For NFL equipment managers and their crews, the work is never done


You don’t know Bob Romanski, but if you’ve watched an NFL game in the last 33 years you’ve seen his work.

That’s because any player who has worn the silver and black of the Raiders during that time was outfitted — from shoelaces to shoulder pads, jockstrap to chin strap — by Romanski, the team’s equipment manager since the final days of the Carter administration.

And that’s just the most visible part of his job

“It’s from A to Z what you do,” Romanski says. “There’s times where you’re working on a helmet radio system for practice and then a couple of hours later you could be tailoring a pair of pants. And a few minutes later you could be fixing a [blocking] sled out in the rain.

“An equipment guy, there’s no boundaries.”

Nor, outside the locker room, is there much appreciation for what Romanski and the NFL’s 31 other equipment managers do. Yet their job is among the most complex in professional sports, requiring the precision to attend to the smallest details and the planning skills necessary to oversee weekly shipments of up to 11 tons of gear.

And it’s a job that never stops, with the preparation for the next game beginning immediately after the last one has finished.

With the Raiders, Romanski and his four-man crew begin filling hampers with sweat-soaked shoulder pads, battled-scarred helmets and uniforms stained with blood, grass and dirt while the players are still showering. Next come eight heavy steel trunks packed with tools, video equipment and medical supplies, and 30 equipment bags.

It’s enough gear to outfit a small army and it’s all loaded into 25-foot moving vans for the short drive from the Coliseum to the Raiders’ practice facility, buried deep in a nondescript industrial park on the edge of the Oakland airport. There the uniforms are dumped, 110 pounds at a time, into four massive washing machines where they are soaked, agitated, rinsed and spun for 21/2 hours.

And that’s just the first few hours of what will be another 80-hour workweek for Romanski and his team. There are still 53 helmets to polish and 53 pairs of cleats to scrub and clean.

Romanski’s “office” is a sprawling storeroom broken up by narrow aisles, each one flanked on both sides by gray shelves lined with helmets, facemasks, hundreds of shoulder pads and uniform pants in sizes running from a 28-inch waist to XXXL.

The jerseys for the next game in Kansas City — spotless white shirts with black numbers, black nameplates, and black Nike swooshes on each sleeve — hang neatly from several rolling racks spread around the room. Complete backup uniforms for each player also are sorted and packed.

“You can go to a city and there could be a monsoon rain and by the second half everybody will need a fresh uniform,” says Romanski, 50. “You have to be prepared for that.”

The extra packing paid off another way a few seasons back when the Raiders activated wide receiver Jonathan Holland after arriving in San Diego for a nationally televised game against the Chargers. Romanski didn’t have a No. 10 uniform for Holland, so he took a white No. 12 jersey, cut out the 0 from a No. 40 jersey and stitched the two together.

A seamstress then fashioned a nameplate out of strips of black cloth and Holland got his uniform five minutes before the Raiders took the field.


About 45 minutes southwest at the 49ers’ facility in Santa Clara, equipment man Steve Urbaniak has begun his long workweek much like Romanski and his crew began theirs. But there’s an added wrinkle. Although many NFL teams — including the Raiders — train a short distance from their home stadium, the 49ers’ practice facility is 40 miles south of Candlestick Park, meaning Urbaniak and his crew must pack a semi-trailer two days before every game and unpack it again when the game is over.

“I’ve got check sheets and we’ve got it down to an exact science,” says Urbaniak, whose department’s annual budget of nearly $1 million is similar to those of other equipment managers. “I can open a trunk and just look at it and see ‘OK, I’m missing four pairs of socks and a pair of shoes.’ And I can tell you what sizes they are because I’ve got everything laid out. It is that precise.”

And that’s not all he has on that ever-growing checklist. Since Urbaniak joined the 49ers, the team has had six head coaches and it’s the equipment man’s responsibility to not only steam the wrinkles out of their sideline clothes but also to make sure the locker room refrigerators are stocked with the coaches’ favorite soft drinks and that enough bananas and oranges have been ordered for halftime.

“Our job,” he continues, “is to make sure that the coaches can coach and the players can play and they don’t have to worry about the other stuff.”

Such as nature’s call, something else Urbaniak has prepared for by packing a box of urine bags in his equipment trunk.

“When a guy’s got to go, he comes over and grabs a bag and does his thing,” Urbaniak says.

Although that’s an urgent and obvious need, sometimes the equipment staff must try to divine the future to keep players happy, taking it upon themselves to order extra shoes and other gear for guys who are running low.

There’s more to that than just knowing the shoe size, though, because although the 49ers have a uniform deal with Nike, many players have personal deals with other companies. Putting the wrong products in a locker can cost a player thousands of dollars in endorsement money.

“I’m having my first child this year and people ask me why it’s taken so long to have children,” Urbaniak says. “And I say, ‘Well, I’ve got 53 big children in my locker room every day.’”

Yet Urbaniak’s biggest save didn’t come from subbing out Pepsi for a coach’s favorite Diet Coke in the locker room. Known as an all-pro seamster in the tight-knit community of NFL equipment managers, Urbaniak was at work when he got a frantic call from his wife. One of her best friends was getting married and a bridesmaid had blown a seam in her dress.

“I was coming to the wedding from practice and she was kind of like, ‘Hey, can you bring a needle and thread with you?’” Urbaniak remembers. “I showed up, sewed it up, and made the bride happy.”


About 450 miles south, players are beginning to arrive at the Chargers’ complex for their weekly Monday afternoon meeting. Many will stop in to see equipment manager Bob Wick and ask to have their uniforms tailored.

“Some players are more high-maintenance about their uniforms,” says Wick, 52, who joined the Chargers as a ball boy 33 years ago and has never known a full-time job outside of the NFL. “They’ll get their jerseys altered three, four times in a month.”

Typically linemen and linebackers want their $200 jerseys to fit as snugly as possible to prevent holding, and quarterbacks prefer loose shirts that allow for a better range of motion. Another way to tell what position someone plays is by how much his uniform is soiled. Running backs and linebackers tend to get dirtiest, and the kickers and — every coach hopes — the quarterbacks are the cleanest.

Although Monday can be the longest day of the week for an equipment crew, Wednesdays and Thursdays can be the busiest, not only because full-pad practices mean extra loads of laundry to wash, dry and fold but also because many teams use their equipment men to perform odd duties on the field.

The Chargers have Wick and his five-man staff — there are no female equipment managers in the NFL, Wick says — manage the down-and-distance chains, run the clock and shoot footballs out of a machine for punt and kick returners.

Game days, conversely, are often the easiest.

“It’s almost downtime. You’re just on the sidelines,” Wick says a day after the Chargers’ early-season victory over the Chiefs. “I had to tie a guy’s shoes yesterday. Or sometimes players want longer cleats. Just minor things.”

Which isn’t to say Wick isn’t an important presence in the locker room or on the sidelines. To some players, he’s become something of a talisman.

“Before the game I’ll help certain guys put their pads on and put the jerseys over [them],” says Wick, who counts fullback Le’Ron McClain, tight end Randy McMichael and linebacker Shaun Phillips among the most superstitious Chargers. “If somebody else tried to do my guy then he’ll say no, I want Bob to do it.”

When the final gun sounds, though, it’s back to work for Wick and his crew, who scurry about the locker room wearing plastic gloves and picking up dirty underwear and grass-stained uniforms or clapping the mud out of shoes the size of small skateboards.

Everything is then packed neatly in canvas hampers and steel crates and transported back to the Chargers’ sprawling headquarters where, early Monday morning, the washers and dryers will begin to whirl and the process will start all over again.

“There are no off days,” Wick says.