Two hours before the first bus of Detroit Lions players arrives at Lambeau Field, the locker room is buzzing. More than a dozen people mill about, mixing shakes, double-checking shoulder pads and setting up peanut butter and jelly sandwich packets on player snack tables.
Will Lundh and Patrick Scotto, two of the team's equipment staffers, walk to every locker and examine each helmet and visor, rechecking the work two colleagues completed at the team headquarters earlier in the week. One more tug on the chin strap, visual scan of the visor and face mask and then a polish with a rag and rubbing alcohol.
"It really hits ya," Scotto says, of the smell.
After a pizza lunch, Lundh grabs all 12 game-ready footballs and sets them at 13.2 pounds per square inch, exactly -- the air pressure quarterback Matthew Stafford prefers.
At 2:43 p.m., 12 minutes before the first bus arrives, assistant equipment manager Joey Jaroshewich and Lundh tape up a bin, grab a black marker and write "Dirty Sweats." That bin will travel later on the team plane -- giving the equipment staff a jump start on laundry.
In the 24 hours prior, the locker room has been prepared for these moments, a week's worth of work for approximately three hours on the field. Every quarterback has a football inside his locker along with hand-warmers.
Defensive end Trey Flowers has his Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap -- which he needs because of allergies to certain fragrances. The Peloton bike offensive-line coach Jeff Davidson has ridden for 154 consecutive days is off to the side, ready for Davidson to carry into a side room to continue his streak.
Ten large blue bags, with small, labeled compartments containing extra everything from socks and underwear to long-sleeve Nike Dri-Fit shirts, are meticulously arranged. On a table in the middle of the locker room are 19 vitamin and energy shakes prepared by trainers, each with individual numbers on them corresponding to a player.
When the first bus arrives, Jaroshewich greets every player at the door to see if he needs anything.
Millions will watch the game they are getting ready to play, the Lions against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. A largely unknown staff for each team around the NFL -- equipment staffs, travel coordinators and security directors -- puts in long hours to take a 150-to-160-person operation on the road each week, often for 36 hours or less.
"They do a ton of hard work that goes unnoticed in the game," Stafford says. "People don't think about the equipment guys in the outside world. But we know how vital they are to our success."
Six days before the game, there are decisions to be made about all 46 player uniforms. After a game and a wash, a uniform has three landing spots -- and Jaroshewich, peering into the mass of mesh, is a nitpicker: "I want it bright white."
The tall, beanpole-thin, 31-year-old is a second-generation equipment staffer. His dad, Danny, was Detroit's equipment manager in the Silverdome days before moving to Ford Field to help run operations. Now, the son is one of longtime head equipment manager Tim O'Neill's most trusted staffers.
If he finds a tear in the jersey, it heads to the team's seamstress. Even rips not visible on television go for repair because of the thinness of the fabric. By midseason, some player jerseys look like a creation of Dr. Frankenstein. If there are still stains, it is dry-cleaned. If neither is necessary, Jaroshewich places it on a wire hanger, attaches game pants and walks to an unmarked, locked room only he, O'Neill and assistant Vince Herzog have access to.
"It's a jersey sanctuary," Jaroshewich says.
The narrow room has every home, road and alternate jersey. Spare letters, numbers and nameplates are stored here in case of a last-minute signing or call-up.
Laundry is a constant for equipment staffers. It starts right after a game. When players, coaches and staffers head home, Jaroshewich and Herzog start the wash at the team facility for the 53 players and 75 coaches and support staff they outfitted that day.
Lundh is sweating. In his hands is one of the 12 footballs the Lions will use on offense -- fresh out of the box. He'll also do an equal number of backup balls. Lundh scrubs those balls to create a different texture, taking his brush, leather conditioner and Lena Blackburne baseball mud to work the football.
However many balls disappear during a week -- for instance, receiver Marvin Jones Jr. likes to keep all his touchdown receptions -- equals the number of replacement balls Lundh has to work the following Tuesday, five days before a game. The mud dries out the leather, which pushes the nubs of the ball higher -- making it a little easier to grasp.
