LINCOLN, Neb. — They spend hours a day with the Nebraska football team. They’re given free apparel and have access to tickets. They’re on the sidelines for games.
They must have the best jobs in the world, friends and family tell the Cornhuskers’ student managers.
“I agree. It’s great. But there’s a lot that they don’t see that a lot of people wouldn’t think is that great,” fourth-year manager Mitchell Ruybalid said. “I like to let them think they’re really missing out.”
Fans might catch a glimpse of managers at the stadium or on TV serving as ball persons on game days. It’s a small fraction of what they do seven days a week and at odd hours. Most also carry a full load of classes.
The managers play essential roles at practices spotting the ball, setting first-down chains and shagging balls, among other things. They set up and put away equipment. They also do the laundry long after everyone has left the locker room.
The Huskers will have 18 managers when fall classes begin Monday. That includes returning managers and a handful of young men and women who were invited after making it through a trial run during spring practice.
About 10 of the returning managers are paid minimum wage and everyone else is a volunteer. All are given Adidas Nebraska football T-shirts, shorts and shoes for practices in addition to game-day apparel. Each is allowed two tickets per home game for family or friends.
“At first, as a freshman, you come in here and you’re kind of wide-eyed,” fourth-year manager Espen Sandnes said. “You don’t normally see all the Husker practices and you’re not used to seeing all the players. Now it’s like a normal day’s work.”
Managers show up before 7:30 a.m. in the preseason and eat breakfast together at the training table. Head managers Jackson Powell and Ruybalid go to the coaches’ offices to pick up the practice scripts. Powell meets briefly with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and Ruybalid with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf for additional instructions. Powell and Ruybalid go to the equipment room to delegate tasks to the rest of the managers. Then everyone goes outside to set up cones, blocking pads, pop-up dummies and other equipment.
“I give a lot of responsibility to the head managers because I feel it’s a good education experience for them,” head equipment manager Jay Terry said. “They do the scheduling, they send information out. They’re a senior in college getting ready to go into the real world. They really step up to the plate and surprise you how organized and efficient they can be.”
On a recent morning, the managers finished setting up at Memorial Stadium and killed time playing touch football. The game broke up once the team came out for warmups.
Coaches and some players threw around balls and one bounced far down the field.
“Little help, Espen,” linebackers coach Trent Bray yelled. A fireplug of a man, Sandnes chased down the ball and threw a perfect spiral back to Bray from about 35 yards, prompting a round of hoots and cheers from impressed players.
Things move at a fast pace when practice begins. A manager typically works with the same position group each day. Sandnes, who’s with the defensive backs, made sure a new ball was ready after each play. Kelli Leachman, one of two female managers, was on the chain gang during a live drill and later caught snaps during offensive line group work. Managers at other stations got down on a knee and flipped underhand snaps to quarterbacks for passing drills. Others were ball shaggers.
After practice, the managers loaded the back of a utility vehicle, hauled away equipment and took turns doing laundry into the afternoon or evening.
For games, managers meticulously set up the locker room the night before. At each locker the player’s jersey is placed on shoulder pads — names always face out — with pants and a game program underneath.
All paid managers work home games. Some deal with the balls, others hold up cards on the sideline to block the opponent’s view of plays being called. Some hold up cards displaying defensive personnel.
The most senior managers travel to all away games, with others rotating in so everyone gets a chance to go on the road. Managers are in charge of loading and unloading the 18-wheeler that transports equipment and other supplies. Those who don’t go on the road show up early on Sunday mornings to unload the truck.
Seniority means little. Everybody does everything, even the most unsavory of chores, like cleaning the laundry drain.
“No one ever wants to do that one,” Ruybalid said.
The time together builds camaraderie.
“These kids will weed people out that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, if they’re not carrying their weight,” Terry said. “And you’ve got to have some thick skin in the room. If you can’t take joking around…”
Nicknames are common. Sandnes is known as “The Mothership,” a play on his first name, Espen, and the moniker for the primary ESPN channel. Joe Mueller, who majors in architecture, is known as “Ted,” a nod to the architect character Ted Mosby on the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.” Nathan Duff is “Jerry” — because someone remarked that he looks like a Jerry and it stuck.
The managers cling to what little glory they can. One day in the spotlight happened two years ago while hosting Northwestern. The Wildcats were called for sideline interference and their coach Pat Fitzgerald, in his loud protest to an official, pointed at and blamed a nearby Nebraska manager who was a ball boy. A TV replay clearly showed it was a Northwestern coach who stepped on the field.
“That,” Ruybalid said, laughing, “was hilarious.”
For the most part, the managers do the grunt work behind the scenes. Sometimes they channel the players and coaches they serve. That was apparent when Ruybalid, asked about the managers’ mantra, offered his version of the cliche “one game at a time.”
“We,” he said, “take it one task at a time.”