Away Game

When Rutgers hits the road, the playbook calls for precision planning, police escorts, and plenty of scarlet Twizzlers.

Staff members haul a trunk up the ramp onto the Rutgers football trailer prior to the Scarlet Knights' trek to Annapolis, Maryland, for their game against Navy.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

It was a Friday afternoon, and the traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike had slowed to a crawl. But not us. Vehicles just got out of our way, as if there were a dire emergency or a presidential motorcade was streaming through.

We were, in fact, a caravan of five buses carrying the Rutgers football team to Annapolis, Maryland, for the September 20 game against Navy. Led by Jersey state troopers occasionally sounding their sirens, their lights flashing, we traveled mostly in the passing lane, sometimes even on the left shoulder. Whether the Rutgers team—which had opened its season with two losses—deserved this kind of preferential treatment or not, the cops obviously thought it did. America loves football.

I was on the bus that carried head coach Greg Schiano and the first-string defense. Several of the players were studying for their classes. Others were looking at their playbooks. One of the linebackers yelled to me, “Hey, Professor Rockland, you trying out for the team?”

“Nah,” I responded. “I’ve already turned pro.” Several players laughed. It was promising that they were relaxed and able to joke. They seemed confident.

As a professor at the state university and a Scarlet Knights football fan, I’ve always wondered about the logistics of, and the preparation for, an away game. How does the university transport to a distant site some 70 players, a dozen coaches, a multitude of other staff, equipment, uniforms, the 200-member marching band and their instruments (ten tubas, twenty drums, etc.), the cheerleaders, the dance team, trainers, doctors, chaplains, medical supplies, gas field heaters for cold weather, huge water-spraying fans for hot, and those ubiquitous tanks of Gatorade?

Who arranges and keeps track of it all? As Pat Manning, former team equipment manager, once told me, “Moving everyone and everything to an away game is more of a challenge than Hannibal had crossing the Alps.”

During a previous football season, I flew with the team to an away game. Preceded and followed by state police with their lights flashing, we traveled north from Rutgers Stadium on the Turnpike in a line of buses. Driving onto the tarmac of Newark Airport through a closely guarded gate, we proceeded to a secluded corner, far from the terminals. There, a chartered Continental 737 awaited us inside a hangar, surrounded by eerie lights and airport security people. It looked like a scene in a James Bond movie.

This year, I cadged an invitation to travel with the team by bus to the Navy game; Annapolis is too close to warrant flying. The marching band, cheerleaders, dance team, and 30 red-shirted freshman football players would be coming down in seven buses of their own on game day.

Crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the Rutgers caravan was handed off to Delaware troopers, the Jersey troopers dropping back behind the last of the buses. When we got to the Maryland border, the Delaware troopers were replaced by Maryland troopers. (The next day, on the way to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, three Maryland motorcycle cops would be added on, riding shotgun, keeping our lane and even the lane to the right of us clear at all times.)

By late afternoon we arrived at the Greenbelt Marriott, located in the middle of an office complex on a nondescript highway half an hour from Annapolis. Clearly, this was to keep the team isolated and focused. There would be absolutely nowhere a player could go if he walked out the hotel front door.

Room keys were immediately distributed by Rutgers advance staff, two players to a room. There were half a dozen staff members on duty in the lobby standing about like sentries, eyeing anyone not connected with the team—not just then but right up to when we left the hotel the next day for the game.

One guy looked at me and whispered to the guy next to him. He must have heard something reassuring, because later that evening he sought me out when I passed through the lobby, as if to make amends for his unwarranted suspicions. “At an away game we can’t be too careful,” he said. “Sometimes there are spies. Or maybe one of our guys leaves his play book lying around. Even the employees of this hotel probably want Navy to win tomorrow. If they could help that to happen, they would.”

Half an hour after our arrival, the offense and defense convened in separate hotel conference rooms. Then there was dinner in the hotel’s main ballroom and, after that, the team met as a whole. All the players and coaches were in their seats when coach Schiano walked in. I’ve never known a religious institution—much less my own classroom—more silent and respectful. The atmosphere in that room evoked a military briefing before a major battle. And Schiano’s choice of language underscored that notion. “We’re walking into a war zone tomorrow,” he said. “Navy is a military academy. These guys are trained to kill. We have to fight them with everything we’ve got.”

Schiano, who is also defensive coordinator, concentrated his remarks on stopping Navy’s triple-option offense. His language was so technical, it were as if he was speaking a foreign language. He showed diagrams using an overhead projector and said things like, “Crack and go off the push crack,” and, “First eyes, second eyes,” Or “Double shot over on strong.” And I thought I knew football.

After the general meeting, the various coaches met in smaller conference rooms with their units—special teams, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, defensive secondary, quarterbacks, runners, wide receivers, kickers. I moved from one intense meeting to another. Game situations were cited over and over by the coaches, players chorusing answers. One coach said to me, “There’s no time to think in a game.

