Sept. 21, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
A paper clip saved the day. A paper clip and some mechanical genius.
Tennessee's football equipment staff spent two hours Thursday afternoon loading the team's tractor-trailer for its trip to Gainesville, Fla., over the weekend.
But a last-second malfunction between truck and trailer threatened to delay departure by at least two hours; not a pleasant proposition when expected arrival in Gainesville was already the wee hours.
That's when truck driver Tommy Davis, who also serves as shop manager for BP Express Inc., the Knoxville transportation company that owns the 18-wheeler and leases it to the Vols, took matters into his own hands and improvised a solution to the problem.
In MacGyver-like fashion, Davis worked a paper clip into a makeshift repair tool and kept the opening road trip of the season on schedule.
Thus began the successful operation from start to finish for UT's crack equipment staff.
Roger Frazier employs a crew of two full-timers, a graduate assistant and 15 student workers. This cohesive team plans for the best but prepares for the worst when it comes to Tennessee football's equipment needs both home and away.
"I try to always have a good mix," Frazier said of his staff structure. "We use veteran students to teach the young guys the ropes and train them in the way we want it done. It's worked out well over the years for us."
Those years began for Frazier in 1978 as a UT student assistant and in 1983 as equipment manager under former head coach Johnny Majors. This fall, Frazier entered his 28th season as head of the department.
One of Frazier's most challenging assignments is coordinating the movement of equipment needed to outfit the Vols for road games. Frazier allowed UTSports.com the chance to observe that undertaking during the season's first road trip.
Thursday, Sept. 15
3 p.m.: Loading begins. It usually takes two hours to fill the 48-foot trailer with approximately 27,000 pounds of equipment.
Overseeing the placement of items is Jeff DeWitt, whose day job is a medical claims coordinator. DeWitt earned his undergraduate degree from UT in aerospace engineering, but that's not what qualifies him to give commands as equipment loading czar.
"No, that's not how it started," DeWitt said. "When I was an undergraduate, I worked as a student in the athletic training room. And as the youngest guy, that was kind of the crap job - can you say crap? - and I just got stuck with it. I guess I've just kept doing it."
DeWitt has two detailed lists taped to the inside walls of the trailer and crosses through one line at a time as items are rolled up the ramps and packed tightly together.
"Just take everything that Fraiz and Max (Parrott) tell you to take and don't leave anything; that's the important part," DeWitt said. "The equipment staff has a list and the athletic training staff has one.
"If you can think of it, we take it."
4:48 p.m.: Loading is complete and the trailer, which arrived on campus Wednesday evening, is closed and locked.
"It usually takes about two hours, so we did OK today," Frazier said.
5:15 p.m.: The truck arrives and hooks up with the trailer. Davis makes a quick inspection of his tires and performs his magic with the paper clip. He then completes his log book to U.S. Department of Transportation specifications that include the planned route of travel, along with odometer readings at the start and finish of the trip and when crossing any state line.
5:46 p.m.: Departure time and it's 61 degrees in Knoxville. It's 83 in Gainesville, which is 550 miles south according to Davis' dashboard GPS.
Davis entered this past weekend as sort of the Tyler Bray of Tennessee football equipment truck drivers.
Like Bray, Davis had taken over his duties toward the end of last season, making trips to Memphis, Vanderbilt and then the Music City Bowl. And while both had passed those trials with flying colors, neither had been tested outside the state of Tennessee while wearing the Orange and White.
Davis began driving 18-wheelers in 1981. A native of Townsend in neighboring Blount County, Davis serves as shop manager for BP Express Inc., in charge of the company's maintenance of a 168-truck fleet.
UT's equipment trailer is pulled by a 10-year-old Volvo truck with - ready for this? - more than 1.1 million miles on it. That's the equivalent of 1,000 round-trips between Knoxville and Gainesville.
