the equipment manager, you might just think of uniforms, pads, shoes and footballs, but the range is truly amazing -- it also includes stocking the gum the players chew!
As you can see, the role of equipment manager for an NFL team is one of the most intricate jobs around! Ultimately, however, it all comes down to protecting each player individually. In the following sections we will look at the different pieces of equipment that make protection possible.
A regulation NFL football is 11 inches (28 cm) long and about 28 inches (71 cm) in circumference at its widest point. According to the NFL Rules Digest, "The home club shall have 36 balls for outdoor games and 24 for indoor games available for testing with a pressure gauge by the referee two hours prior to the starting time of the game to meet with League requirements. Twelve (12) new footballs, sealed in a special box and shipped by the manufacturer, will be opened in the officials’ locker room two hours prior to the starting time of the game. These balls are to be specially marked with the letter "k" and used exclusively for the kicking game."
The Helmet Protecting the head from injury is obviously important, because a concussion can easily put a player out of commission. To provide maximum protection, the equipment manager's goal is to provide each player with a helmet that fits perfectly. Starting at the top, a player's equipment begins with the helmet and mouth guard.
The helmet consists of several different parts:
Shell - The team stocks four different models, two each from two different manufacturers.
Jaw pads and air bladders - Come in a variety of thicknesses for a perfect fit
Face mask - Comes in 15 different styles
Chin strap - Comes in six different styles
Mouth guard - Comes in a variety of colors and sizes
Since the NFL allowed wireless communication in regular-season NFL games in 1994, quarterbacks can't get coaches out of their heads. Rather than coaches calling a time-out in order to give a play to a quarterback, many of today's teams are opting for radios inside their quarterback's helmet. Players from the "old school" might argue that this creates an unfair advantage, but proponents say that the radio helmets make for clear coach-to-QB communication, even in large, noisy games like the Super Bowl.
According to a press interview held with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the quality of the sound is good, but crowd noise factors in. “It’s about like what you’d hear over a loudspeaker,” said Bucs QB Shaun King. “It can be hard to hear when there’s a lot of noise on the outside, but it’s pretty clear.”
The helmets are set up with a small speaker in each ear hole. Quarterback coaches or offensive coordinators on the sidelines talk to the quarterback with a radio, giving him specific plays and options.
You can find out more about the evolution of this wireless communication and its recent uses by reading " A Wireless Superbowl."
Fitting a Helmet
Two tools that help with the fitting process are calipers and the inflation bulb.
Miles starts the fitting process by measuring the player's head with the calipers. Based on those measurements, Miles chooses a helmet shell of the appropriate size and style. Next, padding is added to ensure that the helmet fits that player's head.
Padding consists of both foam-rubber pads and inflatable (air) pads. Both the top and side padding include inflatable bladders that customize the fit. Once the helmet is in place on the player's head, Miles applies the inflator bulb to two points on the outside of the helmet.
Next, Miles fits jaw pads to ensure that the lower part of the helmet is snug against the player's face. The helmets that most NFL teams use are remarkably light, and once the pads are in place, the helmet is essentially "glued on" -- there is no movement or shifting; it's as though the helmet has become a part of your head.
The Face Mask
The next part of the helmet is the face mask, which the player chooses. The Panthers have 15 different styles in stock.
Equipment prep begins after each game for Miles and his staff. They replace as many as 15 face masks after every game because of damage. Each week, all of the helmet decals are stripped off and then replaced, the shells are cleaned with an SOS pad and then polished with Future floor wax.
Once the player has chosen his face mask, he chooses a chin strap from the several styles available and Miles fits it appropriately.
Another piece of equipment associated with the head is the mouth guard. These are simple half-moons of plastic with a strap on the end -- the strap hooks around the player's face mask so it isn't lost during play. Fitting a mouth guard is simple: You put it in warm water and allow the plastic to soften. Then the player puts the mouth guard in his mouth, leaving an imprint of his teeth and gums. As the plastic cools, the mold hardens. The result is a mouth guard specific to one player's mouth.
The last piece of equipment that a player can use to protect his head and neck is a neck roll. This foam roll fits around the back part of the jersey's neckline, and is intended to protect the head from being pushed too far backward -- or to lessen the blow when the head is snapped backward.
The Shoulder Pads
In addition to protecting the head and neck from injury, it's also important to protect the player's body. This is where body pads come in. These pads protect the body during all the pushing, tackles, sacks and pile-ups that occur in any game. The player's jersey and pants cover these pads.
There are four pieces of equipment that protect the player's body:
The shoulder pads are probably the most intricate pieces of equipment that the players wear. Shoulder pads consist of a hard plastic shell with foam padding underneath. The pads fit over the shoulders and the chest and rib area, and are secured with various snaps and buckles. Shoulder pads are what give football players their "broad-shouldered" look.
For the Panthers, Miles stocks 12 different styles (essentially one style for every position), with four different sizes per style. A number of custom fitting and padding options are also available, depending on each player's body type and injuries.
The shoulder pads do two things for the player:
They absorb some of the shock of impact through deformation. The pads at the shoulders are strung on tight webbing and deform on impact.
They distribute the shock through a larger area so there is less pressure at the point of impact.
To help protect the ribs, there is hard plastic in the front and back, as well as a flak-jacket extension used by players with a lot of exposure.
For players like linemen, special attachments make the pads harder to use as handholds.
The interior of a set of shoulder pads is padded with foam. Miles can use Velcro to attach additional pads to build up protection or to take pressure off an injury by bridging over it.
