When Giants rookie running back Eric Grey she took first NFL road trip in August for joint practices and a preseason game in Detroit, he expected to have a roommate in the team hotel — like he had in college.
“We stayed there for a week, and you had 90 guys in the group then,” Gray said. “I think everyone is not going to have their own room with 90 guys, but we do.”
Gray experienced first-class travel accommodations while playing for college powerhouses Tennessee and Oklahoma. But having his own room on the road was an advantage he did not experience until he reached the NFL.
“It was pretty sweet,” Gray said.
Every aspect of an NFL road trip is designed to maximize performance and eliminate any of the stress of commercial travel. For players, the trips, which typically span about 36 hours from start to finish, are an enjoyable part of the NFL experience.
“I love road trips,” wide receiver Parris Campbell said. “It’s always fun, just being in a new city, new environment, trying new food.”
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Planning for the Giants’ nine road games this season began immediately after the schedule was released on May 11. Vice President of Team Operations Jim Phelan and Director of Team Operations Jeff Conroy led an effort that drew input from departments throughout the organization.
Phelan and Conroy must find a hotel in each road town that can accommodate a traveling party ranging from 175 to 220 people. They visit potential hotels in cities the team hasn’t played in recently, prioritizing service, the layout and proximity to the stadium and airport.
There are also chartered buses to and from the airports in both cities and a chartered plane to fly the players, coaches and other employees to games. And then there’s the 20,000 pounds of equipment packed into cases and loaded onto the team plane.
While the operations team handles all these logistics, the players have simpler concerns, such as their pre-flight food on travel days. Newcomers are responsible for catering lunch for their position group. Chick-Fil-A, Popeye’s, and Wingstop are popular options.
“Before we go to walkthrough, the rookies usually Dash through the food and after walkthrough it’s usually here,” Campbell said. “So everybody’s in (the locker room) with plates and eating food, getting ready to get on the bus.”
The team flight usually departs early afternoon on Saturday for a Sunday game. Buses pick everyone up at the Giants’ facility in East Rutherford, NJ, and drive them directly to the hangar at Newark Airport where their plane awaits.
The security process is nothing like commercial passengers waiting in snaking lines in terminals.
“You have to give your ID to TSA, and TSA picks guys at random,” Gray said. “So if you are selected, you have to go through a metal detector. They check your bag and you go to the plane. But if you’re not selected, you just go straight to the plane.”
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Once on board, players take assigned seats. As on any flight, first class seats are most desirable. There is an extended first class section on the Boeing 767 plane that the Giants usually use, so many players get the extra comfortable seats for the flights. Head coach Brian Daboll and the three coordinators also get front-row seats.
“In Indy, all the players sat in the back of the plane, which was pretty wicked,” said Campbell, who signed with the Giants this offseason after four years with the Colts. “Everyone had their own row, but you still had to give up. It was bad. When I first arrived here for our first away game, I was about to go to the back of the plane. Then they were like, ‘No, no, no.’ I was like, ‘OK, say no more.’ That’s a nice perk for sure.”
There aren’t enough first-class seats for every player, and at least on the Giants, there’s no clear criteria for who gets the coveted all-bed seats. Eighth-year veteran wide receiver Sterling Shepard said he did not upgrade to first class until his second season. He said that no rookies could sit in the first grade under his previous three head coaches with the Giants, but Daboll allows some first-year players that privilege.
“It’s never been like this on any other team I’ve been on,” Shepard said. “My rookie year I had to sit behind, just like any rookie.”
Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson was not in the first class for the Giants’ opener at Tennessee as a rookie last season. But he upgraded for the next road trip and has remained in first class ever since.
“I was like, ‘Got to keep making plays. Can’t suck now because then they’re going to move you back,” Robinson said.
Shepard discovered last season that there are conditions on the premiership status.
“I think you have to play to sit first class,” Shepard said. “It is apparently not going according to seniority. Because I had a torn ACL, and I decided to travel to the games. I thought I had my original seat, but I was in the back like I was a rookie.”
Players not in first class are typically in the business section. There are two players per row with the middle seat open. Regardless of where they sit, most players have the same in-flight routine.
“I was knocked out before the seat belt sign came on,” Robinson said.
The Giants don’t fly to every road game. They rent an Amtrak train for games at Washington. With stops eliminated, the trip from Newark Penn Station takes two hours and 25 minutes.
