One heck of a road trip

Originally Published: October 13, 2004
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

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Go behind the scenes and along for the ride with Sooners football.

• Moving Sooner Nation ESPN Motion

DALLAS -- It's the night before the biggest football game of Oklahoma's regular season and inside the Sooners locker room, everything seems secure. The double doors are double locked. Folding chairs rest against their backside. Three-inch chains intertwine through their handles.

And then there's Paul and Sharon Collin, laying on an air mattress, cuddled under a sleeping bag, with one eye closed for rest and the other open for safety. The husband and wife work for Sooner Security and have the assignment of guarding the locker room the night before the Red River Shootout, keeping a watchful eye on medical tape. Knee Braces. Mouthpieces.

Sooner One is a 53-foot semi that holds up to 60,000 pounds and is an OU billboard on wheels.
"People just light up when we tell them what we're doing for the weekend," Sharon said. "But there's a job to do, too."

The Collin's are protecting more than Jason White's jersey, Adrian Peterson's cleats and Dan Cody's helmet. They're protecting the week's worth of work that goes into taking the Sooner football family on a two-day business trip.

They're protecting the 16-member Sooner equipment staff that sets its alarm for five in the morning on back-to-back days to ensure perfection is achieved. They're protecting the student volunteers that methodically place a package of Dentyne in precisely the same spot at 87 different lockers. It's a group that, after the Sooners beat Texas 12-0, is too busy working to watch a giant OU flag get planted in the 50-yard line.

"I always tell people it's like a family trip," assistant equipment manager David "Dukes" Littlejohn said. "Think about what it takes to get four or five people on vacation for a weekend. Then multiply that by like 100."

It's 72 hours of choreographed chaos that, when done right, is rarely ever noticed.

DAY ONE
Making a List, Checking it Twice
Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman, Okla.
Thursday, Oct. 7
12:52 p.m.

The skies are gray, the air is spitting rain and the concrete driveway outside the Oklahoma locker room is littered in stuff. Packing started on Monday; now it's time to load. Fourteen trunks, four mist machines, eight Gatorade coolers, 21 cases of Gatorade as well as every player's helmet, jersey, pants and shoulder pads are waiting to be lifted onto the semi. There's training equipment, video equipment, computer equipment, even extra sideline chains.

Every trunk is labeled, not only with what it is but where it goes. Masking tape on the trailer's inner walls provide a cheat sheet. S = shower. ER = equipment room. PLR = players locker room. CLR = coaches locker room.

Equipment manager Greg Tipton stands by with a checklist, crossing off each item as it is loaded. The entire process takes just more than an hour. After practice, each player's equipment bag will be double checked and loaded. That's another hour.

The Red River Shootout is the team's first road game this season and Tipton wishes he could get the kinks out before Texas. Matt McMillen, the football program's administrative coordinator, calls such talk "nonsense."

"That guy doesn't forget a thing," McMillen said. "He'll have everything from Speedos to snowsuits on that truck. He's just paranoid."

DAY TWO
Pride in our Ride
Norman, Okla.
Friday, Oct. 8
6:28 a.m.

Paul Collin
Paul Collin protects OU's equipment at the Cotton Bowl the night before the game.
With a backdrop of fog-riddled darkness, the 53-foot Oklahoma semi, the 18-wheeler hauling 14,000 pounds of equipment, is headed south on I-35 en route to Dallas.

"Sooner One" is an Oklahoma billboard on wheels, with "SOONER FOOTBALL" proudly proclaimed along both sides, flanked by Nike swooshes, Sooner helmets and a declaration of Big 12 and national championships past.

The cabin is a luxury living room, complete with front seats that ride on a bed of air, deluxe wood trim, a cozy backseat bed, a television, a VCR and a bevy of storage compartments.

It wasn't always this way. The Sooners used a box truck until 1999, when a group of boosters donated a used semi. It was serviceable, but not impressive. And had a maximum load of just 12,000 pounds.

So 50 boosters joined together and formed the "Pride in our Ride" campaign to bring a brand a new tractor-trailer to town. The roughly $180,000 Freightliner Coronado, with its "They'll Wish They Were You" advertising tag, arrived for the second game last year. Now when the Sooners roll down the interstate, everyone notices. And they can carry up to 60,000 pounds.

Tipton doesn't typically ride the 18-wheeler, instead traveling on team charters, but on this day, he's commandeering the passenger's seat. "You have to shift this thing 18 times?" he asks. "No," Littlejohn says, chuckling. "Eighteen is the number of tires."

Tales from the Road
Pauls Valley, Okla.
6:46 a.m.
The truck is barely on the road 20 minutes when it's time for the first stop: Carl's Jr. in Paul's Valley, where the fast-food restaurant his offering free "Bevo Burgers." Since the team first stopped here in 2000 and went on to beat Texas and later win the national championship, it's become tradition.