The shoulder pads are covered by a jersey. Without the pads, the jersey is usually pretty big on players. But the jersey is cut so that when the player suits up with pads, it is tight-fitting.
Below the waist, the players choose pads depending on their position and injuries. A fully suited player would have several types of pads, including hip pads, knee pads and thigh pads. There are several styles of knee and thigh pads for players to choose from.
These pads are inserted into pockets on the inside of the player's pants prior to suiting up.
The Jersey and Pants
The parts of the uniform that the fans see are the jersey and the pants. The main purpose of these two garments is to identify the player by name and number, and by his team colors. Jerseys will also usually have patches on them -- the NFL logo, the team logo and (if they make it) the Super Bowl and Pro-Bowl logos.
The front and back of the jersey are nylon, with spandex side panels to keep it taut. The goal is to make it difficult -- if not impossible -- for an opposing player to grab hold of the jersey and use it for leverage. To help this process:
Jerseys have an extension at the bottom that wraps around from front to back to keep the jersey tucked in.
Jerseys have a wide strip of Velcro at the rear that mates with Velcro inside the waistband of the pants.
Many players apply two-sided carpet tape to their shoulder pads so that the jersey sticks to the pads!
The players individually choose which of these features (if any) they will use.
The pants also combine nylon and spandex for a tight fit:
Each Panther player is equipped with a set of practice jerseys (one each in white, black and the team's color), as well as four game jerseys -- two in color or black and two in white. Players will change jerseys at half time if it is raining. Practice pants come in both nylon and mesh (for hot weather practices), and game pants come in white and silver.
Hands and Feet
Without hand protection, receivers wouldn't be able to catch the ball, and without foot protection, the players would constantly be subject to injury. This is why gloves and shoes, or cleats, are so important.
Many receivers wear gloves that either have a sticky rubber palm, called tact gloves, or are covered with a sticky substance like rosin or a sticky spray. Linemen also wear gloves -- they don't have to catch the ball, but they do have to use their hands to fight off opposing linemen. The gloves worn by linemen usually have thick padding in them to better protect their fingers and hands, which can sometimes get caught up in another player's face mask or be stepped on in a pile of players. Players are not permitted to put any type of gel or "stick 'ems" on their gloves.
Shoes have become a huge part of professional sports, for two main reasons:
There is now a big commercial aspect to the shoes the players wear. Not only do many teams (like the Panthers) have a team-wide contract with a sports company (like Nike or Reebok), but many players also have individual contracts with a shoe company.
More importantly (from the team's standpoint), shoes can have a big effect on injuries -- especially injuries to the knees.
If a player wears the wrong shoe and it sticks to the turf, he gets knee injuries. An NFL team plays both on Astroturf and on natural grass, and the surface on game day can be dry, damp, wet or icy. Conditions can even change in the middle of a game. Each surface and condition requires a different shoe, and it's the equipment manager's job to anticipate the needs of the team and get the correct shoe on every foot.
Boxes and boxes of shoes in a multitude of styles and sizes line the walls of a team's equipment room. Players with shoe contracts can also fill out a form and have their shoes flown in via overnight delivery, and many order a new suite of shoes every week. Amazingly, an NFL team can burn through 2,500 pairs of shoes in a single season! (Most teams donate used shoes to local high schools.)
If the team is playing on Astroturf, there are three general shoe styles that are used depending on the weather. The goal is to wear the least amount of "bottom" possible: In dry conditions, very light bottoms are used. In damp conditions, a little more bottom (a thicker sole) is more appropriate. And in wet conditions the team switches to "Destroyers," shoes that have a lot of bottom (very thick soles).
An Astroturf field is essentially an asphalt parking lot covered over with thin padding and carpeting. It is very unforgiving and has been known to put many players out with knee and ankle injuries. Players prefer natural grass fields -- the type of field a team has will often factor into a player's choice between teams. On natural grass fields, players can use molded-bottom shoes like these:
Although molded bottoms tend to be more comfortable (and players are more likely to wear them in practice), they are not adjustable to changing conditions, so Miles prefers that the players wear seven-stud cleats on grass fields.
Cleats come in four sizes:
1/2 inch (at the start of the season on dry fields)
3/8 inch (for normal field conditions once fields have been used in several games)
3/4 inch (for wet or soft fields)
1 inch (for extreme cases -- think Lambeau Field and the "Frozen Tundra" game)
Miles has a database of every field and its surface conditions, and this database is updated through the season. For example, Green Bay and San Francisco have very soft fields (due to excess moisture).
If it rains in the middle of a game, Miles and staff have a big job. If the team is playing on grass, they have to replace all of the cleats on 53 pairs of shoes down on the field. This is fairly easy using electric stud drivers. On Astroturf, the job is more difficult because the players have to change shoes. Many players tape their shoes and most wear orthopedics to custom-fit them, so the process involves untaping the shoes, pulling out the orthopedics, putting the orthopedics in the shoes the player is switching to and then retaping. With 53 players, this process is repeated 106 times! -- not a fun job in the rain or snow.
On the Road
One of the most amazing aspects of the NFL equipment experience is the away game. Here's a list of everything that travels with the Panthers (and probably most other pro football teams):
And for cold-weather games, add to the list the trunks full of:
Four kinds of gloves
All of this equipment is loaded into the luggage hold of the chartered jet that takes the team to the game. It is an amazing process, and a phenomenal amount of work, to keep an NFL team on the field and ready for play.
For more information on NFL equipment and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Did You Know?
The sports drink Gatorade was developed by Dr. Robert Cade at the University of Florida to "aid" the UF football players -- the Gators.