ETSU athletic equipment staff help players, coaches in myriad ways
Published 1:06 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2023
JOHNSON CITY – While most of the glory in athletics is reserved for on-the-field heroics, there are droves of dedicated staffers who labor long hours.
Such is the case at East Tennessee State University.
And while Sam Rice and Roger Hammons work in relative obscurity, both perform critical work, finding their profession of athletic equipment management exciting and rewarding.
They call it a “customer service” job. “You have to take care of the players every day – coaches as well – making sure everybody has the equipment they need for practice and games,” said Rice, athletic equipment manager in ETSU’s Department of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Like many who work in equipment management, both got their start in the field during college.
Hammons, who graduated from ETSU in 1998 with a degree in sport management and is now assistant athletic equipment manager, started out as a student manager and then graduate assistant. Soon, a position on the equipment management staff came open, and he has been with ETSU ever since.
Rice, who joined the ETSU staff in 2022, stumbled into the business during his second year at the University of Utah, when he talked with some football players during a summer school course.
“They mentioned they had student managers on the team who got scholarship money and perks,” said Rice, who earned his degree in mass communications at Utah. “When they said ‘scholarship money,’ my ears perked up and I asked, ‘Who do I talk to?’ The next day, one of the guys took me in to meet the equipment manager.”
Today, the scope of their work is wide-ranging. Rice and Hammons call themselves “football-centric” but serve all of ETSU’s intercollegiate athletic teams in some way. They work at both practices and games for football, and handle laundry for just about every team on campus.
Some folks may think new footballs arrive ready to use. Not so. Equipment managers everywhere use a “mudding” process to break them in faster. ETSU’s “recipe” is a blend of techniques that both Rice and Hammons have learned over the years, which includes grinding the outer wax off a new football, then applying shaving cream, leather conditioner, and, yes, mud on it to darken and soften the leather to make it easier to handle for the players.
Safety is a large part of their job, they said. They perform regular maintenance and safety checks on equipment both between and during games. They even promote the safety of football players at high schools and other colleges throughout the region by training EMS personnel on how to safely remove different types of commonly used shoulder pads, helmets and face masks from injured players.
While most of the teams order their own equipment and uniforms, Rice handles the orders for football – a “guessing game” in which he must anticipate the sizes for players and personnel for the next season who are not yet on board. And when the orders come in, they make sure the shipments get to the right place.
“Everybody loves us because we have all the gear to give out – the T-shirts, the hoodies, travel gear, whatever we’re giving out,” Rice said. “Those days, we hear guys hootin’ and hollerin’ down the hallway. It’s like Christmas morning for these grown kids.”
Whether they are at home or on the road, they set up the “coach comms” – the headsets the coaches use – with a complex system of computer systems, wiring and more. They test and double-check to make sure the personnel in the booth upstairs can communicate with the coaches on the field and that those on the field can hear each other.
They also manage the transportation for themselves as well as the equipment to away games.
“One funny thing we found out last year is that some of the players didn’t realize that when we go on road trips, we pack up a 26-foot Penske truck and drive that down to the games,” Rice said. “Some players didn’t realize we physically drive that back here and we always get back after they do. We drive ourselves to the games, and unload it and load it.”
Being a two-person staff serving all of ETSU’s intercollegiate athletic teams in some way, Rice and Hammons rely heavily on their seven student workers. Rice dubs them “the backbone of any equipment management team.” The students handle tasks like practice set-ups for the different sports, running clocks and music during practice, and setting up locker rooms in preparation for game day. On game days, they set up warm-up drills, serve as “ball people” and move equipment on and off the field.
For the student workers, it is exceptional hands-on training, especially for those who hope to stay in the business.
“In the grand scheme of things, they’re a busy, small army,” said Hammons.
Both Rice and Hammons are certified by the Athletic Equipment Managers Association, and they stay on top of the latest developments and new practices in their field through conventions and remote meetings hosted by that organization.
And they both find their work truly gratifying.
“For me, the best thing is being able to work with the student athletes and trying to make their day, seeing the smiles on their faces and helping them out in any way we can,” Hammons said. “We get to see so many people come and go, and that’s big to me – building the relationships.”
“I’m thankful to have found a job in athletics that probably fits me best,” said Rice, who aspired to a career in sports broadcasting as a child but realized by the end of high school that it wasn’t for him. “This is the field I want to be in. I just love being at the stadium and the locker room. I’ve had more fun doing this and feel more at home being around a team than at any other job I’ve ever had. I consider myself lucky.”
Photo Named NW1125 ETSU Equipment Staff
Sam Rice makes adjustments to a player’s helmet in the locker room.