"I would put it up against any truck on the road," Davis says. "Of course the engine has been rebuilt, so don't think we're riding around about to lose a cylinder. But this is one fine piece of equipment."
Davis' boss, BP Express CEO Scott Batey, also loves the Volvo.
"That truck with its rebuilt power train and suspension drives way better than newer models," Batey said. "That's why we use it exclusively for the Vols and their 27,000-pound lightweight loads."
5:49 p.m.: Davis already has called an audible on his route. Hearing from other truckers that traffic is tied up on Interstate 40/75 in West Knoxville, the veteran driver decides to take U.S. 411 and reconnect with I-75 south of Chattanooga.
"That sounds like the best course," Davis said. "Plus I like going down 411 because it breaks up the monotony."
Truckers, of course, are big fans of the space program.
"GPS and satellite radio have certainly made things better for us," Davis said. "Think about driving this thing around looking for a pay phone to stop and ask directions. And I've been on many a run listening to scratchy AM radio stations.
"Now I can listen to the same station every day and it comes in crystal clear."
6:43 p.m.: Folks outside Sequoyah High School in Madisonville notice the Tennessee equipment truck and wave furiously.
Not only does the black Volvo semi sport Power T logos on both doors, but the trailer is covered in action photos detailing the Tennessee football experience. There are huge Power T logos on both sides of the trailer, along with shots of the team running through the T at Neyland Stadium.
It is an easily recognizable vehicle.
6:51 p.m.: Madisonville is definitely Big Orange Country. On the south side of town, a field full of pee-wee footballers starts jumping up and down and waving as the truck rolls past. Their coaches couldn't have asked for a better pep talk.
7:44 p.m.: Georgia state line. According to the GPS, it's 52 miles to I-75.
Davis' new GPS system is a special truck edition. Among its unique features are warnings of low bridges; something that would have come in handy on the way to the Liberty Bowl last year in Memphis.
"I was following the managers' bus," Davis said. "We came up on an overpass for a railroad and I see the bus barely make it under. It plainly says 13 feet, 2 inches, and I'm 13-6. So I stop and I'm in a panic mode because we've got four lanes full of traffic, and here I am blocking everyone."
An unmarked Memphis police car appeared, and the officer approached Davis.
"He walks to my side of the truck and says he's going to help me but that I've got to back up two whole blocks," Davis said. "So he has every car there turn around and completely clears the road so I can back up. I had the whole road to myself.
"Then he rerouted me through these side streets with the help of eight other police cars. I didn't get a chance to thank him because as soon as I was clear and could see the stadium, he took off."
Davis got his chance at a thank-you that Saturday night.
"The next evening before the game started I was standing at the end of the tunnel near our locker room," Davis said. "I feel a tap on my shoulder and someone says, `Hey, glad to see you made it.' My guy was handling security at our end of the field. He and his partners really got me out of a jam."
8:42 p.m.: After a dinner break in Chatsworth, Ga., a man driving a red Jeep with a Georgia logo on the spare tire cover snaps a photo of the truck.
"I'm going to be sorry if that picture on the back of the trailer is changed," Davis said. "I love that picture."
The photo Davis loves is an intense 2005 Tennessee Football Media Guide cover shot of former Vols defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona. The photo shows Mahelona glaring through his facemask, sweat and grass sprinkled across his face and helmet. "VOLS" is clearly visible on the front of the helmet just above his face. "COMING TO A TOWN NEAR YOU" screams across the bottom.
Mahelona played for the Vols in 2004-05 and earned All-America honors. He died in a 2009 automobile accident in his native Hawaii.
Plans already are being made to update the photo panels as early as next month, Frazier says. The current shots have been on the truck since 2006 and always draw rave reviews. The idea to decorate the equipment truck and trailer came about in the late 1990s.
"When we first started, we just had a regular unmarked tractor trailer," Frazier said. "When we went to the Orange Bowl and played Nebraska the first time (1997), they had a truck all dolled up and Coach (Phillip) Fulmer loved it. So I knew it was coming and started working on it.
