Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Truths About Traveling in the NFL

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 15, 2016

TAMPA, UNITED STATES:  The Delta Airlines flight carrying the Baltimore Ravens arrives at the Tampa International Airport in Tampa 22 January, 2001. The Ravens will start workouts on24 January in preparation for Super Bowl XXXV, 28 January.    AFP PHOTO/PETER MUHLY (Photo credit should read PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
PETER MUHLY/Getty Images

With the president of the United States waiting, Bob Eller had to make an executive decision.

It was June 7, 2001, and George W. Bush was set to meet the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Eller, the team's senior vice president of operations, had partnered with Amtrak to arrange for players and coaches to ride a "victory train" from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. 

But while buses carried the team from its headquarters to the train station, a tree went down on the tracks, cutting off southbound service to Washington.

"I just remember running out to greet the buses and explaining what happened, turning to the police escort and saying, 'We have to bus down to D.C., and we have to leave right now because the president's not gonna wait,'" Eller recalls.

The cops agreed to help, but they'd need gas for the trip. So there was Eller, waiting impatiently while buses filled with NFL players sat at a gas station as Baltimore police officers filled their motorcycle tanks at what he described as "Indy 500 pitstop" speed in order to avoid missing a once-in-a-lifetime meet-and-greet with the leader of the free world.

According to Eller, the team made it "with no more than a minute to spare." If not for his quick thinking, this might not have happened:

Eller, 56, has coordinated travel for the majority of his 33 years in the NFL. He joined the franchise as assistant director of public relations in Cleveland in 1987, became director of operations and information in 1991, moved with the team to Baltimore in 1996 and has been the go-to guy for travel plans ever since.

That includes trips to Super Bowls in Tampa in 2001 and New Orleans in 2013, and the move to a new facility in 2004.

As the assistant to the traveling secretary for the New York Yankees, Seinfeld's George Costanza had enough free time to take naps underneath his desk. But in the real world, Eller, director of team travel Joan Fennekohl and team operations assistant David Ghostlaw stay busy ensuring Ravens players, coaches and the rest of the traveling party have as smooth of a travel experience as possible in order to limit the disadvantages associated with playing on the road.

To get a better feel for a side of pro football most of us never see, Bleacher Report spoke to Eller about the nuts and bolts of taking an entire team on the road for 10-plus weekends a year.

We came away with 10 tidbits on team travel in the NFL.

    

1. Teams travel in parties of well over 100

What has changed the most over the years when it comes to team travel?

"The size of everything," Eller says. "There's just more players, more coaches, more staff. There are a lot more people who travel."

About 15 years ago, the Ravens would send 115-120 players, coaches and team employees on the road. But now, they average about 185 passengers per road trip. A broad breakdown, in approximate numbers:

  • 65 players
  • 30 coaches
  • 35 members of the front office (player personnel, PR, digital media, operations)
  • 15 equipment staff
  • 12 sponsors
  • 8 security agents
  • 6 training staff
  • 5 members of the radio crew
  • 4 doctors

"You just have more people involved in game day," Eller says, "from the increased [number] of the coaches and players but also digital media and PR. Everything's really expanded."

    

2. Travel planning starts in early spring

Even before the season schedule has been released, teams know who their 10 preseason and regular-season road opponents will be. With that in mind, they're able to get the ball rolling early.

"At that point in time," Eller says, "it's about creating dialogue with hotels to check out their suitability for meeting our needs."

Those needs? At least seven meeting rooms, including a meal room, a training room, a gathering room and rooms for position groups.

Teams send out bid sheets, which include details regarding their needs and guidelines about how they will operate during their stay. Then they put together preliminary pricing proposals.

"Once the schedule is released," Eller says, "some of the hotels will eliminate themselves because they might have an event already booked."

Because teams requires so much common space and so many meeting rooms, hotels hosting weddings or conventions during the weekend in which they're in town are almost inevitably off the table.

    

3. They rarely go in blind

Ravens team operations assistant David Ghostlaw checks on the food ahead of a team meal in Philadelphia.
Ravens team operations assistant David Ghostlaw checks on the food ahead of a team meal in Philadelphia.Courtesy of the Ravens

Each spring, the folks who handle travel and operations for all 32 teams gather to compare notes. As part of that process, they fill out travel surveys that include ratings and feedback for hotels they stayed in during the previous season.

"The quality of the hotel, the quality of the food, security and layout are all rated, among other things," Eller says. "So you have a pretty good background of information on what hotels teams use."

