When Giants rookie running back Eric Gray took his 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 on the squad then,” Gray said. “I’m thinking everybody’s not going to have their own room with 90 guys, but we did.”
Gray experienced first-class travel accommodations while playing for college powerhouses Tennessee and Oklahoma. But having his own room on the road was a perk he didn’t experience until he reached the NFL.
“That was pretty sweet,” Gray said.
Every aspect of an NFL road trip is designed to maximize performance and eliminate any of the stresses 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 got input from departments throughout the organization.
Phelan and Conroy need to find a hotel in each road city that can accommodate a traveling party that ranges from 175 to 220 people. They conduct visits to scout 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 charter 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 in trunks and loaded onto the team plane.
While the operations team handles all of those logistics, the players have simpler concerns, such as their pre-flight food on travel days. Rookies are responsible for catering lunch for their position group. Chick-Fil-A, Popeye’s and Wingstop are popular options.
“Before we go to walk-through, the rookies usually DoorDash the food and after walk-through, it’s usually here,” Campbell said. “So everybody is in (the locker room) with plates and eating food, getting ready to get on the bus.”
The team flight typically departs in the early afternoon on Saturday for a Sunday game. Buses pick everyone up at the Giants’ facility in East Rutherford, N.J., and drive them directly to the hangar at Newark Airport where their plane is waiting.
The security process is nothing like commercial passengers waiting in serpentine lines in terminals.
“You have to give your ID to TSA, and TSA randomly selects guys,” Gray said. “So if you get picked, you have to go through a metal detector. They check your bag and you go to the plane. But if you’re not picked, you just go straight to the plane.”
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Once on board, players take assigned seats. Like on any flight, first-class seats are the most desirable. There’s an expanded first-class section on the Boeing 767 plane the Giants typically use, so many players are afforded the extra comfortable seats for the flights. Head coach Brian Daboll and the three coordinators also get first-class seats.
“In Indy, all of the players sat in the back of the plane, which was kind of wicked,” said Campbell, who signed with the Giants this offseason after four years with the Colts. “Everybody had their own row, but you still had to snug in. It was bad. When I first got 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.’ It’s a nice perk, for sure.”
There aren’t enough first-class seats for every player, and on the Giants at least, there’s no clear criteria for who gets the coveted seats that fully recline into a bed. Eighth-year veteran wide receiver Sterling Shepard said he didn’t upgrade to first class until his second season. He said no rookies got to sit in first-class under his previous three head coaches with the Giants, but Daboll grants some first-year players that privilege.
“It ain’t never been like that on any other team I’ve been on,” Shepard said. “My rookie year I had to sit in the back just like any rookie.”
Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson wasn’t in 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 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 first-class status.
“I guess you’ve got to be playing to sit first-class,” Shepard said. “It doesn’t go by seniority, apparently. 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 left open. Regardless of where they’re sitting, most players have the same in-flight routine.
“I’m knocked out before the seatbelt sign comes on,” Robinson said.
The Giants don’t fly to every road game. They charter 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 got to experience the standard train ride from Newark to Maryland because he was at the hospital getting a cyst treated the day before the Giants’ Week 11 game at Washington. McCain and a trainer 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, who flew to games in the Meadowlands.
“The train is cool because you can get up and go walk around,” Shepard said. “They’ve got little areas where everybody could gather. Everybody usually goes to one area and plays cards.”
The Giants take buses to games at Philadelphia. The ride only takes 90 minutes thanks to a police escort, but the cramped confines of a bus aren’t welcomed.
“That’s terrible,” Shepard said. “We get there pretty fast, but still, I don’t like being on the bus.”
When players arrive in a road city, they typically get a few hours of freedom. That’s a change from college road trips.
“You can’t leave the hotel in college,” Gray said.
McCain likes to find a mall or park to walk around and “flush the legs from the jetlag.”
Players typically break into small groups for dinner. The CBA mandates that every player gets a $65 per diem for dinner on road trips. Proximity to the hotel is typically a top priority when searching for a restaurant.
“Me, (Darius Slayton) and Isaiah (Hodgins) usually go get dinner,” Campbell said. “We always hit the group chat and see what’s around. 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 fairly close with a high rating and good reviews.”
Team meetings typically start in a hotel ballroom at 7:30 p.m. The meetings are brief final reviews before the game. There’s a special teams meeting, offense/defense meetings and a full-team meeting. Each meeting lasts roughly 15 minutes, so the players are free again around 8:15.
Players often hang around the ballroom, have a snack and watch college football games together. For Campbell, who has two young kids at home, the tranquility provided by a hotel room on the road is savored.
“I like watching movies and shows, so sometimes I use that as my free time,” Campbell said. “I’m just binge-watching a show. I like to relax and have some me time.”
Curfew is typically at 10 p.m. A security guard stationed on each floor makes the rounds to confirm players are in their rooms. Players say it’s exceptionally rare for anyone to miss curfew.
“I’ve got a couple boys in the NBA, and they operate totally different,” Shepard said. “They can be out all night, but we’ve only got so many games.”
McCain missed curfew once as a rookie in 2015 when the Dolphins were playing a game 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 taxi we took went to the wrong address,” McCain said. “He went like 10 minutes down the road, and we only had like six minutes until curfew. There was traffic so we took off running, but we missed it by like three minutes.”
The Dolphins lost the game in London and head coach Joe Philbin was fired the next day. That spared McCain a fine for breaking curfew.
“We went to our lockers on Tuesday and I was like, ‘Did you get a letter?’ (Ajayi) was like, ‘Nah.’ 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 have tabs 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 game day. The first bus typically leaves four hours before kickoff. That bus is mostly for the medical staff and production crew. Shepard is one of a handful of players who takes that bus so he has extra time to warm up.
Most players take the second bus, which departs the hotel three hours before kickoff. The last bus leaves two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff.
“Some guys like to get over there early,” Campbell said. “Some guys like to get there later so they’re not sitting around for a lot of time. It just depends on the guy.”
The Giants return home immediately after a game. There’s a mad scramble in the locker room as Phelan and the equipment staff load everything in the cramped visitors’ locker rooms, with duffel bags full of each player’s gear crowding the floor.
Often, the TSA screening occurs at the stadium before boarding the buses back to the airport. Within an hour of the game ending, the Giants are on the way home.
“Getting home at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning isn’t fun,” Robinson said. “That’s the only downside of road trips, especially playing on the West Coast.”
Otherwise, there aren’t any complaints about road trips.
“I love playing on the road,” Shepard said. “Traveling 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 get done playing.”
(Top photo of Sterling Shepard: Matt Swensen / New York Giants)