Reactions must be automatic.” Finally, the players retired to their rooms where they watched Navy game films piped in on a channel set aside by the hotel. En route to my own room I passed an open door. Several defensive players were inside watching a film and commenting on the intricacies of Navy’s offense. “Damn,” I heard one of them say. “You see that?”

The team was back in the main ballroom for breakfast. On one side the trainers had set up tables for massage, for taping ankles, and for ultrasound treatments of sore muscles. The equipment had come down the night before we arrived.

All day Thursday, an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer, each side emblazoned in scarlet with a huge block “R” and the word “FOOTBALL” in white, had been painstakingly loaded outside Rutgers Stadium. Not owned by the university, this truck is used as a regular moving van the rest of the year, splendid free advertising for Rutgers. (A friend saw it moving a family in Boston last spring.)

It motors to all away games, whether the team is traveling by plane across the country or by bus to nearer destinations. The truck is filled with giant trunks, all checked and cross-checked by clipboard-wielding staffers, now under the direction of new equipment manager Mike Kuzniak. I noted a helmet trunk, locker room trunk, staff clothing trunk, shoe trunk (with grass or artificial turf shoes, depending on the surface the team will play on), game uniform trunk, and a field trunk, which included such items as two folding sideline kicking nets and 43 footballs (25 for practice before the game, 18 for the game).

The trainer’s trunks were also loaded. Two of them contained medical supplies, one for the locker room, one for the field. They included 210 packages of vitamins, 100 rolls of tape wrap, and a stationary bike for players to work out kinks and bruises on the sidelines. There were six extra sets of contact lenses for players who wear them, marked with names and accompanied by a list of their prescriptions.

Assistant trainer Mike Pawlusiak told me of a game when one lens popped out of a defense starter’s eye almost every time he made contact. “We figured his helmet was too low on his brow, so we tried extra padding, but that didn’t fix it. When we’d exhausted his six extras, we scrounged for those players’ prescriptions closest to his, and he used up a whole lot of other lenses by the end of the game. Better than nothing.

“For an away game,” he added, “we forget something, we’re in deep trouble. Home games we just run into the locker room and get it.”

Finally, there were several trunks of electronic equipment for on-field communications and for videotaping the game from multiple perspectives. Big East teams provide game films online to all the other teams immediately after each game. Usually, non-league teams exchange films with Rutgers as well.

For Rutgers’s first game this year—against Fresno State—videos of the entire 2007 season were exchanged. “We have software programs that can make ‘cutups’ of every team’s plays,” said video coordinator Chris Hayes. “That way the coaches can examine just what the other team did on every kicking or running or passing or third-down play.”

Todd Greinedeir, assistant to the head coach, added: “Coaches may watch certain plays 40 or 50 times, watch them regular speed and slow motion. They begin to understand the other team’s philosophy. Finally, something leaps off the screen; they spot a weakness. So, on a certain play, they’ll take out a linebacker and put in an extra safety to blitz; or they’ll put an extra guy in the secondary when they’re certain the other team is going to pass. It isn’t just luck when we block a punt or sack a quarterback. Analyzing what a football team does is like forensic police work.”

Films of Rutgers’s performance, not only in each game but in each practice, are equally scrutinized by the coaching staff. By the time Schiano would return from Navy on the bus, he would already be looking at films of the game on a laptop computer. He would watch a play, run it backwards, and watch it again.

The Navy game might be history, but understanding what Rutgers had done that day was crucial to preparing for the following week. By the next day he would be looking at films of the following week’s opponent. The title of Brian Curtis’s book on big-time college football, Every Week a Season, is no exaggeration.

I was curious to learn how Rutgers prepares differently for an away game. What is it like for the team in an unfamiliar, often unfriendly environment?

I began by talking with Schiano, a smart, highly organized guy with a gap-toothed grin. “With an away game,” he said, “we try to limit the other team’s home field advantage by reducing our margin of error. Everywhere, not just on the field. We make sure buses and planes are waiting for us, not us for them; things have to be just so at the hotel; every detail about the locker room and stadium is worked out in advance.

“We want an away game to feel as much like a home game as possible. At home, the night before a game, we always stay at the New Brunswick Hyatt. We know it well. Away, we have to worry about everything: the beds, the food. We insist on pre-game meals identical to what the boys eat in the Hyatt.

“We do everything we can to keep the boys away from the media and hostile fans. The night before the game I do bed check myself. We have this little ritual: I give each kid two pieces of scarlet-colored Twizzler licorice. It’s like I’m tucking them in.

“Staff come down a day earlier and set up the locker room. By the time we get there, it’s just like at Rutgers Stadium—except visiting locker rooms are never as attractive or roomy as the home team’s. So we make sure each player’s equipment and uniform are laid out neatly and his name and number are on a magnetized plate above his dressing alcove.”

On the morning of the Navy game, the team ate a light breakfast, attended a final strategy meeting, and then, three and a-half hours before game time, at noon, ate a large meal. The buffet had a huge variety of selections. The bigger players are on a 5,000- calorie-a-day diet—“or we lose weight,” an offensive lineman told me. Two hours before the Navy game, the squad arrived at the visiting team’s locker room. Those players who had not been taped at the hotel were taped here. There was no fooling around in the locker room. The players spoke in hushed tones.

