Nov. 27, 2014

A gold-painted semitrailer truck cab sits in front of the loading dock at the University of Notre Dame’s Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

Attached to the cab is a trailer emblazoned with the lore and legacy of Fighting Irish football. The famous interlocking ND painted in white stands out against a blue background. Underneath a proud golden graphic that states “Notre Dame football,” the pride of Irish Nation rings out with a proclamation of 11 consensus national championships and seven Heisman Trophy winners.

Toward the end of the trailer, underneath the iconic words, “Wake Up the Echoes,” is a scene of a packed Notre Dame Stadium, fans with their arms raised skyward to celebrate an Irish triumph.

Inside the trailer, Ryan Grooms, Notre Dame’s head football equipment manager, is overseeing the packing of gear for the Fighting Irish road game Saturday in Los Angeles, when Notre Dame takes on USC.

Grooms designed the interior of the trailer to take advantage of every cubic foot of space. He has different levels along the sides and racks that hang down from the ceiling.

Grooms, who has moved the Irish across the country and across the ocean (for a game in Ireland), is charged with moving what seems like an entire city.

Grooms and his staff, assistant Adam Myers and intern Scott Grimes, along with a fleet of student managers, make sure everything the Irish need for their battle against the Trojans is at the ready. In most cases, there are two sets of every item.

Trunks filled with multiple white Irish road jerseys for each player, along with multiple sets of helmets for each player, are loaded onto the trailer. Just in case it rains in southern California, there is a rain gear trunk with a complete set of rain gear for each member of the coaching staff. There’s a trunk of tools for sideline repair of cleats, shoulder pads or helmets. There are sideline fans. For a climate considerably cooler than Los Angeles, sideline heaters would be packed. Trunks filled with headset communication devices, white boards for mapping out Xs and Os, coolers, cases of Gatorade, exercise bikes, towels, and food for the players are all packed onto the trailer.

Then there are the shoes.

Shoes that are specialized for each position–the Blur, the Nitro, the Highlight, the Brawler and the Fierce–are all packed on the trailer. Of course, Grooms has packed replacements for each set, and he’s got mids and lows of all of different kinds of shoes. He also has multiple shoes with cleats for a dry turf and shoes with cleats for a sloppy turf for every version of shoe the Irish use.

“Sundays are a grind day for us,” Grooms said. “We get the laundry ready. Two pair of socks, blue undershirts, blue tights, the proper padding. We get here about 11:30 a.m., and get out by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

This Sunday, even with packing the semi, it’s a shorter day.

Most days, Grooms turns the key on the locker room door around 9 p.m.

Game days are the most challenging, but Grooms and his crew handle the blitz with poise and professionalism to make sure the Irish are ready with their armor.

“There are a lot of different scenarios that pop up on game day,” Grooms said. “I’ve doing this long enough … I’m not going to ever say I’ve seen them all, but I’ve seen a lot of different things. It’s amazing what can come up on a game day. Coach may need something and you only have a minute to get it. We pack some pretty miscellaneous things, because you never know.”

Grooms is originally from Frankfort, Ohio. He was a graduate assistant at Marshall and an assistant at Air Force for five years. After spending two years at Minnesota, he took the job as Notre Dame’s head football equipment manager and now has been with the Irish for five seasons.

“We’re responsible for everything, from sticks of gum to jock straps to helmets to Coach (Brian) Kelly’s headset,” Grooms said. “We pack everything. We don’t rely on the players to pack anything, because if they forget something, it still falls on me.”

On the Thursday before the Northwestern game, a sudden snowstorm struck the Notre Dame campus. Football practice was in Notre Dame Stadium when lake-effect snows started to blanket the area.

“Coach Kelly walked over and said, ‘Ryan, we’re moving inside in 30 seconds,'” Grooms said. “‘We’re moving to the indoor (practice) facility.'”

Grooms informed several of his student managers, who dispersed the information to the other student managers. Like a well-trained army, the Irish equipment crew packed up and started the intense move to the Loftus Center indoor practice facility.

“Fortunately, Thursday practices are a light equipment day,” Grooms said. “Tuesday and Wednesday are the heavy days, using the agile bags, the pop-ups, the chutes and the sleds, so we don’t have to bring that stuff to the stadium. Thursday is perfect practice day. The plan is installed. It’s ready to go. It’s a lot of teamwork, not individual work.

“We have ball bags, gear, extra gear that we keep on the sideline, throwing nets, boards that we lay out, line strips, the down-and-distance markers. It’s a real live situation for the players to see, scripted for a third-and-six play, third-and-seven play. We had to carry everything from the stadium to Loftus. From the time the team got from the stadium to Loftus, we needed to be set up. They’re not waiting on us.”

