Game day: Naval Academy football tradition backed by hundreds behind the scenes in Annapolis
By E.B. FURGURSON III | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: October 20, 2018
(Tribune News Service) — A Navy game day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is about tradition, honoring what has come before in the storied history of the Blue and Gold — gridiron action, hot dogs, Midshipmen’s end zone push-ups following a score.
But behind the scenes, the 1,100 people working security, food service, stadium readiness and parking are following a script. The goal is an enjoyable and safe day for the thousands of fans. And they are ready to pounce on anything that varies from that game plan, whether it be a medical emergency or the threat of lightning.
It’s all hands on deck. After all, we are talking about the Navy, right?
Game time for the five Saturday Navy home games at the Annapolis stadium usually begins with a meeting the previous Monday morning. But last week, because of the Columbus Day holiday, the planning session for the Oct. 13 Temple game was held Tuesday. A short week.
A 24-page handout laid out the week’s plans on paper, including a three-page, 135-item event timeline ranging from testing stadium lights and portable toilet delivery to a pre-game bomb sweep and the traditional march on of the Brigade of Midshipmen. Oh, and two pages into it there’s the kickoff.
“It’s plan, plan, plan, then be ready for things that invariably happen, putting out the ‘fires,’ ” Bill Givens, associate athletic director for operations and championships, said after the meeting attended by about 35 people.
On game days, Givens is the coach, riding herd on the overall game from the field, staying in constant radio contact with the stadium operations center — or SOC — located in the press box high above the field.
There, Tom McKavitt, associate athletic director for facilities and maintenance, is the quarterback, coordinating with security, catering, first aid, parking, communications and more.
On Oct 13, like any other game day, the retired Navy commander was ensconced in the SOC, with an assistant, Annapolis Fire Deputy Chief Doug Remaley, two city police officers and representatives of SAFE Management, a company that provides gate security and stadium customer service in Annapolis and other stadiums in the region.
In the glass-enclosed SOC, Mckavitt has a broad view of the facility and the largest parking lot. Six closed-circuit television screens feed live views of area roadway approached, parking lots, entrances and exits, and crowd areas in the stadium.
Another laptop computer provides detailed weather reports. The biggest concern is lightning.
The Weather Sentry system will push a lightning alert. “I can immediately notify Bill Givens on the field. He’s in touch with the teams and officials. We can move quickly if we have to clear the field and stands.”
Set-up really begins on Friday with concessioners and the game’s caterers loading in their basic goods and getting ready. There is toilet delivery and the arrival of the Navy cannon fired during the game for marking scores and more.
5 a.m.: The game day clock starts when any unauthorized vehicles are removed from the stadium grounds.
6 a.m.: Givens arrives and confers with security which has been eyeballing the stadium and grounds overnight. On Saturday, a few gates to the parking area open for staff and others.
8:30 a.m.: The SOC goes operational. Staff on deck.
11 a.m.: The Annapolis Police Incident Command Vehicle moves into position; another from the Navy also arrives, just in case.
11:30 a.m.: Bomb sweeps begin under the eye of the Annapolis Fire Department. Other area agencies assist with bomb-sniffing dogs and handlers. Food service outfits arrive with ice and perishables by the 11:30 a.m. delivery cutoff. Most are done earlier as they hustle to get food prepped and service ready by 12:50 p.m.
Meanwhile, as game time approaches, the Brigade of Midshipmen gathers in formation in Tecumseh Court over on the Naval Academy grounds for the traditional march to the stadium.
2:30 p.m.: The brigade steps off to wind their way through the city.
Over at the stadium, under the stands, more folks make final preparations. In the south end of the stadium, Navy cheerleaders gather, making final costume adjustments and coordinating which shade of makeup to apply.
Around the corner outside of the team locker rooms, Temple players get their ankles taped a few feet from the paint-covered machines used to line and paint logos on the carpeted field.
The view from the arched portal into the stadium bowl begins to change shades as more fans take their seats
Flags at the opposite end of the stadium snap in the autumn breeze. A rumble of noise turns to excited voices and the clatter of cleats as the Midshipmen pour onto the field for warm-ups. Cheers go up, pre-kickoff tension builds.
They won’t go hungry
Concession stands — both the in-house locations run by Sodexo and outside vendors like Chick-fil-A, Boardwalk Fries and Papa John’s Pizza — get their stands set.
The catering companies prepare, whether providing for set “tailgate” celebrations such as the Supe’s Tent or Captain’s BBQ, or those who stock and serve game fans in 34 suites and eight club rooms.
Evie Turner, vice president of Main and Market catering, makes a final pre-game sweep of suites and the Akerson Tower club rooms. Her company supplies 28 suites and club rooms.
She mentioned the same rule of thumb Givens shared. “Get it all set up, then you wait for things to happen.”
“We are mostly serving pre-made cold and hot food, on occasion we are grilling,” she added, standing outside the small kitchen off the large club rooms at Akerson Tower as Main and Market staff carefully place trays of food on a center table.
She has nine people attending the indoor suites, more in the club rooms, then more attending to suites beyond Akerson Tower.
During the game, Turner and others staff a tent on the main deck to attend to any customer needs or complaints.