"Through our relationship with Scott Batey and Bill Hatfield of BP Express, they made it happen."
9:28 p.m.: Rendezvous with I-75 in Cartersville, Ga. Florida state line still 293 miles away.
10:01 p.m.: Exit onto I-285, the truck route around Atlanta. Traffic is light this time of night and it takes only 24 minutes to rejoin I-75 on the south side.
10:41 p.m.: Davis can't stop talking about how lucky he is to be involved in the UT football program.
"Driving this thing is fun," the 54-year-old says. "It's always exciting. Let's just say they didn't have to twist my arm when they asked if I was interested.
"I was the one who took care of this truck behind the scenes anyway. When Scott asked if I wanted to drive it as well, it was an easy decision for me. I started driving a truck in 1981, so this brings back a lot of memories for me of those late nights on the road."
11:03 p.m.: See and pass the managers' bus, which left the UT campus shortly after the truck but also made a dinner stop.
11:07 p.m.: First weigh station. It's not a problem for the UT truck because even at 27,000 pounds fully loaded, it falls well under the maximum allowable weight of 44,000 pounds for its size.
11:28 p.m.: "That was funny," Davis said. "The guy in the passenger seat of that SUV just took a video of the side of the truck. Then as they passed me, he showed me the video."
Friday, Sept. 16
12:25 a.m.: Truck stop break along with the bus in Cordele, Ga.
Nothing out of the ordinary here, but Davis said that's not always the case when folks see his mobile Tennessee football billboard.
"I was on my way to the Music City Bowl and stopped in Lebanon to fuel up," Davis said. "So I'm there and this woman trucker pulls in beside me. She gets out and instead of starting to fuel up, she begins to walk completely around my truck.
"She then walks up to me and says, `You must be a really big UT fan.'"
2:18 a.m.: Truck crosses the Florida state line.
"We're in enemy territory," Davis quips.
2:38 a.m.: Another weigh station and another green light. The 18-wheeler merges back onto the interstate with fewer than 70 miles to go.
3:46 a.m.: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field. It's dark but nonetheless majestic, just as are all the cathedrals to college football. At 90,000 seats, this one fits the bill. Traveling to places like Gainesville is one reason the equipment staff members love their jobs so much.
The bus and truck arrive at the stadium together and Davis surveys his drive down beneath the southeast stands. The best reason for dropping off the truck in the middle of the night is so Davis doesn't have to maneuver through the campus of 50,000 when students are making their way to classes.
In 10 minutes, the truck is safely tucked into an overnight parking spot and Davis climbs aboard the bus for the 45-minute drive to the team's hotel in Ocala.
5:10 a.m.: Lights out! Nearly 12 hours after leaving Knoxville.
10:30 a.m.: Back on the bus after a few hours' sleep to get the locker room set up for Saturday's game.
11:41 a.m.: Unloading begins. Everything from exercise bicycles, cooling fans, helmets, pads, uniforms, medical equipment, sport drinks, coolers, communications gear and more all come rolling off the truck. Name it and if the Vols use it, it's here.
Between 135-150 different pieces of equipment made the trip on the 18-wheeler.
"That's absurd," DeWitt says in disbelief. "Even for us, that's absurd."
Everything has wheels and nearly everything has handles, which helps the process. Both the 15-man student staff and 10-person athletic training student crew are in full force moving items from the truck to the locker room.
12:23 p.m.: Unloading, of course, takes quite a bit less time than loading and the job is finished in 42 minutes. But preparation of the locker room, the adjacent athletic training room and equipment cage has begun and lasts another 45 minutes.
1:12 p.m.: The locker room is ready, at least the Friday portion. Individual lockers are prepared except for the actual uniforms, which won't happen until game day.