"It's a feel thing," Lundh says between scrubs.
It seems overly intense and technical -- yet Stafford is easier to work with than most. After 11 seasons, he trusts the staff.
"I'm just not weird about it," Stafford says. "I don't like them straight out of the box. I don't think anybody does. But whatever they do to them, it's great. I just feel like if you give me a ball, I feel like I should be able to make it spin."
The equipment staff also acts as unwitting reconnaissance. O'Neill and his crew are the first people to interact with any new Lions player. On this particular Tuesday, O'Neill is fitting new running back Bo Scarbrough -- and how players treat the equipment staff matters.
"You can tell a lot about teammates, guys around here that, you can tell a lot about people and how they treat those guys," Stafford says. "If they treat them right, then that's a good step."
After outfitting the exceedingly polite Scarbrough, O'Neill restocks every compartment in every big blue bag the Lions have. Every helmet is checked for cracks or repairs. If a face mask looks off -- fullback Nick Bawden has smashed at least four this season -- staffers quickly pop it off and replace it with a new one. If there's a decal or logo scratched, they pull it off and replace it.
O'Neill, who has worked for 24 years in the NFL and 16 with the Lions, is a master. The clubhouse attendants in Green Bay consider him one of the best in the league. Everything is organized. Nothing is out of place or ill-prepared.
The work can seem tedious and long, but there's pride involved.
"There's only 96 of these jobs in the world," Jaroshewich says.
Longtime movers Brad Davis and Tristan Myers arrive at the practice facility Friday morning, just as they have for almost every Lions road game over the past 20 years. In between moving families and businesses each week, Davis' company handles the thousands of pounds of luggage and equipment for the Lions as well as for every NFL team coming to play in Detroit.
It's a gig they train for.
A small weight room sits in the back of their 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Lake Orion, Michigan. Outside, they lift 300-pound stones and loose logs they find on Facebook to help prepare for the dense, and sometimes oddly shaped, things they haul.
"There's a huge difference between being strong in the weight room and being able to pick up weights and standing in one spot and benching and stuff like that as opposed to carrying furniture up and down stairs when we're carrying household stuff," Davis says. "So we've learned real strength and weight-room strength is definitely two different things."
For Lions moves, Davis bought a custom, 40-foot 2018 Freightliner last year. It's able to transport 15,000 pounds and cost $140,000 -- at least twice the size of the typical largest U-Haul.
When they arrive, O'Neill and his staff are ready to load. Sometimes with the help of the youngest member of the operations staff -- eighth-grader Kyle Quinn, the son of Lions general manager Bob Quinn -- they start moving boxes, trunks and bags.
The truck is loaded in less than 90 minutes. Each row strapped in tight, starting with the training staff equipment closest to the cab all the way to 20 to 25 pieces of equipment to be dropped off at the team hotel first.
Davis and Myers hit the road. There is only a small Lions logo in the front cab and a Lions license plate in the front acknowledging their cargo.
"We keep it low key," Davis says. "We don't want them to know what's in there."
Even though Davis and Myers aren't Lions employees, they might as well be. They handle in-season travel, are on call for coaching and player moves and take care of visiting teams from the airport to the stadium. An NFC North game trip might cost between $10,000 and $15,000 plus expenses. A trip to California might double that.
While they are driving, there is the occasional hiccup -- like the softball-sized rock smashing through the passenger-side windshield in the mountains of Utah last year on their way to Oakland, California. Not startled, Myers found a Freightliner dealer in Salt Lake City and had it replaced 90 minutes later to keep them on the road.
Davis and Myers account for the unexpected, leaving in plenty of time for delays or mishaps. Their home base, as well as O'Neill, stay in constant contact to alert of any potential issues related to weather or construction.
"With so many different probabilities driving down the road, you just never know what could happen," Davis says. "So you always got to make sure you're leaving early and that you're on time. So that's probably the hardest part of the job."
By 10 a.m. the day before the game, the team hotel is typically set. Travel coordinator Gina Newell has walked through the hotel, making sure meeting rooms are set at 68 degrees. Coach Matt Patricia's room is set at 66.