"I didn't want to stop," Tipton said. "But the guys wouldn't let that happen. So here we are."

Behind the wheel is Littlejohn, the only man who drives Sooner One.

"(Athletic director Joe) Castiglione thinks he can drive this thing," Littlejohn said. "But we won't let him take it out of the parking lot."

Littlejohn has worked for the school since 1983, starting as a student manager. His stories are endless. Like the time in 1987 when he was hassled at the Kansas state line for not having the proper paperwork, nearly needing an act of congress to get through.

After getting held up at a weigh station for over an hour, Littlejohn called OU business manager Robert Smith, who called athletics director Donnie Duncan, who then called OU president Frank Horton. Horton called Oklahoma governor George Nigh, who in turn called Kansas governor John Carlin. Carlin instructed a member of his staff to call the weigh station, telling them to let the Sooner truck proceed.

"The guy at the station looked at me and said, 'I don't know how you did this,'" Littlejohn said. "'But you're free to go.'"

The Ultimate Prank
Crossing the Red River, entering Texas
8:45 a.m.

On this day there are no hassles from the police and an Oklahoma weigh station employee waves the truck on by. But as the truck crosses the state line and heads into Texas, Littlejohn's nerves begin to fester. A week earlier, OU diehard Toby Keith's tour bus was shot at on this exact stretch of interstate, the driver taking a bullet to the hip.

Littlejohn worries it might have been an OU thing. And leave it to McMillen, the staff prankster, to prey on that fear. On Thursday, McMillen choreographed a visit from the head of OU PD, who told the driver there were "credible threats against OU vehicles" and that they'd like him to wear a flak jacket and a riot helmet just to be safe.

The moment Littlejohn slipped the helmet over his head, McMillen and the officer erupted in laughter.

"It's not out of the question that somebody would shoot at our truck," Littlejohn said. "So, well, yeah, they did a good job. They got me. It was believable."

Today's ride is uneventful. One guy waves a Hook 'Em Horns sign out of the roof of his Lexus. Another cordially extends his middle finger from the driver's side window. When the truck finally arrives at the Cotton Bowl, a few minutes before 10 a.m., it takes 12 different turns to place it exactly where Littlejohn wants it. Mirroring his every move is a handicapped woman, driving a motorized wheelchair, sheepishly smiling and waving a Texas flag at each of his dozen turns.

That's as dangerous as it gets.

"Perhaps that's because they've lost four in a row," says Jon Denio, a graduate assistant in his first year under Tipton. "I mean, how much trash can you talk after that?"

The Art of Precision
West Locker Room, The Cotton Bowl
10:33 a.m.

Sooners lockeroom
Preparing the Sooners' locker room before a game is all about getting things just right.
The second the truck is parked, work begins. Inside, Tipton and his staff begin assigning lockers in numerical order. But there's one exception. "No fat boys next to each other in the corner," he says.

Three signs are strategically placed on the locker room wall. Two read, "Play like a champion," the famous phrase that Oklahoma claims it -- not Notre Dame -- originated. They other reads, "Sooner Magic." It goes in the center of the room, directly above the "Golden Hat" that goes to the game's winner.

Meanwhile, the staff unpacks the trunks and prepares the lockers. Each one is setup precisely the same:

Nameplate in the upper left hand corner. Knee and hip pads stacked on the top shelf, left side. Cleats on the top shelf, right side. Mouthpiece between them. Pants hanging from a hook on the right side. Undergarments hanging from a hook on the left side. Jersey folded over the bench, so that only the word "Sooners" and the jersey number are visible. In the lower left-hand corner of the jersey, a game program. In the center of the program, at the exact spot where the OU and UT helmets collide, a pack of Dentyne.

The reason? It's red. Tipton originally tried Big Red, but players complained that after awhile, it burned their gums. So he switched to Dentyne. Now the team chirps that the gum loses its flavor too quickly. So next week, against Kansas State, he's going to try Cinnamon Orbit.

"I chew it all the time," Tipton said. "So hopefully it will work."

Put it all together -- every helmet facing to the right, every cleat, mouthpiece and pack of gum resting in the exact same place, 87 different times -- and it becomes clear: precision is everything. Even if the team will likely ransack the place once they arrive.

"I can't explain why," Tipton said. "It's just the way we've always done it. We like things to be precise."

Their work now done, Tipton and his staff head for the team hotel. And the locker room is turned over to 61-year-old Paul Collin and his wife Sharon until dawn.