Command central for Grooms is the equipment area of the Gug. Grooms designed a state-of-the-art equipment room in 2013. He took the existing space and maximized it to triple the storage room without expansion of the building.

Adorned with glistening Shamrock Series helmets, Irish uniforms and displays of blue-and-gold shoes, the Irish equipment room is an efficient and orderly facility. In the back is a room where the helmet work takes place.

Myers checks every game helmet to make sure it’s safe. He snaps every snap. He washes dust off the helmet and cleans smudges off the visors. He makes sure the visors are fastened tightly and checks to make sure there are no tears on the chinstraps. He tightens the facemask and then checks the structural integrity inside and outside of the helmet. Then comes the process that is the stuff of Irish lore. Myers touches up gouges in the helmets with a special gold application that includes the fabled gold dust from the Golden Dome.

“We send a pound of gold dust from the Golden Dome to Oregon and they put the gold dust in the film,” Myers said. “A few years ago we enhanced the gold, but the dust from the Golden Dome is still on there. I think they’re awesome. They’re the best-looking helmets in the nation, by far. Nobody else can make this type of gold helmet. Notre Dame has a patent on it.”

It takes two days for Myers to make sure every helmet is ready for battle.

“Safety is the most important thing we do,” Grooms said. “We’re constantly going through the equipment. First and foremost, we want the players to be safe, and then we want the players to look good.”

Grooms’ impact isn’t only felt in the equipment warehouse. He also makes sure the Irish locker room in Notre Dame Stadium is set up for home games.

In addition to overseeing all of the Irish equipment matters, Grooms also supervises the student managers in what has become a model program for the rest of the nation. Other colleges frequently contact Grooms for advice on the Notre Dame program and its incentive-based plan that rewards students with scholarships.

“It’s just such a great experience for them,” Grooms said of students serving as managers.

“For me, selfishly, I love it for the relationships that we build. These kids work a lot of hours during the week, and they give up their summers. We spend a lot of time together. I’ve been able to surround myself with great, great kids, continue to be in touch with these kids as the years go along and watch them grow. It’s the second best thing about the job for me, maintaining the relationships with the student managers for years to come.”

This year’s senior managers are Elizabeth Lombard, Ryan Harvey and Ted Williams.

“They make my job easy,” Grooms said. “These kids are really special. I was a student manager at Ohio University. There were only six of us. We were all guys who couldn’t continue to play college football, so that was our way to be part of college football. These kids, their love of Notre Dame football, that’s where their work ethic comes from. They do an incredible job. They love being part of something so big. These kids work their tails off every day, because there’s a lot on the line (a possible $45,000 scholarship). They’re not working for free. There are a lot of incentives.”

What is most important is that the student gain a valuable educational experience.

“I think the students learn to be able to work under pressure, that’s the biggest thing,” Grooms said. “They all do an incredible job working under the pressure of their position coach. There’s no wasted time. They have to be ready to go. They learn about being prepared. They learn to work as a team. That’s the biggest thing I preach to them. The things they learn translates into their schoolwork. They learn multi-tasking. There are a million different directions.”

Lombard, an accountancy and English major at Notre Dame, said the managers put in long and challenging hours, but that the experience is invaluable. In fact, it’s paying off as she interviews for jobs.

“When you’re going through the interview process for jobs, people’s jaws drop when you say you’re the Notre Dame football manager,” Lombard said. “As much as sometimes we’re the unsung heroes, handling all the sweaty shoulder pads and jerseys … there are some hard moments, there are some long hours, but there’s glory that comes with it, too.”

Serving as a football manager will give Lombard the skills to be successful in the future.

“One of the big things I learned from Ryan is trust in the workplace and how you can foster that in other people and make them feel they can be trusted with jobs,” Lombard said. “Ryan has never made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing, or that I didn’t feel comfortable in what I was doing. He fosters that trust. You feel the need to fulfill your duties as well.

“That’s something I’ve tried to do with the younger managers, build up their confidence, so I can trust them, and they can trust themselves. That’s huge. The importance of teamwork is something else I’ve learned from Ryan. We’ve learned to play to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s our job for practices to run smoothly, it’s our job for games to run smoothly. I also learned a lot about authority and hierarchy, and that’s something that’s going to happen in the business world.”

Notre Dame’s equipment warehouse is a place for storage and repair, but thanks to Grooms, it’s also a classroom that is teaching valuable life lessons to Irish students.

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent