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BYU Equipment Staff Embraces Moving Targets To Keep Football Team Safe During Pandemic

Photo courtesy of BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey

PROVO, Utah – The COVID-19 pandemic has created so many challenges from all walks of life. Including the football equipment world. BYU football’s equipment team is the only group west of Texas that is working this fall to keep a team safe during these unprecedented times.

A challenge that this staff fully embraces compared to the alternative, no football at all.

Football Equipment Manager Billy Nixon, a former BYU Lacrosse player, who worked on BYU’s equipment staff during the Bronco Mendenhall tenure returned to Provo after high school football coaching stints at American Leadership Academy and Spanish Fork because of his love for BYU football.

Nixon was offered a job by Mick Hill, BYU’s Director of Equipment Operations who has been with the Cougars since 1981. But this was the first year that Hill was not at fall camp. Hill has been recovering from surgeries according to Nixon and they hope to have the 39-year staffer back again soon.

So Nixon has been given the opportunity to run BYU football’s equipment department and do it while navigating a global pandemic that has all of us learning more each and every day.

“So I basically get the best job I think in the department. I’m asked to take care of the boys,” Nixon said to KSL Sports. “It’s fun because Kalani’s whole focus is on the player. I think –I’m biased of course– he’s one of the best player-coaches in the game. So his big concern is, take care of the players, anything they need. Let’s make sure that they’re safe, they’re healthy, and that they enjoy being here and equipment is such a huge part of the culture.”

From practice socks, pads, the fresh Nike attire worn on gameday to practice logistics, Nixon and his staff of 10 full-time student interns take care of all of it for the BYU football team.

Details matter more than ever during a pandemic

An Alexandria, Virginia native, Nixon is excited for BYU to be heading back near his hometown to take on Navy on Labor Day night in Annapolis. But getting to Monday night doesn’t just suddenly happen. A lot of work takes place behind the scenes to make these events happen. With COVID-19 on everyone’s mind, attention to all the details takes greater focus.

“I just think that uncertainty and with things changing [during the pandemic], there’s been a little bit of a moving target,” said Nixon. “But you know, that’s typical. I think in college football every year there are new things that come up.

“We have a great relationship with our athletic trainers and everything from cleats that protect athlete’s feet to the helmets. Our athletic trainers are very involved with equipment decisions. We counsel with them. So the moment we went down in spring ball, there [were] discussions immediately with the athletic trainers. ‘Hey, how can we put safeguards in place for our players?’

“As an equipment manager, we have a lot of those things already in place. We sanitize equipment, whether there’s a global pandemic or not. We make sure that helmets are clean, pads are clean, we take care of all the player’s laundry, and disinfect it. But this [pandemic] just created more attention to detail. Added a couple more steps. We sanitize more frequently all the gear. You know, we now keep doorknobs and tables clean and just some of the processes of distributing equipment. We try to take unneeded contact out of it so we can remain social distant.”

The social distance was evident on check-in day of fall camp last month. Usually, the equipment room is filled with players browsing the new gear options for the season. But this year it was all visible to the players on a digital catalog. After players selecting their picks digitally, Nixon and his team placed the new gear in each player’s locker.

The focus always circles back to strengthening the relationships with the players and keeping them happy and safe. One of the new wrinkles to the season is the addition of masks. Nixon and his team kept in touch with athletic trainers during the moving targets to figure out the best solutions for players. Some players wore the standard masks, others wore neck gaiters, then later into camp SplashShields came into play for the team.

Getting ready for Game Day at Navy

With fall camp in the rearview mirror, making the 2,121-mile trek to Annapolis, Maryland to take on Navy is now the priority. Nixon will fly with the football team but the truck drivers, who were tested multiple times for COVID-19 left on Wednesday to make the cross-country trip carrying all the precious cargo to equip BYU in front of a nationally-televised audience.

BYU Football Truck

BYU Football Equipment Truck (Gabriel Mayberry/BYU Photo)

“When we’re talking about playing across the east coast, you’re talking about a two-day drive. Right now, we need the truck to be there on Saturday because our group wants to get things settled at the stadium on Saturday afternoon … So anytime there’s an East Coast game that speeds up the process.

“The little hiccup with COVID this year was some of the gear that we have from Nike is just not here yet. And that’s nationwide. The supply chain was really disturbed by COVID with truckers going down and I think the increase of need for truckers during this pandemic has put a little bit of a delay. So typically, we get all that Nike product in July, maybe the beginning of August, and then we’re done. So now we’re waiting.

“We get a shipment of coaches polos and we have to hurry and label them and get them ready for the truck that leaves on Wednesday. So Nike has been great to work with to get those things that we need for game one. But it feels a little bit like it’s coming down to the wire. For game one, we’ve got to get that truck on the road early to get out to Maryland.”

Locker Room safety

Once the truck is there in Maryland configuring the locker room becomes an interesting challenge. Visitor locker rooms are usually small, to begin with, and at a stadium that holds 34,000, there’s only so much you can do. But safety will always remain at the forefront for Nixon and his team.

BYU Football Locker Room

BYU football locker room before the Cougars game against No. 6 Wisconsin in 2018. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“So any support staff that enters that locker room, they’ve already been COVID tested. When we’re there at the team hotel, we actually are in a bubble. Where we get off the plane, we got to the hotel and we’re kind of on lockdown a little bit to make sure that we don’t pick it up from anyone else.

“I’ll be honest it’s kind of a little bit sad for me because I grew up there. I’m excited because I get to go home and my mom, she’s like, ‘Hey, can I come to see you?’ I’m like, ‘No, we’re in a bubble.’ So on the one hand, I’m excited after 10 years I finally get to go home. But at the same time, we need to be very diligent in making sure that we don’t bring anything into our program.

“There’s constant conversation about, how can we better safeguard ourselves even outside of campus? We know that there are these outbreaks that happen throughout the nation right now in college football. Most of those times they don’t happen in the locker room, right? They happen outside of the locker room, they happen in your communities or going to birthday parties. So we do a great job talking about, ‘Hey, even though you’re not in this building, we need to make sure we safeguard this program by keeping masks on and staying safe.'”

Listen to the full interview with BYU Football Equipment Manager Billy Nixon on the Cougar Tracks Podcast.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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