Equipped to adapt: Pitt Athletics hones in on finer details of equipment care

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Pitt football’s equipment team has had to adjust sanitation and cleaning practices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Ben Bobeck, Senior Staff Writer

Derek Moos was used to dealing with a certain type of face mask — the one attached to the front of a football or softball helmet or the one strapped across a catcher’s head.

But in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moos’ job as assistant athletic director for equipment services requires an in-depth knowledge and familiarity with the face masks that are now, by requirement, the new normal — around athletics facilities, campus and the world.

“The only face mask I ever thought I would deal with and the world of football is the one that’s on the outside of the helmet,” Moos said.

Since arriving from Eastern Michigan as equipment manager for the Pitt baseball program, Moos has seen many changes throughout the athletic department. When he first started, Pitt’s school colors were navy and Vegas gold. Since then, the Panthers have transitioned to competing in a much more distinct color palette.

“I think we got a really unique set of colors that come off the page to a lot of people,” Moos said. “You’re not going to look around college football or college athletics as a whole and see gold and royal, there’s just nobody else that really has that color scheme.”

Amidst a pandemic as unparalleled as Pitt’s old-yet-new-colors, and Moos and his team — consisting of Danny Kozusko, assistant director of equipment services, the gaggle of student managers relied on throughout the season and at different points in the off season as well as assistance from the operations team — had to upend their tried-and-true off-season preparation routine, servicing helmets from a garage and working with limited staff and facility access.

Moos was just two months into his new role as assistant athletic director, taking charge of the equipment services of the entire athletic department in January, while still overseeing football personally when the pandemic hit a boiling point in March.

Besides the constant presence of mask-wearing, the notable changes taken by the equipment room and the rest of the program are all about finite details, things that may never have been considered if not for the unfortunate circumstances.

Whether it’s how dirty practice jerseys are collected for cleaning after practice, how players were fitted for their helmets during camp or the addition of hand-sanitizing stations to water hoses during practice, the equipment team is searching for the best way to make minute modifications for the sake of sterilization — and often finding increased efficiency in its wake.

Take practice jerseys, for example. In past seasons, these items were collected in separate bins, but in the same spot as used undergarments and towels for laundering. This year, players’ practice jerseys are collected before they enter the locker rooms, making it far quicker for the dirty jerseys to get in and out of the wash and speeding up the never-ending stream of laundry. It’s a change Moos said he never would have considered from the way things had been done, but now sees no reason to not continue.

One other change, certainly in the program’s favor, has been an increased sense of priority from Nike and other suppliers when it comes to order shipments. With the — albeit short-lived — shutdown of the Big Ten and Pac-12, Pitt received all of its orders in a timely fashion despite slowdowns in overseas shipping due to layoffs and furloughs at manufacturers and shipping ports. All of the materials and equipment needed for Pitt’s Steel City Anthracite Alternate Uniform arrived a week and a half before they were rolled out against Louisville.

While there are certainly extra steps taken for safety, such as spraying down helmets, pads and even the footballs more regularly with a process called ozoning, Pitt’s position is unlike nearly any other on account of the fact that every game day, no matter the venue, requires a trip.

“We play at Heinz Field, so there’s no such thing as a true home game,” Moos said. “We’re always traveling to get somewhere, have it be 15 minutes or 15 hours … It’s constantly re-packing, re-retooling, re-fueling, all of our gear, all of our equipment.”

This season, that means re-cleaning too, which requires a dedicated staff.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for the staff I have, I’ve got a great group,” he said.

For the 14 student managers who Moos and the entire football program rely on, the experience has certainly changed, but the “endless” duties remain the same. For those working there on a daily basis, the equipment room can feel like a second home — perhaps with a bit more laundry to do.

But as restrictions and limitations were implemented, limiting the number of student managers Moos could work with, the normally close-knit group was divided into three “pods” to alleviate any risk of having too many people in close proximity.

Koby Bailey, a first-year student manager majoring in statistics, doesn’t necessarily feel that the atmosphere has changed too much, despite the restrictions.

“Even just being there at practice is enough time to get around the guys,” Bailey said. “During school, we’ve been there after practice and helping out, so I feel like we’ve been around the guys enough to get to know each other a lot.”

For many of the managers, their experience with the team is all they need to make it all worth it. Of the 14, some, like brothers Will and Trevor Freyvogel, have the equipment business in their blood — their father, Rodgers, retired as the Steelers’ equipment manager last summer after 39 years with the team and 22 as head equipment manager.

Others, like Bailey, simply sought out a way to stay connected with the game or team atmosphere they desired so much.

“You get rewarded just being around there,” Bailey, who played football at Richland High School in Johnstown, said. “Not everyone can say they’re around a Division I program every day.”

In these times, simply getting to play the games is enough of a reward for Moos and his team.

“Half the battle is getting to the game,” head football coach Pat Narduzzi said at a Monday press conference.

But despite three straight weeks of no coronavirus-related absences, Moos and the program aren’t ready to rest on their laurels.

“I don’t know when it’s gonna be the right time to say, ‘Hey, this is a success,’” Moos said. “I think it’s gonna be after we play … 12th or 13th or 14th game whatever that final game may be … You start by saying it’s a success every single day, every day we make it with a full roster, a full room of staff members, I think it’s a success.”

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