I had on another occasion asked Mike Teel, the Rutgers quarterback, about the key differences between a home and an away game. Teel seems entirely different off the field than the fierce-looking guy out on the field with his helmet on and cheekbones blackened. “I have to really concentrate for an away game,” he said. “Shut out the distractions.”

I asked if he has a personal means of accomplishing that.

“Yeah,” he said. “I hum Eminem’s rap song ‘Lose Yourself’ in my head. It gets me into a zone. It’s like that Zen thing you mentioned in that class I took with you.”

“What about the advantages of being home?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “it’s great having the crowd behind us, but it’s even more important that it’s quiet when we have the ball. If I see something in the defense and change the play—call an audible at the line of scrimmage—everyone can hear me. At an away game they can’t. Everyone in the stands is screaming at us when we have the ball, and the Jumbotron is blasting. They’re trying to get us rattled, especially on third down. Sometimes the guys can’t even hear me clearly in the huddle. And when I’m over the ball, only the center and guards can hear me if I change the play, so I have to point to people and signal with body motions—especially to the running backs behind me and the wide receivers; they’re the furthest away.”

If away games are tougher on the offense, they can be easier on the defense. Another student of mine, Billy Anderson—who, like most cornerbacks, is not big but wiry, fast, and tough—once told me, “Sure we get pumped by the crowd at home shouting, ‘Defense! Defense!’ But away it’s quiet when the other team has the ball, so we can communicate better. Usually the middle linebacker gets the defensive signals from the bench, and he shouts out codes so the rest of us know how to line up, what kind of play to expect. At home games there’s so much noise from our fans when the other team has the ball that sometimes we can’t hear the signals.”

Anderson also told me that, between games, the offense and defense practice on separate fields outside Rutgers Stadium. Big speakers are set up on the field of the unit that will experience the most noise at the upcoming game, depending on whether it is home or away. “The coaches make it so noisy for that unit that it’s like they’re in a full stadium of people screaming at them. Sometimes we practice communicating as much as we practice football.” All week before the Navy game the speakers were set up on the field where the offense practiced.

But such preparations did not prove sufficient in the Navy game. On a sparkling day in Annapolis, Rutgers narrowly lost, 23-21. Navy’s triple option gave Rutgers fits all through the game. Certainly from Navy’s point of view it was fitting that they won. The entire brigade of midshipmen marched onto the field before taking their seats, one company after another until the whole field was covered with men and women in white.

A squadron of Osprey helicopters flew over the field. The pageantry was magnificent. This was reunion and parents’ weekend at Annapolis. There were lots of admirals about. Presidential candidate John McCain attended for the 50th reunion of his 1958 class, visited with his son (a firstie, as seniors are called at the Naval Academy), and then watched part of the game.

One might wonder about the cost of this extravaganza for Rutgers. John Ternyila, Rutgers’s senior associate athletic director of finance and administration, pegs costs of the trip at a little more than $52,000 (including buses, hotels, and meals), and revenue at about $150,000. But that’s hardly a true picture, since it does not account for the team’s ongoing expenses. Like almost every college football program in the country, the Scarlet Knights run in the red.

After the game, the eighteen wheeler was reloaded with Rutgers’s equipment as the team slowly and forlornly filed out of the visitor’s locker room and onto the buses. Whatever frivolity had attended the ride down was gone. Everyone was silent. Several players were attended to by the trainers. Some had hot packs strapped to their legs or arms, others, ice packs. Still others had portable electric stimulators on one limb or another. It was dark now. All the way back to New Brunswick, the only light on the buses was emitted by laptops on which coaches were watching videos, some of the just-completed Navy game, some of Rutgers’s next opponent.

It was almost eleven when we got back to Rutgers Stadium. I had thought the team would immediately head for their dorms and the coaches to their homes, so I was surprised when everyone went inside to the home locker room. There was a large red digital clock on the wall about six feet wide that had apparently been running right up to kickoff in the Navy game. Teel and the other team captains pushed a button, and the clock started again. It said 6 days, 16 hours, 36 minutes and 34 seconds till next week’s home game against Morgan State, a picture of whose mascot was posted next to the clock. (The Scarlet Knights would prevail in that game, 38-0, for their first victory of the season.)

Schiano had said that in football, “everything is timing.” The locker room clock made that point emphatically. The players knew that every passing minute was one less minute to get ready. The team was already in countdown mode for next week’s game. The clock looked like that device in Times Square that keeps track of the national debt, only here the numbers were racing in the opposite direction. The following Saturday, as the team took the field at Rutgers Stadium, the clock displayed only a row of zeros.

Contributing writer Michael Aaron Rockland is professor of American studies at Rutgers. Excerpts from his latest book, The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, were previewed last month at njmonthly.com.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Towns & Schools articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.