DAY THREE
Finishing Touches
Saturday, October 9
6:00 a.m.
West Locker Room, The Cotton Bowl

Their eyes are red. Their walk is slow. But regardless of what the clock says, regardless of the fact that most of Tipton's staff spent the previous night at Hooters, the locker room needs to be ready in three hours, when the team will arrive. Tipton pulls everyone into a small corridor, asks them to join hands and says a prayer. Afterwards, he flatly asks the group, "Everybody know what they need to do? Everybody have a happy feel about today?"

They groan yes. And assistant equipment manager Barrett Argo drops a dip in his mouth. "The dip solves everything," he said. "You don't even know what time it is."

Matt Schachle has a different method for keeping awake. He jumps atop the exer-cycle and air dances to Juvenile's "Slow Motion."

Meanwhile, outside the locker room, smack in the heart of the country's largest state fair, it's still. There are no people. No rides. No deep-fried cheesecake slices. Just darkness. The only noise is the constant chirping of crickets and the buzz from the rainbow-colored "Midway" sign just outside the locker room door.

The worst job of the weekend? That goes to Argo, who has the unenviable task of taping Dan Cody's shoulder pads to his jersey. Nine players ask to have the double-sided tape stuck to their pads so they're jersey can't be held, but Cody's request is extra troubling. He likes his jersey tight -- real tight -- and wears a size 46, which is about two or three sizes too small for a player Cody's size. The only way Argo can get the jersey over the pads is to put the tape on, cover the pads with a towel, pull the jersey over the towel and then yank the towel out like he's pulling a tablecloth out from under a set of china.

He doesn't mind.

"Dude's a manchild. He's absolutely phenomenal," Argo says of Cody. "So if he wants to wear a size 46 jersey and have the tape on his pads, he gets the 46 jersey and the tape on his pads. And hopefully we win the game."

A Problem
West sideline, The Cotton Bowl
7:05 a.m.

With darkness still upon them, Littlejohn leads a group of student assistants down the field to test the wireless radio system. One by one, they grab a radio and walk like zombies around the field, talking to each other the entire way. "Welcome back to KKRX, do we have a caller on the line?" one says to no one in particular.

On this day, the radios, which aren't designed to combat the interference playing in the center of a state fair, in the country's 8th-largest city, aren't working. The Longhorns, on the other hand, have borrowed radios from Fort Worth-based TCU and aren't having any problems.

Only three of Oklahoma's 10 radios work. So they switch to wired radios. And the staff teases one another about who's going to carry coach Bob Stoops' cord all day. It becomes a never-ending chorus of "Not Mes." But Tipton and Littlejohn end the concern, putting Stoops on one of the three wireless radios that works.

Game time
Cotton Bowl
11:10 a.m.

The team arrives, gets dressed and there aren't any issues. Tipton's biggest worry is the weather, which forecasters promised would be clear but instead has brought intermittent showers. He grabs a few pullovers, gives them to the coaches, rolls the rest of the rain gear down to the sideline and gets out of the way. It's game time.

Everyone has an assignment. Game balls. Offensive bench. Defensive bench. Coaches phones. Halftime setup. Troubleshooting. Tipton gives out the assignments based on experience -- the older guys typically work the coach's phones and everybody else fills in.

Alex Holladay, for example, regularly requests game balls.

"I just like standing there, on the other team's other sideline, in my Oklahoma gear," Holladay said. "And it's pretty damn good view of the game."

If nothing goes wrong, as it doesn't on this day, game time is down time for Tipton.

"This is when I stand around and watch the game," Tipton said. "There usually isn't a whole lot to do."

No Time to Party
Oklahoma 12, Texas 0
2:21 p.m.

The game is over. The celebration has begun. Oklahoma is victorious. Amidst all the screaming, yelling and running around, Vince Carter plants a Sooner flag into the 50-yard-line. But none of the equipment staff notices. They miss the presentation of the Golden Hat and the Sooner Schooner's victory lap as well.

Instead, they're on the sideline, in the tunnel, in the locker room, frantically packing up so they can head back to Norman. Within 17 minutes, the entire sideline is emptied, except for the four mist machines.

"Man, I've been celebrating all day long," said Alex Holladay, one of Tipton's students. "I don't need to celebrate now. It's time to get home."

How quickly does it all happen? Assistant coach Chuck Long, slowed by the on-field celebration and a slew of postgame interviews, has to climb through six helmet bags and four trunks just to make it back to the locker room.

Inside, everything moves at a frenetic pace. Laundry is gathered, pad bags are stuffed, trunks are locked and everything is wheeled out to the truck.

One hour after the team busses depart -- two hours after the game is over -- Sooner One is headed back to Norman.

"There's no sticking around any longer than we have to," said Kenny Gajewski, the school's head groundskeeper who helps Tipton on road games. "Get it packed, get it on the truck and get back to Norman. Then we can party up there."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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