Eight Days a Week: Our Journey Across the Pond
by Rob Roche - Assistant Athletic Trainer, Minnesota Vikings
June-July 2013: Help!
During the 2012 NFL season rumors swirled that our organization would be playing a regular season home game in London, England. With plans for a new stadium in the works and the opportunity to grow the Minnesota Vikings brand, those rumors materialized and in the spring of 2013, a date was set for September 29, 2013. I was deemed the medical staff’s “logistics coordinator,” a title that immediately led me to reference John Lennon when he sang “Help, I need somebody, Help, not just anybody, Help, you know I need someone, Help!”
With a trip overseas on the horizon, our Head Athletic Trainer, Eric Sugarman, declared that we would navigate every obstacle to provide the first-class medical care that our players expected. The entire club’s goal became the creation of a seamless transition between Winter Park, our home base, and our two London headquarters. For the medical staff, planning began in June with conference calls, meetings, emails, etc. About this time, I was introduced to what has become one of my least favorite words: “carnet”. To successfully travel internationally with the essential equipment for an NFL team, my duty as the “logistics coordinator” required the submission of the carnet list; a comprehensive list of every packed item with quantities, weight, cost per item, and country of origin. With over 1000 items to pack, you can understand why I was singing “Help!”
Our NFL contacts informed us that not everything could travel with us on the plane in September. Rock-It Cargo, a New York based shipping company known for logistics and travel for musical acts, would be transporting much of our equipment to London via ocean freight in August. This included any alcohol based item such as Isopropyl Alcohol, Hydrogen Peroxide, Tape Remover, Ammonia Inhalants, etc., as well as our water caddy pumper batteries and battery chargers, Gatorade, Gatorade Coolers, Pedialyte, 43 cases of tape and three 100 gallon tubs which would be used as ice plunges. The end of June and beginning of July was spent simultaneously packing supplies to go to training camp and to New York for its final destination to London.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, countless questions arose. Can we travel with prescription medications into the country? How do we schedule MRIs or X-rays? Whom do we call in an emergency? What hospital should we use? What are the game-day emergency protocols? Can we use our computers or cell phones in England? In an NFL week, the focus is solely on winning the game on Sunday. Preparing to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 4 of the regular season would require much more than 7 days.
Monday 9/23/13: Ticket to Ride
The day was finally upon us and unfortunately so was a 0-3 record. We had just lost our second straight contest in the waning minutes of the game. Losing, then triaging in the morning, packing in the afternoon and hopping on an 8-hour flight made for an exhausting day.
Our operations staff did yeoman’s work in planning our travel arrangements. Although we were traveling abroad, their preparations made it feel like a regular away trip. The medical-staff travel party, however, was inflated for this trip. A mini medical army, it consisted of five staff athletic trainers, two orthopedic surgeons, three internal medicine doctors, one chiropractor, one dentist and two massage therapists.
The duration of the flight was one of the most talked about aspects leading up to the trip. During training camp, Eric Sugarman arranged for a sleep specialist from the Mayo Clinic to speak to our players and coaching staff regarding international travel as well as the benefits of sleep and the harms of sleep deprivation. His suggestion for acclimating to the time difference was to get a full night’s sleep during the 8-hour plane ride. I heeded his advice and closed my eyes right after the Virgin Airline’s flight attendant offered me dinner. When I awoke the same attendant was offering me breakfast!
Tuesday 9/24/13: Helter Skelter
We touched down in London around 9:15am local time and were expedited through customs and immigration. With 100 people in Vikings’ sweat suits, it was easy for customs to determine our reason for visiting. In order to begin the acclimation process as well as our roles as ambassadors of the game, the team whisked away to Wembley Stadium for an NFL Play 60 community relations event.
The support staff, however, boarded a bus to the team hotel to begin the hectic preparation of our new facilities. Our home until Friday was The Grove, a five star luxury resort in Hertfordshire, England boasting of championship golf, award winning spas, and beautiful grounds. Tiger Woods famously won the 2006 WGC American Express Championship at The Grove. Although I did not play any golf, I am quite sure our doctors got in a few holes. Hey, sometimes the stereotypes are true!
The hotel supplied coaches’ meeting rooms, a players’ lounge, a massage room, an athletic training room, and a private restaurant. A makeshift facility containing the weight room, athletic training room, equipment room, and locker room was set up on the grounds of the hotel overlooking a pristine 100-yard practice field/soccer pitch. We spent a few hours preparing the athletic training room and I am proud to report that everything we needed had arrived. Upon the team’s arrival, we held a 4:00pm treatment session and then considered dinner plans. First night in England, what else but fish and chips of course?!
Wednesday 9/25/13 & Thursday 9/26/13: A Hard Day’s Night
Wednesday and Thursday, the hump days of the NFL week, can be brutal consisting of treatments, player meetings and 2.5 hour practices. Fortunately, our team was bonding over the sights, sounds and tastes of England. The hotel supplied a shuttle with roundtrip service to the local city of Watford. A 10 minute ride away, Watford has a large train station where you can catch the train into London. Many of our players and staff took advantage of and appreciated this service.
Before the trip others around the league who had made the same trip were critical of the food and said things like “the food was so bland” and “your players will struggle to keep on weight.” Thanks to our head chef, Geji McKinney Banks, we had the exact opposite reaction. Geji worked closely with the dining staff at The Grove and collaborated on a very delicious and nutritious menu. I hope that she imported the recipes for the 15 desserts that I sampled!
Friday 9/27/13 & Saturday 9/28/13: Here, There, Everywhere
Wednesday and Thursday flew right by! Our injured players got healthier and our team improved following two solid practices. Immediately after our Friday morning practice, we packed up the operation and relocated to the Grosvenor House, a posh, downtown London hotel. Once again, we set up another athletic training room and refused to miss a beat. We spent Friday night as a team enjoying dinner at the Tower of London. This medieval fortress housed the British monarchy for centuries and currently houses the famous Crown Jewels. Talk about some serious bling!
In keeping with tradition, our Saturday morning “donut club” convened during the AM treatments. We then ventured to Wembley Stadium for our pre-game walk-through and the players’ first view inside the 84,000 seat stadium. On Saturday afternoon, we raced through the streets of London trying to take in as many of the famous landmarks as time would allow. The most interesting aspect of London is the dichotomy between the old and the new. From a riverboat on the Thames, you can see the centuries old Tower Bridge vs. the Millennium Bridge, the Tower of London vs. Tate Modern, and Big Ben vs. the London Eye. One afternoon was just enough to whet my appetite to return as a full-blown tourist.
Sunday 9/29/13: Come Together
On game day, I could not help but think of the months of preparation that our organization had put into this trip and how everything had come together. Hearing the Gjallarhorn and seeing the thousands in attendance clad in purple and gold (and a few Terrible Towels too) made it feel as if we were back at Mall of America Field. Obstacles such as fatigue, illnesses and allergies, multiple venue changes, and time away from their families could not deter our players. As the Vikings ruled England for a short time centuries ago, the Minnesota Vikings would defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers and rule England on this day.
Epilogue: The End
In reflection, I should never have been worried as it turned out that help was never far away. The NFL, our ownership, our operations department, our athletic training staff, our equipment staff, our kitchen staff, our IT department, Gatorade, and Virgin Airlines among many others provided the assistance we needed to make a successful transition to England. In the end, we heightened the popularity of the league, experienced a different culture, and most importantly, won our football game. It was an eight-day adventure that I will never forget. God Save the Queen.