Inside the Detroit Lions’ COVID-proofed practice facility: ‘A different animal’

Detroit Free Press

The first email went out at 7:15 a.m. Friday, notifying all coaches and staff members that the rainstorms soaking the metro had forced Detroit Lions practice to move inside.

The second followed moments later and hit 20 inboxes with a succinct urgency:

Practice today will be INDOORS.

For those who assist with the indoor field teardown, we will begin at approximately 9:25 a.m.

Five and a half months after the coronavirus pandemic temporarily shuttered NFL facilities — and a month to the day since players reported for their first of more than 30 (and counting) COVID-19 tests — the Lions’ “tear-down team” was being summoned for a job that embodied everything the organization did to bring football back.

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New protocols issued this summer mandate every NFL team hold meetings either virtually or while adhering to  social distancing guidelines.

For the Lions, that has meant rethinking workspaces and creative use of their 225,000-square-foot Allen Park training facility.

The team auditorium that normally sits 120 players was converted to the offensive line room to give players more space, and a temporary team meeting room was constructed on one quarter of the indoor practice field.

One hundred and seventy padded folding chairs are spaced 7 feet apart, with their front legs placed on newly painted small white dots to ensure distancing. Two 12-by-7-foot video boards, the ones the Lions used on the outdoor practice field last year, sit on trailers in the back of one end zone, with a black curtain and blue Lions-logoed dividers separating the main meeting area from the smaller makeshift offensive meeting room.

Lions coach Matt Patricia addresses his team from a Honolulu blue and white lectern in front of the video boards. A set of large, black speakers on another trailer project his voice, and Patricia controls the boards from a table with an assortment of video screens and computers, all connected by a phalanx of cords behind a sheet of Plexiglas.

The setup is impressive enough that it’s easy to forget the field’s regular purpose — football. And when weather makes the outdoor fields unusable, everything on the indoor field must be taken down and hauled out for practice, then set immediately back up again for meetings.

At 9:25 a.m. Friday, after a morning team meeting and short offensive and defensive sessions, the tear-down team went to work disassembling the setup for a 10:15 practice.

For 20 or so frantic minutes, members of the Lions’ video department, facilities team and security crew stacked chairs in the hallway, hauled TVs outside and unplugged cables from computers and the wall.

When practice ended about 12:10 p.m., and players and equipment were finally cleared 15 minutes later, the crew reconvened to put the rooms in place again for a 2:15 meeting and private presentation later in the day.

“It’s really cool to watch,” said Erik Kunttu, the Lions director of video operations and a member of the tear-down team. “We have (video of the whole process) and when you put it in fast motion, it’s just like a beehive. So if you can picture, you know how bees are all over the place and they all have their job. It’s crazy.”

‘Quite a journey’

The decision to convert the indoor practice field to meeting space was not made haphazardly, of course.

In fact, everything the Lions did to return to work during the pandemic was a collaborative effort that included members of every department in the organization.

The NFL ordered all team facilities closed to everyone but essential staff March 24, and issued its first set of reopening protocols six weeks later, on May 6.

The Lions formed an eight-person return-to-work committee around that time, and that group — led by chief of staff Kevin Anderson — spent the next two months navigating the uncharted and ever-changing waters of a pandemic, while trying to ensure football stayed as normal as possible.

On June 10, near the end of the Lions’ virtual offseason program, a small group of employees returned to the Allen Park facility and started prepping the building for the slew of changes ahead.

On July 3, the NFL issued training camp protocols, which kicked the work into overdrive.

And by the time coaches reported for testing July 25, and players three days later, the Lions had reinvented their 18-year-old facility.

“I’ve been around here for 12 years. It’s totally different than I’ve ever seen it and it’s as safe as it’s ever been, and I know as players we really appreciate it,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It’s not lost on us the amount of dollars and effort that went into making the building and the facility look and operate the way that it does right now.”

Kunttu was one of the few essential staffers allowed in the building during the early part of the pandemic, when his typical 25-minute drive from his home in Westland took 10 minutes, he said, and the highlights of his days were FaceTime calls from coaches asking him to rifle through papers or playbooks in their offices.

“It was empty,” he said. “We had a security person at the front desk, Werner (Blakely) was there, and he was there to make sure nobody came in.”

Kunttu spent the spring keeping tabs on the Lions’ internet servers and helping coaches, scouts and front office personnel get ready for the virtual draft and offseason program. He loaded playbooks and videos onto iPads to send to the Lions’ incoming rookies, shipped spiral notebooks and pencils so every player on the 90-man roster could take notes during online team meetings, and made sure coaches had projectors and cameras to livestream their instruction.

The return-to-work committee was hashing out building modifications and safety protocols while also planning for contingencies. With Michigan one of the hardest-hit states by the pandemic, and no guarantee the Lions would be able to host training camp in Allen Park, they made preliminary inquires about moving camp to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Disney’s Wide World of Sports near Orlando, and The Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia. Anderson even called a contact with the Indianapolis Colts to find out whether they had an available facility.