Safety Bobby McCain, who was released by the team last week, unexpectedly experienced the standard train ride from Newark to Maryland because he was at the hospital to get treatment for a cyst the day before the Giants’ Week 11 game in Washington. McCain and a coach took a regular train later that day and met the team at the hotel.
“It was just a few more stops than usual,” McCain said. “It wasn’t that bad, honestly.”
It was McCain’s first time taking a train. He spent the previous two seasons with the Commanders, flying to games in the Meadowlands.
“The train is cool because you can get up and walk around,” Shepard said. “They have small areas where everyone can gather. Everyone usually goes to one area and plays cards.”
The Giants take buses to games at Philadelphia. The journey only takes 90 minutes thanks to a police escort, but the cramped confines of a bus are not welcomed.
“It’s terrible,” Shepard said. “We get there pretty quickly, but still I don’t like being on the bus.”
When players arrive in a road city, they are usually given a few hours of freedom. It’s a change from college travel.
“You can’t leave the hotel in college,” Gray said.
McCain likes to find a mall or park to walk around and “wash the legs off the jet lag.”
Players usually break into small groups for dinner. The CBA requires each player to get $65 per diem for dinner on road trips. Proximity to the hotel is typically a top priority when looking for a restaurant.
“I, (Darius Slayton) and Isaiah (Hodgins) usually go out to eat,” Campbell said. “We always hit the group chat and see what’s up. Nine times out of 10 we try to find a nice steakhouse. If we can’t find one of those, we just look for whatever is reasonably close with a high rating and good reviews.”
Team meetings usually start at 19:30 in a hotel ballroom. The meetings are short final reviews before the game. There is a special teams meeting, offense/defense meetings and a full team meeting. Each meeting lasts about 15 minutes, so the players are free again around 8:15.
Players often hang out in the ballroom, eat a snack and watch college football games together. For Campbell, who has two young children at home, the peace and quiet of a hotel room on the road is relished.
“I like to watch movies and shows, so sometimes I use that as my free time,” Campbell said. “I’m just watching a show. I like to relax and have time.”
Curfew is usually at 10pm. A security guard stationed on each floor makes the rounds to confirm that players are in their rooms. Players say it’s extremely rare for anyone to miss the curfew.
“I have a couple of boys in the NBA, and they work completely differently,” Shepard said. “They can be out all night, but we only have so many games.”
McCain missed curfew once as a rookie in 2015 when the Dolphins played a match in London. McCain accompanied teammate and London native Jay Ajayi to visit family the night before the game.
“We tried to make it back for curfew, but the cab we took went to the wrong address,” McCain said. “He went about 10 minutes into the road, and we only had about six minutes until check-in time. There was traffic, so we took off, but we missed it by about three minutes.”
The Dolphins lost the game in London and head coach Joe Philbin was fired the next day. This spared McCain a fine for breaking the curfew.
“We went to our lockers on Tuesday and I was like, ‘Did you get a letter?’ (Ajayi) was like, “No.” I was like, ‘Me neither,'” McCain said. “I always appreciate Joe Philbin for not fining me for that.”
The Giants, like all NFL teams, also stay in hotels the night before home games.
“It gets everybody in the same place so they can keep an eye on everybody,” Campbell said. “We live right across the water from New York City, so they don’t want you to be in New York City the night before the game.”
Buses depart from the hotel to the stadium at three different times on match day. The first bus usually leaves four hours before kick-off. That bus is mostly for the medical staff and production crew. Shepard is one of a handful of players who take that bus so he has extra time to warm up.
Most players take the second bus, which leaves the hotel three hours before kick-off. The last bus leaves two hours and 15 minutes before kick-off.
“Some guys like to get there early,” Campbell said. “Some guys like to get there later, so they don’t hang around for a long time. It just depends on the guy.”
The Giants return home immediately after a game. There is a mad scramble in the dressing room as Phelan and the equipment staff load everything into the cramped visitors’ dressing rooms, with duffel bags full of every player’s equipment pressing onto the floor.
Often the TSA screening takes place at the stadium before you board the buses back to the airport. Within an hour of the game ending, the Giants are on their way home.
“Coming home at 2 or 3 in the morning is not fun,” Robinson said. “That’s the only downside to road trips, especially playing on the West Coast.”
Otherwise, there are no complaints about road trips.
“I love playing on the road,” Shepard said. “Travelling is fun, being with the guys. It gives you time to have camaraderie with the guys. It’s probably one of the things I’ll miss the most when I’m done playing.”
(Top photo of Sterling Shepard: Matt Swensen / New York Giants)