If the Ravens are still unsure, Eller or one of his colleagues will perform a site inspection before they pull the trigger.

    

4. Things pick up when the schedule is released

That's when Eller and his team can start negotiating with hotels over everything from rates to food and beverage to audiovisual needs to privacy and security. Soon after, they execute contracts with hotels and airlines, and the major pieces are in place.

    

5. Veterans get their own rooms

Rookies are assigned roommates. But on the plane—the Ravens charter a Boeing 777, which has a seating capacity of more than 300—everybody has an empty seat next to them.

    

6. Teams travel to visiting cities on planes, trains and/or automobiles

Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams boards a team flight to Pittsburgh.
Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams boards a team flight to Pittsburgh.Courtesy of the Ravens

 

At least that's the case with the centrally located Ravens, who bus or train to Philadelphia, bus to Washington and take Amtrak to New Jersey for matchups with the Giants or Jets.

Coincidentally, they visited the two New York teams on back-to-back weekends in October, and they used locomotives both times. Thus, by the time they fly to Dallas for their next road trip on Nov. 19, they'll have gone eight weeks without boarding an airplane.

    

7. TSA-authorized representatives screen players and staff remotely to expedite the preflight process

It's more convenient to take trains or buses, but the Transportation Security Administration makes the pesky security process a little easier for NFL teams.

"For the outbound [trip], we are screened at the airport in a remote location with parking," Eller explains. "After the game, we get screened at the stadium prior to boarding the buses, then are escorted by police to the aircraft. All airlines hire TSA-trained screening companies that supply the personnel and equipment to properly screen the travelers."

    

8. Teams truck their equipment to most road cities

Jerry Bolling helps load an equipment truck for a Ravens road trip.
Jerry Bolling helps load an equipment truck for a Ravens road trip.Courtesy of the Ravens

An 18-wheeler leaves after Friday's practice in order to arrive late Friday night or early Saturday morning. The team can then set up shop remotely for what is usually about a 24-hour stay. The truck contains players' equipment, of course, but also training supplies and AV and sideline communication equipment.

That's protocol for the Ravens—unless they're traveling to the West Coast. In those cases, they fly it all in the belly of the aircraft, hope they didn't leave anything behind and arrange for ground handling and transportation at the arrival airport.

    

9. Teams arrive at least 18 hours prior to kickoff

And they frequently cut it close. For a Sunday matinee, they often land Saturday afternoon, have meetings, eat dinner and hit the sack by an 11 p.m. curfew. There's usually a religious service and a meal in the morning, and then they bus to the stadium, bus from there to the airport and touch down at home before the fourth quarter of the Sunday Night Football game.

    

10. There are exceptional cases

Major ones, like when the Ravens suddenly had to leave for San Diego three days early in 2003—Hurricane Isabel was bearing down on the beltway, and Eller and his colleagues had to scramble to arrange flights and buses, extend reservations and find a place to practice. And minor ones, too, like what they'll encounter during the holidays this season.

The Ravens are scheduled to spend Christmas in Pittsburgh and New Year's in Cincinnati. The hotel choices were wide open for the former trip, but the latter provided a unique planning experience for Eller and Co.

"Do you go into the fray of downtown?" he asks. "Or do you go outside the city to try to avoid that but potentially stay at a property that may not have the experience?"

(The Ravens decided to go off the beaten path and avoid the New Year's Eve party scene by staying outside the city.)

And then there are the playoffs, which force a team's travel staff to condense what is typically a monthslong process into a window of just a few weeks—at the most.

"If you're fortunate enough to be in the playoff picture, you have to keep on top of all the different possible cities which you might have to travel to and stay in contact with hotels in those cities," says Eller, whose Ravens have played more road playoff games than any other team this century. "You have a sense in late November, early December that you're in the hunt, and you have to start the process all over again but in a much more accelerated way."

And if you're fortunate enough to make it to the Super Bowl, it's an entirely different animal.

"It's a mammoth undertaking for any team, and it takes many more people than Joan, David and I to manage," Eller says. "It's all hands in—everybody in the organization goes. There's multiple aircraft, multiple hotels. It's a totally different animal.

"Everything is controlled by the league. They contract the hotels and tell you what hotels you're in. It's like a mini-training camp because you're there for the whole week and you're practicing there. You have to set up multiple meals, events, bus rides. You've got social events, team parties. It's a massive undertaking. So the Super Bowl would be a whole discussion unto itself."

Even though it would cause him a hell of a lot of extra stress, I get the feeling Eller would love the chance to have that discussion come the end of January.

    

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.