“The entire spring and summer — from a league standpoint and from the club standpoint — was very one step at a time,” Anderson said. “When it was March 15 and we decided to send our staff home, (the question) was how do we close the building down and figure out how to work from home? What does everyone need and how is everyone going to do it? And as soon we’re home, now we have to figure out how to conduct a virtual offseason program.

“And then when we finally got that going, it’s how are we going to execute a virtual NFL draft, and now we’ve got RVs in personal driveways. Then we just started inching towards how to get a very small group back in the building safely. Then it’s how to get the coaches back in safely. And then groups of 20 players and then groups of 40 players. … From March 18, when I think was the first day I was home, to today was quite a journey.”

The pandemic puzzle

Most of the steps in the journey were practical ones.

The NFL, as part of its effort to control the spread of the virus, mandated all team employees be placed into three tiers, with Tier 1 consisting of players, coaches and trainers who must have direct access to players; Tier 2 consisting of other football operational employees who may come in contact with players; and Tier 3 consisting of employees not allowed close contact with Tier 1 or Tier 2 individuals.

With 100 spots total for Tiers 1 and 2, not including players, and about 150 employees in Allen Park, that made for some tough decisions and even more interesting workarounds.

This year, the Lions’ scouting interns are pulling triple duty. Along with their typical scouting responsibilities, they’re helping out at practice and helping to clean common kitchen areas near coaches’ offices. Because of restrictions in access, the team went without two equipment interns this year, and Tier 3 employees are not allowed in certain areas of the building. 

The Lions also hired a nutrition intern this season to help with what was arguably the trickiest part of the pandemic puzzle — the dining experience.

To create ample space for players, coaches and employees in all tiers to eat, the Lions blew out the back wall of their old dining area and cleared about 10,000 square feet of landscaping to erect two outdoor dining tents. The main dining tent, 40-by-60-feet and powered by a large generator, is for players and coaches, while staff use a 40-by-40 tent with a separate ingress and egress.

Beyond the tents, the Lions replaced refrigerators with open-air coolers for a more touchless experience, converted their old dining room to a prep kitchen and modified a smoothie bar to offer grab-and-go coffee and drinks to prevent congregating after meetings. 

In the locker room, there are 4-by-8-foot Plexiglasdividers between stalls, and the organization’s commercial development partner found a local fabricator, Stellar Plastics, to custom-make shields for other areas of the building.

Coffin said he does not know how much all the changes cost.

“I don’t want to say it’s been an open checkbook, but it’s like, ‘Do what you need to do to get this building safe and get us rolling so that these guys can get back in here and we can continue on and get going with this season,’ ” he said. “It’s one of those things that you would want to keep track of right at first, but it’s like, it’s going to be crazy. I know it’s coming down the line sometime. Someone’s going to be asking me like, ‘Wait a minute, how much are you spending?’ But as of right now I don’t have an answer for that.”

‘A different animal’

Longtime Lions equipment manager Tim O’Neill was not one of the essential employees allowed in the building immediately after the shutdown, so when he returned in early June, he was greeted by a loading dock wedged full of pallets shrink-wrapped and stacked 6 feet high with equipment.

Sorting through the shoulder pads, reconditioned helmets, T-shirts, shoes and other miscellaneous items took O’Neill’s entire equipment crew weeks.

“It looked like Costco,” Coffin said. “There was stuff piled up to the ceiling. I’m not kidding you. There was a little path, it was like he was a hoarder.”

To make matters worse, O’Neill was in regular contact with colleagues across the league, some of whom weren’t bound by state-mandated building restrictions.

“There was a lightweight jacket that’s one of the pieces this year and one of the guys that sent a picture out to everybody saying, ‘Hey, are you guys finding these are a little short, the length on these?’ ” O’Neill said. “And I’m like, ‘Damn, we haven’t even opened a box yet.’ ”

By late June, O’Neill and his team made it through all the boxes, and by late July, the focus was on football again; even if there are constant reminders this will be a season like none other.

In mid-August, O’Neill was driving to work, listening to radio chatter about the 17-year anniversary of the blackout. The Lions were a year into their facility then, and O’Neill had to pull a John Deere Gator into the locker room to provide lighting while he packed for a preseason road trip to Cincinnati.

“Those were a couple crazy-ass days,” he said. But that’s all it lasted.

Last week’s rain day was proof again this year’s madness is here to stay.

“As an equipment manager, you always kind of have to be prepared for the unexpected,” O’Neill said. “I think our mover and some of the airline people that see our weight manifest for each flight think I’m nuts when they look down and they see you’re bringing cold-weather gear to a game in September or something. But you really never know and you got to be prepared for that. But this was kind of a different animal, there’s no question.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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