By the end of the day, Main and Market will go through 2,500 chicken wings, 1,200 meatballs, 280 hot dogs, 15 gallons of chili, 500 chicken tenders, 950 spiced shrimp, 150 pounds of shaved rib eye steak, 23 fruit displays and more.
Bayside Bull, which focuses on tailgate affairs during the Temple game, uses massive amounts of food, too — 600 pounds of pulled pork, 720 pieces of chicken along with 550 pounds each of potato and pasta salad, plus 825 pounds of baked beans and 100 dozen kaiser rolls.
Sodexo is the company contracted to provide the general concessions as well as hawking bottled sodas and hot chocolate in the stands. Sorry folks, there’s no beer served.
Sodexo sells the usual and goes through product in a hurry. A typical game will sell 1,500 hot dogs, 800 hamburgers, nearly 500 pounds of nacho cheese and 7,000 sodas.
Unexpectedly, the day’s early chill, rising out of the mid-40s and cooler in the shady side of the stadium, set off a run on hot chocolate. Luckily Perry Hahn, who has been working concessions for over 20 years, was at the ready with his custom-made hot chocolate machine. He cobbled the rig together out of necessity.
“This propane heater heats the water,” he said. “I have had that heater for 20 years. Then we mix the hot chocolate at a super strength. And the pump pulls the hot water and mixes it with the hot chocolate.”
The mixture pumps out through a handmade manifold, four nozzles squirting warming chocolate into cups arranged on a 20-cup rack.
He’s got five of the rigs, sending them to Baltimore Ravens games, Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Stadium in Philadelphia, and other locations.
Behind a door at the main ramp entrance to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Preston Johnson sits in his small office ready for the game to commence. A 40-year veteran of games at the stadium, he is now stadium manager.
He and a few of his crew already had done their bit getting the stadium ready for the crowd — painting the field, making sure everything is all set.
“It’s a lot different than it used to be when I started,” Johnson said. “Back then there was just a little building and the field, not like it is today.”
He started right after a stint in the Marine Corps. “For the first 20 years I was just one of the guys, we did everything.”
It took him a couple of years to get the hang of painting the field. “That was back when it was all grass. And they did not have the machines they do now.”
His office is full of memorabilia, hats, a few Navy jerseys and hand tools ready for quick repair jobs.
But most prized is a black and white photograph of the bulldozed ground when the stadium was built in the late 1950s.
Born on a farm down Muddy Creek Road in south county, Johnson’s father, William, was a sharecropper who landed a job building the stadium.
Looking at the photo Johnson said, “I like to think that’s my father there, sitting on the back of that pickup truck.”
He nodded and smiled at the suggestion he keeps his job just to keep an eye on the place for his father.
“I remember as a kid, my father would bring me and my five brothers by the stadium … It makes me proud to work here.”
3:11 p.m.: One minute after the Midshipmen and Temple Owls leave the field after pregame warmups, the traditional pageantry steps off as the Brigade of Midshipmen enter the south side of the stadium.
Company by company they march through the portal, down the ramp to the field.
As they emerge into the crowd’s sight, more than few shuffle step to make sure they are in sync with their peers.
3:20 p.m.: Once lined up on the field, the colors are presented, the national anthem is sung, and four F-18s out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach zoom over the stadium.
3:24 p.m.: Parachutist leaves the plane.
3:27 p.m.: Navy leaves locker room.
3:28 p.m.: Parachutist lands.
3:31 p.m.: Kickoff.
From there the timeline shortens precipitously. Givens and the others coordinating on-field activity make sure halftime and other on-field events, like honoring the 1963 football team, go smoothly. The crowd is into the game, though many mull around the main deck hitting concessions.
By halftime, Rusty Romo leads the fun at the end zone suite he shares with 11 other people. Suite No. 7 is named for his father, Red Romo, who was the Naval Academy athletic trainer for 41 years before he died in 1999.
The smallish suite room is set up with a Main and Market buffet and beverages, adult and otherwise. Sliding glass doors open up to 30 seats in the stands. And the party is on.
“I put this together as a vehicle to promote the Red Romo Scholarship Foundation,” Romo said, as others poked fun at him in front of a reporter.
The scholarship provides an opportunity for any college graduate to come to the Naval Academy to earn sports medicine accreditation.
Romo left the room to visit other suites, seeking more support for the scholarship’s main fundraising event: an annual golf tourney.
Well into the fourth quarter, Givens is standing at his prime perch at the end of the ramp to the field. He is relaxed, knowing the end of the game script is at hand.
“I get here at 6 a.m. and we start going through the checklist which we check off through halftime,” he said.
From halftime until halfway through the fourth quarter, he can breathe a little.
“At the middle of the fourth quarter, we start setting up for post-game news conferences, and prepare for the crowd to exit and making sure our shuttles are up and running.”
Once the gun goes off to end the game, in which Temple prevailed 24-17, the scramble begins moving the crowds out, clearing the stadium. Three hours later the parking lots close.
Then the clock starts again.
Saturday, it’s the Houston Cougars, a tough opponent on the field.
Off the field it’s the regular routine with the exception of four Naval Academy classes holding reunions, adding to the preparation and excitement.
Planning, planning, planning.
©2018 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)
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