"We've got the locker room set up for the team when they get here Saturday," said Allen Sitzler, UT assistant equipment manager. "We'll probably arrive about 5-6 hours before and put the jerseys on the shoulder pads and get everything else straightened up.
"We've got all the helmets, pants, shoes, pregame gear, shoulder pads, and the Game Maxims board is set up. We're ready to go so that when the team gets here, everything's set up and looks sharp for when we get ready to play."
1:27 p.m.: After a little catching up with the Florida equipment staff, it's back on the bus for the return to Ocala.
The staff is on its own for dinner and relaxation. The team arrives in Ocala around 5:30 p.m., so everyone's on site and getting mentally ready for Saturday's big game.
Saturday, Sept. 17
9:15 a.m.: Equipment managers' bus departs for the stadium. The team buses aren't scheduled to leave until around 1:20.
10:05 a.m.: Bus arrives at stadium and work begins immediately. Cooling fans and communication equipment are moved to the sideline, game uniforms are placed in each locker and jerseys are fitted over shoulder pads.
"It's not bad," Parrott says of Florida's visitors locker room. "Your coaches are separated from the team, which is good. You have your own little equipment area and there's a long hallway to store all your gear. Plus there's good access from the truck."
Parrott has seen scores of visiting locker rooms, both good and bad.
"Vanderbilt is a little tough because it's small," he said. "Georgia's is tough because you can't get to it; you have to ride a freight elevator down from the street.
"But if there's a bad one in the conference it's really ours. It's big and you have plenty of room for the players, but the coaches' locker room is small. And you can't get your truck close because it can't get underneath the stadium at Gate 7."
11:30 a.m.: Preparations are complete. Chris Woolsey is Frazier's lone graduate assistant, and the Franklin native has the job of making sure the players' locker room is 100 percent ready.
"Basically, at this point we have the entire locker room set up," Woolsey said. "I'm just going around checking every locker to make sure everybody has what he needs - pants, jerseys, underwear. Then I'll go in the equipment room and make sure I've got all my stuff set up for when the team walks in so they have no issues at all.
"That way they can get their minds right and make sure they are ready to play."
Noon: Frazier appears satisfied with his crew's preparations even though the team won't arrive for another 90 minutes.
"Oh, yeah. We're ready to go," he said. "We always are, probably way too early. But I'd much rather be way too early than scrambling. Now is kind of our quiet time."
The staff takes advantage for a quick lunch break and rest time. Sandwiches usually are provided by the home equipment crew and the Florida folks are no exception. Parrott says that's not necessarily the case nationwide.
"I thought the Montana guy was going to cry when I told him we would have sandwiches for him and his guys before the game," Parrott said. "I told that's how we do things in the SEC; we take care of each other."
1:39 p.m.: The team arrives and, after a quick stop in the locker room to drop their gear, players head out to survey the playing field.
For the next two hours, it's a flurry of activity as the locker room, which housed fewer than 20 people for most of the day, is now bursting with almost 100.
Parrott says this is when preparation pays off, like when head coach Derek Dooley reaches for a cup of coffee next to his locker. That's right, Parrott remembered to load the coffee pot too.
2:47-3:03 p.m.: Vols take the field in waves for pregame warm-ups. Dooley joins the team just after 3 o'clock, clad in his now-trademark orange pants.
Alongside the players are student managers who, just like in practice, aid the players in their pregame routines. Only now, about 50,000 fans are watching them at work.
"It's unbelievably exciting and it gets me pumped," said Doug Overton, a student manager from Mesquite, Texas. Overton is one of four ball boys who roam the sidelines during games keeping footballs ready for play in conjunction with the game officials. His time before games is spent with quarterbacks and kickers picking out the best footballs for use.
"Those guys are the two most particular about footballs," Overton said. "I start out in the summer with about 100 balls and slowly work my way down to 20 by game day. From my 20, I've got to have five that will be used in the game.
"And so my quarterback and my kicker are feeling them and envisioning which ball will go through the uprights and which ball they can use to throw the winning touchdown. I certainly let them pick what they think will be the best balls."
