Walking into the equipment room in the bowls of Memorial Stadium is like entering another world. This is the heart of the football operation, the place where every player and coach visits daily to prepare for practices and games.
Besides housing all the apparel the players must wear, it also has space for the massive amount of laundry required and an area for equipment repair. Above several cabinets are a long row of helmets from other college and pro teams, a collection started by former equipment manager Andy Dixon by trading damaged or unused Illini helmets with counterparts from other programs.
Above another cabinet is a set of six Illini helmets. New Head Equipment Manager Trent Chesnut, one of the busiest and most essential people on the football staff, explains the history of these special helmets.
"That's the history of the helmet, really. On the far left is the leather helmet from the Red Grange days."
Hoopeston native Chesnut, a Southern Illinois graduate, is beginning his 11th season with Illinois. Prior to returning to his home state, Chesnut was the assistant equipment manager at UNLV for three years and Head Equipment Coordinator at the University Of Nevada for eight seasons. Like Dixon before him, he has begun a similar collection.
"Since I've been here, I've saved the jerseys of any potential NFL guy. As senior gifts, we give them each one of each one, but I always pull a couple extras. One, so marketing can use it as they auction them off now. But I do it for myself and store them back here.
"I've got (Neil) Rackers and (Fred) Wakefield and all those guys. I got here in 2000, and that includes our guys now like Rejus (Arrelious Benn), Oh-Oh (Michael Hoomanawanui) and those guys just for that reason. If we ever do a Hall Of Fame deal, that way I've got them."
There are many aspects to Chesnut's job description. He remains anonymous to most Illini fans, who also have no access to the equipment room. But among other things he plays a prominent role in Illini football recruiting. In fact, some say his recruiting pitch is among the most important of any staff member.
"Equipment plays a role in recruiting. We play a big role. Every official visit that comes through, we have tours. We have campus tours, but one of the big parts is a facility tour.
"They tour the weight room with Lou (Hernandez), who will give a presentation and talk about his area; Nick Richey over in the training room; and then myself in the equipment room and the locker room. I have a couple things to talk about.
"The parents and kids are always together. We may have one group on a weekend, we may have three groups on a weekend for larger groups. We talk for about 20-25 minutes and then rotate."
Parents care about protection for their sons. Athletes want to know how they will look and feel on game day.
"I talk about everything in equipment. All the apparel we wear for practice and games. Cold weather stuff. Travel warmups, what we travel in. Different t-shirts we issue out the kids get during the year. We talk about game tights and turtlenecks.
"After that, I go to gloves and shoes. We talk about all the new stuff that's come out from Nike, and we talk about stuff that's carryover. Nike breaks their shoes down into three areas, so I will talk about each area."
Just like with basketball, football players want to know what types of shoes they will wear as Illini. Helmets and shoulder pads take high priority as well.
"In each group the skill kids and linemen will be together, so I've got to lay out all the different styles of shoes. I've got to explain to them which ones will be carryovers and which ones will have a new look. Same with the gloves.
"The final thing I talk about is the most important stuff, helmets and shoulder pads. I talk about the stuff we wear here, different custom stuff we can do to shoulder pads as far as neck rolls and back plates, you name it. We also talk about thigh pads and hip pads, special girdles that we have."
Helmets are the most important part of the uniform because they protect athletes' heads. In part two of this eight part series, Chestnut talks about helmet options for athletes.