At about 7 a.m., nine student equipment managers, clothed in Wildcat garb from head to toe, are already working in the football team’s equipment room, reviewing the day’s practice schedule, planning which equipment will be needed, and preparing for the team’s workout and walkthrough.
Minutes later, they start up golf carts in the bowels of Ryan Field, just as sprinklers are giving the turf a morning rinse. The squad of equipment managers, led by head offensive student manager Rob Shiffer is already joking around, talking football strategy and carefully executing the plan to prepare for practice, as if they’ve been awake for hours, doing it for years.
Shiffer, a Weinberg senior, started working with the team the summer before his freshman year after getting connected with the equipment office as his work study job.
“It was definitely an interesting way to get started at Northwestern, not the typical thing,” Shiffer says. “I figured I could either work in the library and sit at a desk or do something more fun.”
After injuries ended his high school football career, he thought working with the Wildcat team as an equipment manager would give him a way to stay connected to his passion. He’s stuck with it since freshman year.
“I’ve kind of gotten hooked on it since then,” he says.
Shiffer works with the quarterbacks and their position coach, ensuring they have all the equipment they need and warming up with them.
By 7:35 a.m., after various trips around the sports complex surrounding Ryan Field to pick up and drop off equipment for the day, the crew of equipment managers is arguing over a minute football rule detail. They quickly transition to meticulously selecting the right footballs for each position player. Shiffer points out yesterday’s balls for the quarterbacks were “not the best.”
The group spends countless hours together during the season and even during spring workouts and summer training camp. They load and sort equipment onto trucks for road games, help assistant coaches with play calling during games and aid in various tasks at other times. The nine managers attend all practices and almost all games, unless a flight is required, in which case only five attend.
“Pretty much every time the team’s here, we’re here,” Shiffer says.
As part of the job, which some do as a work-study position, the managers receive a ton of Under Armour team gear and the chance to be in the locker room for momentous occasions like the 2013 Gator Bowl win – which Shiffer calls his favorite moment with the team. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald even wrote Shiffer a recommendation letter for job applications.
“It’s one of the best gigs on campus, to be able to travel with a Big Ten program and to be able to see it all,” says Communication sophomore Zach Gold. “It’s really all about the experience for me.”
By 7:56 a.m., they are done setting up practice ahead of schedule, leaving them with some downtime before the players arrive. Shiffer, Gold and others throw a ball around on the practice field, simulating plays and arguing over close calls while chatting about recent NFL trends, fantasy football and the past weekend’s party scene.
By 8:16 a.m., one minute after warmups officially start for the team, music starts blaring from the loudspeakers and an assistant coach screams at stragglers. But the student equipment managers have already been on the field for over an hour, doing the dirty work for the team in exchange for a chance to be as close to the action as possible.
“You really gotta love football,” Shiffer says. “It’s probably more intensive than your average work-study, but there are not too many jobs where you get to be behind the scenes of a major college operation like this.”