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Every game is a road trip for UCLA football truck driver

One component of UCLA’s ground game isn’t broken.

He rolled onto campus with a steady rumble at 6:25 a.m. Wednesday, just as a hint of blue began to infuse itself into the black early morning sky.

Keith Preyer was moving the ball — and every other piece of equipment the UCLA football team needed. He’s been trucking the Bruins in his 18-wheeler for the past eight years, to games home and away.

“He’s never not made it,” said Brendan Burger, UCLA’s equipment manager.

That includes the roughly 5,100-mile round trip from Westwood to Charlottesville, Va., for a game against Virginia, an overheated engine that forced a three-hour delay on a 114-degree Arizona day on the way to College Station, Texas, or the faulty tail lights that required a mechanic in Salt Lake City.

Preyer’s journey this week is perhaps the most treacherous he’ll face all season. He’s headed 1,300 miles to Pullman, Wash., for UCLA’s must-win Pac-12 Conference game against Washington State.

His route will take him up Interstate 5 to Portland, Ore., to Interstate 84 across northern Oregon, Interstate 82 into Washington and eventually Highway 26 into Pullman.

The final stretch is a winding two-lane road that becomes especially treacherous when the weather deteriorates. The forecast for his arrival Thursday night called for temperatures in the low 50s and a 100% chance of rain.

“It gets kind of tricky sometimes going up those roads there,” Preyer said.

The trip started in the predawn dark next to Pauley Pavilion. Preyer hitched his cab to the front of the 53-foot trailer featuring a gold Bruins helmet and “UCLA FOOTBALL” in massive blue letters set against a black background. Then he clambered out of the driver’s seat, connecting cables that carry electricity to the trailer’s lights and air to its brakes.

As usual, Preyer would have some company for the ride. This week it was UCLA sophomore Todd Murray, an economics major and part of a rotation of football team managers that accompany Preyer on every trip.

“That’s your hotel for the next few days,” Burger deadpanned to Murray as he spotted Preyer pulling up in the cab before daybreak.

“We hope you enjoy your stay,” Murray said with a laugh.

Murray arrived at the trailer even before Preyer, making sure the video equipment that would need to be unloaded first at the team hotel for coaches meetings was properly arranged in the back of the cargo area.

The bulk of the loading was finished Tuesday for a trip that Preyer was scheduled to complete in 22 hours of driving over two days, with his arrival preceding the team’s charter plane touching down on Friday.

“First one in, last one out,” Preyer said. “That’s every game.”

Preyer’s truck can carry about 10,000 pounds’ worth of uniforms, helmets, trainers trunks, strength and conditioning equipment, video screens and cheerleading megaphones, the contents varying depending on the team’s needs each week. UCLA owns the trailer and Preyer the cab that he uses the balance of the week for his other job as a home mover.

There’s no debating which assignment Preyer prefers.

“I call it my vacation time from regular work,” Preyer said of lugging football equipment. “Once the season starts, I really enjoy it. Not a lot of people can say they really experience college sports like this.”

The interior of Preyer’s Volvo 780 cab appears worn but comfortable. There’s a 32-inch flat screen TV, microwave, refrigerator and table that folds down to make way for sleeping space in addition to the pull-down bunk bed on top.

Preyer wrapped the steering wheel in blue and black vinyl, matching the sweatshirt, shorts and shoes he wore for the trip to Pullman. He’ll remain in continual contact with Burger throughout the trip, texting and calling in to provide updates on his whereabouts.

Usually the only thing that can slow Preyer is the speed limit. His cab doesn’t feature a governor on the engine, but the lawmakers that deemed 55 miles per hour the maximum for trucks on California freeways should not expect Christmas cards. Preyer prefers driving through the Arizona desert, where he can reach 75 mph, or Texas, where he can hit 80.

“Once you get back into California, you have to slow it down,” Preyer said. “You get used to it.”

Driving what amounts to a large advertisement for UCLA football can trigger some backlash in rival territory, Preyer said. USC fans tend to do a lot of chattering whenever they’re within earshot, and Arizona State fans can be more direct, often extending their middle fingers, he said.

“I get a lot of that going through ASU country,” Preyer said. “It’s pretty funny to me. I keep driving and smiling.”

Preyer, 47, doesn’t look like someone you would want to mess with. He’s built like a running back and linebacker because he was one for the Los Angeles Mustangs, a long-defunct semipro team. He attended Reseda High and was a childhood friend of former UCLA safety James Washington, making him a lifelong Bruins fan.

Several players return the favor. Receiver Mossi Johnson called Preyer “a big part of the team” and likened him to a coach. Before he headed to the NFL, receiver Jordan Payton would shake Preyer’s hand and dap him up on the sideline, part of a pregame ritual that also included Payton making a score prediction. He wanted to win in part to thank someone doing thankless work.

“It’s definitely a job that goes unnoticed,” said Payton, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns. “As a player, you don’t even think sometimes about how the stuff gets from Point A to Point B. Seeing him and being around him, you start to realize what his job is and how hard it is and how well he does it.”

Preyer makes sure to pack a healthy allotment of serenity for each trip. That overheated engine in the Arizona desert? Preyer just pulled over for a few hours until the engine cooled. Those faulty tail lights in Utah? Nothing a mechanic couldn’t fix in a matter of minutes.

“You’ve got to stay calm and cool when you’re doing this,” Preyer said. “When you get a little nervous and jittery about things, that’s when things happen.”

Unlike a UCLA ground game that inches along as one of the worst in the nation, the Bruins averaging only 99.2 yards rushing per game, Preyer remains in constant motion. He’s driven through all 48 contiguous states as part of his jobs, his odometer reading 704,456 miles before the trip to Pullman.

As the Bruins tailbacks toiled in practice early Wednesday morning, Preyer’s truck slowly rolled past a driveway on the side of the intramural fields.

At least someone seemed assured of getting where he wanted to go.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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