3:18 p.m.: Team returns to the locker room one final time before kickoff. The equipment staff is busy passing out towels and sport drinks, making adjustments to helmets and shoulder pads.
Sitzler makes sure the Game Maxims board is straight.
3:37 p.m.: Kickoff, and the equipment staff keeps right on working along the Tennessee sideline.
5:23 p.m.: Halftime and the locker room again is buzzing.
During the half, coaches need dry erase boards, and drinks and energy bars are passed around. Basically anything non-medical related in the chaos of a 20-minute halftime can be handled by a member of the equipment staff.
5:45 p.m.: Parrott and Sitzler miss the second-half kickoff tidying up the locker room for postgame. This mostly includes grabbing excess trash from the floor and removing chairs that are used strictly for pregame and halftime so that assistant coaches can speak directly to their own position players.
7:29 p.m.: Game ends and the Vols lose, 33-23. High hopes going in were dashed early when sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter went down with a knee injury. Tennessee hung around but Florida on this day was just too much.
Plenty of work remains for the equipment staff. Student workers begin loading the truck as players and coaches conduct media interviews and otherwise prepare to head home.
8:20 p.m.: Team buses pull away from the stadium and the work intensifies. The sooner the truck is loaded, the sooner it can leave.
9:21 p.m.: Truck is completely loaded and locked for the long ride home.
9:46 p.m.: Truck pulls away from the stadium with the managers' bus close behind. Florida fans have pretty much dispersed, so the truck doesn't catch too much grief heading toward I-75.
11:20 p.m.: Georgia state line.
Davis keeps a steady hand at the wheel, driving the posted speed limit at all times. His days on the road have taught him the value of safe driving.
"I'm not going to say lucky, I'm going to say blessed," Davis said, "but the last moving violation I had was in 1984 - and that one was for five miles over the speed limit and cost me $35. That's not bad."
11:31 p.m.: Time to refuel just south of Valdosta, Ga. Davis says his Volvo holds enough diesel fuel to cover 1,000 miles, but he rarely lets the tank get that low.
"The junk fuel always goes to the bottom of your tank, so I never want that to reach my engine if I can help it," he said. "I try to fill up after no more than 750 miles."
Tonight's tally comes to $412 for 110 gallons at $3.75 per gallon.
Sunday, Sept. 18
1:32 a.m.: Managers' bus pulls over once again in Cordele, Ga., for a quick stop, but the truck rolls on by.
The Oklahoma State-Tulsa football game, which was delayed by weather and didn't kick off until after 1 a.m. Eastern time, is on the radio. Oklahoma State's win was played to a near-empty stadium and finally ended at 4:35 a.m. Eastern.
The entire crew on the managers' bus feels for their counterparts in Oklahoma.
5:05 a.m.: Tennessee state line. Georgia's 354 miles are in the books and home is in sight.
6:50 a.m.: Arrival back on campus and Davis coolly backs the trailer into its space beside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. The bus pulls up less than two minutes later and work begins immediately to get everything unloaded.
7:40 a.m.: All done, and Davis has nothing but praise for his first out-of-state venture with the Vols.
"Very successful," he said. "I'm glad to be involved. It's exciting to be out here watching the games and being a part of what it takes to put together the equipment and then tearing it back down once we get back to Tennessee.
"It's fascinating how good these guys are at packing that trailer. Everybody knows where things need to go. Everybody knows when we get back here exactly where the equipment goes inside. Here it is 7 in the morning and they are running wide open like they have been asleep for two days."
Parrott agrees, even if the trip was bittersweet.
"It was successful for the equipment staff," he said. "We got everybody back safe and sound. We got unloaded and have the britches and jerseys in the wash.
"I just wish we could have won; that's what you do it for. But we'll regroup and get ready for Buffalo. Then we're on the road again in a month."