SRU super crew keeps stadium 'game ready'
Slippery Rock University custodial worker Jacki Ewell hangs as many as 100 washed football jerseys up to dry as part of her post-game routine. Ewell, who is retiring next year after nearly 20 years at the University, has spent the last 13 years working at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. There are four custodians working behind the scenes at the stadium each week, keeping the laundry, locker rooms and facility clean.
Nov. 7, 2017
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. If you've ever struggled to just keep your room, apartment or office clean and tidy, you have to admire Jacki Ewell, Cindy Shreve, Virginia Prior and Sheila Sutton. They're the Slippery Rock University "super crew," the group responsible for cleaning up once the fans and teams have called it a day. They are The Rock team that tackles the trash, does the team's laundry and preps the facility for another week, another crowd and another game.
"We're always ahead of the game," said Ewell, a custodial worker in her 19th year at the University and her 13th at the stadium. "I run high-speed. I just like to get stuff done. You just do it."
Ahead of the game for Ewell begins well before the start of her 6 a.m.-2 p.m. shift, partly because of her get-stuff-done mentality and the 11 bins of laundry that need washed by 10 a.m. But there's also the get-out-of-the-way mentality, to have the floors swept and mopped before student-athletes start arriving, sometimes as early as 6 a.m. to use the weight room.
"Don't get in her way; you'll get run over," coworker Shreve said with a smile, nodding her head in agreement while Ewell added, "I rule up here. I'm the boss."
Ewell may run a no-nonsense operation but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a soft spot for players. She learned when George Mihalik was SRU's head coach to tell the football players to pick up after themselves if the locker room became too messy rather than telling the coaches. "If I told the coaches, then the players had to run extra at practice," she whispered sheepishly. She's also known to bake cookies or brownies that she leaves for the team.
"She holds the guys accountable just like the coaches and they respect her and appreciate everything she does for them," said Shawn Lutz, SRU's head football coach. "She takes a lot of pride in her work and it shows. We can't thank her and the rest of the custodians enough and we can't imagine going through a season without them."
Despite being considered by Lutz and the team as "part of the Rock football family," the custodians said they don't usually attend the games or consider themselves sports fans, although they proudly wear their team-issued T-shirts.
Interestingly, more often than not, Ewell said she could figure out which team won by simply glancing into the locker rooms. An SRU victory meant the opposing team locker room was messy because they were upset they lost and just wanted to get out of there.
"And if our guys win, it's a mess because they celebrate and throw everything everywhere," Ewell added. "They don't care ... they won!"
The fans, considered by the custodians to be tidy tailgaters in the parking lots, leave lots of trash behind in the stadium. This is a common practice at sports venues, where it is acceptable to just leave that popcorn box or drink under the seat because "someone will clean it up."
That "someone" at SRU are custodians Pisor and Sutton. When they start their Sunday morning shift they begin by walking the bleachers at 6:30 a.m., picking up enough trash to typically fill 10 bags. The crowd at this year's homecoming game, which set an attendance record of 10,111 people, left behind a record amount of trash too, filling more than 25 of the super-capacity bags. Typically, cleaning the football stadium, including all the restrooms, takes the pair about four hours.
"You want people to come in and say that this is a nice place and it's clean," Sutton said. "We try to make it that way for everybody. I feel we do a good job."
Pisor and Sutton consider their job a team effort, and appreciate the help they get from the grounds' crew that hauls away the trash and from staffers like Travis Wunsch, who works as an athletics department facility and event manager.
"They work their tails off to make sure this place is spick and span," said Wunsch, who locks the gate and is often the last person to see the stadium after a game. "We hosted a 5K race at 8:30 a.m. the morning after the homecoming game and you would've never known there were more than 10,000 people in the stadium less than 24 hours earlier."
Ewell and Shreve arrive on Monday mornings, their busiest day of the week but also the time with the fewest people around. First on the agenda is getting the laundry started. This includes 100 football uniforms. The jerseys are hand hung to dry and the pants dried at 60 degrees, or else the fabric would melt, rather than at 200 degrees like towels. They then clean the rest of the facility while the laundry is finishing, a process that includes spraying each locker with a disinfectant to remove bacteria and prevent infections such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA.
Ewell and Shreve continue this routine each workday, supporting practices and other SRU teams including men's and women's soccer, men's and women's track and field, baseball and softball. Sometimes, for instance when the football team has a road game and leaves at 9 a.m. on a Friday, Ewell arrives at 4 a.m. so that everything is clean for their departure.
"They do an amazing job," said Jess O'Donnell, custodial work supervisor. "They know all the ins and outs about the job better than we do. They are always here and they go above and beyond what we ask. We are lucky to have them."
"Our bosses really appreciate what we do," Shreve said. "You make your job as hard as you want it. If you maintain it, then you don't have a hard job. You just have to keep busy."
And maintain a sense of humor.
"If you can joke around and laugh a lot, your day is going to go great," Ewell said. "If you walk around like your head is stuck in the mud and feel sorry for yourself, you'll have a miserable day."
Still, when November arrives, the custodians are ready for the fall sports season to end, and to turn their attention to other cleaning projects, like waxing the floors, before the arrival of another "season" when baseball and softball arrive in February.
"I love my job. I love helping people. I love to clean," said Ewell, who concluded her last football season in 2017 as she plans to retire in July. "(I want to) clean everything up and make it look nice so they think, 'Oh, Jacki was here.'"
Just don't leave something like that written on the locker room wall.
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