This is Newell's first year in her new role after spending over a decade working as an assistant to Detroit's head coaches. She handles everything -- flights, hotel choice and even who sits next to whom on the plane -- to make sure life on the road runs smoothly for the Lions.
When the equipment truck arrives, the men drop off equipment at the hotel and then head to the stadium to park the truck.
At Lambeau Field, with the help of six Green Bay clubhouse attendants with 135 cumulative years of experience, the truck is fully unloaded and swept in 40 minutes. O'Neill sent the locker room layout in advance, a big help in the hectic 24 hours before the game. They place pull-and-peel stickers with player numbers on each locker.
Davidson's Peloton is unloaded. "What in the world," one of the Green Bay clubhouse assistants asks. Newell decided to pack the bike because the hotel doesn't have one, allowing Davidson keep his weight-loss journey -- 26 pounds and counting -- alive.
At 4 p.m., O'Neill and his staff, wearing suits dictated by team travel, arrive. O'Neill heads out to the field -- a place he spent six years working before moving to Detroit. He wants to know if it'll be covered overnight, information he'll relay to Patricia later.
Back inside the locker room, player bags are unpacked.
Since cold weather is expected, Jaroshewich and the attendants place sweatshirts and warm gloves in every locker. O'Neill is at his locker room station -- a large trunk holding everything from spare helmet parts and face mask screws to a personal M&M stash -- charging the batteries for the speaker modules going into the helmets of Detroit's quarterbacks and linebackers Jarrad Davis, Jahlani Tavai and Devon Kennard.
The coaches' room is unpacked with matching black long-sleeve polo shirts and black pants. Patricia has nine possible hat selections. "He's a big hat guy," Herzog says.
Almost everything is set up in about an hour. O'Neill locks everything up with his own lock.
Back at the team hotel, Elton Moore, the Lions' director of security, watches over everything. He has his own six-person team monitoring meeting and dining rooms -- and the players' floors during the day. After he does bed check at curfew with an assistant coach, a local security company or off-duty police officers are paid up to $60 an hour to stand guard. Two overriding rules: (1) No one other than players is allowed on the player floor; (2) Never leave your post unattended.
Once, at the hotel the team stays at for home games, kids got on the floor and started knocking on a bunch of doors. Any call to the hotel for a player, any package delivered for a player, it all goes through Moore. Like most support staffers, Moore is doing all of this to help the Lions reach a Super Bowl.
"I want a ring, man," Moore says. "I really, really do. And anything that we can do to eliminate them being distracted from what the coach wants them to do, we need to make sure that's taken away."
It's 3:30 p.m. on game day and O'Neill is walking the field with the Green Bay crew. Waiting on their equipment from the locker room and heated benches to get set up, they can't do much. Herzog catches passes for Stafford.
O'Neill, standing behind the Lions' bench at a workstation trunk identical to the one in the locker room, installs batteries in the communications devices, hiding red and yellow wires underneath the padding. Two hours before kickoff, O'Neill and Jaroshewich walk the sideline and then 120 yards down the middle of the field, constantly listening to the speakers inside the helmet to ensure sound quality.
It's getting closer to kickoff. After six days of checking and rechecking every detail, so much will soon be out of their hands.
Jaroshewich and Herzog catch parts of the Lions' 23-22 loss to the Packers, but mostly alternate between being O'Neill's No. 2 on the field and leading the locker room packing so Davis and Myers can start the drive to Allen Park within an hour of the game's conclusion.
The giant blue bags are loaded onto the truck heading for Michigan. So is the Peloton. Flowers' soap is left out -- it'll go in his player bag after the game before he leaves -- so he can shower later.
Once the game ends, staffers have about 45 minutes to pack up while dodging reporters trying to talk with players and players trying to get dressed. Within an hour, bags are packed, the truck is loaded, and the Lions head to the airport.
Davis and Myers are on the road. The team plane has arrived back in Michigan. Players and coaches go home to sleep. O'Neill and his staff head back to the facility.
There is still more laundry to be done.