The NFL is celebrating its 100th season, and there are many behind-the-scenes stories still to be told. Over the course of this season, Times NFL writer Sam Farmer will pull back the curtain and tell some of those, through the eyes of the players and coaches who lived them.
Want to know what’s really going on with a football team? Talk to the equipment manager.
That’s the information clearinghouse in the NFL, not just the place where players stop by to pick up their jerseys, pads and helmets. Of course, folks in the equipment department seldom talk to the media.
That makes it all the more fascinating to hear from Ted Walsh, who was assistant equipment manager for 18 years during the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers. I first met Ted in 2010, when Jerry Rice was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Walsh played an interesting role in the career of the NFL’s greatest receiver, throwing him thousands of passes before, during, and after practices and games. Because Walsh is left-handed, the spin of his throws helped Rice adjust from the right-handed Joe Montana to the lefty Steve Young.
But Walsh has many more memories of his nearly two decades with the franchise, and here, in his words, are some of them:
Jerry Rice was sponsored by Nike, and that company didn’t like any of its players “spatting,” which involves taping the ankles and shoes in a way that covers up the logos. But this was Jerry Rice, so Nike let him do it. I would trace the swoosh on the tape, and we did a clean job with it. We cut the swoosh off one of the shoes with a scalpel, I would trace it in pencil, and then we had these really nice red-paint markers that we used to color it in. It looked really sharp.
We lined it up and made it look good. We even put NIKE on the back, and sometimes drew shoelaces on the tape. You couldn’t even tell from a distance that his shoes were taped. And Jerry wasn’t the only one. I used to do Mizuno ones for Roger Craig, and I did it for Joe Montana when he went with LA Gear. People used to ask me if I was an artist, but honestly, I can’t draw anything. I was a good tracer, and I could color within the lines.
It would take me about 10 minutes to do a pair of shoes. That’s both sides of the shoes, and sometimes the writing on the back. On the bottom of the shoe I’d always sign my name, like I was an artist.
Receiver John Taylor, no matter what the field conditions, wore ¾-inch spikes. I don’t even know if they allow those anymore, but they’re the longest ones. Remember that game when he had two 90-yard touchdowns against the Rams? That field in Anaheim was always so hard. He ran a slant for a touchdown, and after he scored, he came to the sideline and said, “Hey, Ted, I think I broke some spikes off.” I looked at the bottom of his shoe, and he had broken two studs completely off. It was just screws sticking out. They had sheared off when he was making a cut on the field. I had never seen that before.
I think he went out and played the next series that way, like, no big deal. He was a spat guy too, so we had to cut off the tape, and he had another pair of shoes in his locker that we switched out. But I think he might have gone a series with all the cleats on one side blown out.
Everybody else was wearing short spikes or even molded bottoms on that hard field, and here John Taylor was like running on a tennis court with those long spikes on.
Jerry Rice had some interesting habits with shoulder pads. He’d come back in the equipment room on Friday or Saturday before a game and start looking for them. When he was playing against a fast cornerback, like Washington’s Darrell Green, he’d say, “Let me look at the lightest shoulder pads you’ve got.” He’d do the same when looking at his thigh pads and knee pads. Wanted to be as light as possible.
Then, the next week, if he was going against a bigger guy, he’d get bigger shoulder pads and lift more weights that week, because he wasn’t going to let anyone out-physical him.
Joe Montana’s shoulder pads were the dinkiest you’ve ever seen. They were called Wilson 77-I pads, and they looked like something you’d give your kid for his first year in Pop Warner. There was nothing to them.
I remember one time we were playing the Chicago Bears in Berlin, Germany, and their equipment manager said, “Hey, one of our quarterbacks, Jim Harbaugh, wants to wear the same pads as Joe Montana. Can you show them to me?” So we showed him the pads and the equipment manager was like, “Come on. Seriously? Not his walk-through pads. His game pads.”
We told him those were Joe’s game pads and he said, “I can’t send a guy out on the field with those pads. Are you kidding me?”
Then, Steve Bono came in and wanted Joe’s pads, and Steve Young did too. They were like, “Geez, maybe that’s the key.” So after Joe left for Kansas City, Steve Young wore Joe’s backup pair. They even had No. 16 in the epaulet of the shoulder pad. So in a way, Steve wore Joe’s number.
Steve had another interesting habit. Whenever we’d go to Astroturf fields, like when we’d go to New Orleans to play, he would be out in the planter box by the 49ers facility digging up dirt and putting it in a Gatorade cup. Then, he would give it to me, we would tape it up and take it to New Orleans.
So whenever there was a timeout, and you’d see me over there with a Gatorade cup, I wasn’t giving him water. It was a cup filled with dirt, and he was sticking his fingers in it and rubbing the dirt on his hands for grip.
Any game that was on Astroturf, Steve went out, picked out his own dirt, and gave it to me. We kept some under the bench too for him to stick his fingers in.
Now that’s some dirt on an NFL team you’re not going to get anywhere else.