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November 5, 2008

What it's like to be... Tech's head equipment manager

By: Matt Kovatch

Lester Karlin

In addition to all of the new faces on the football field this season for the Hokies, another new thing has really stood out – what those players have been wearing. First, the team unveiled its new jerseys for the season opener against East Carolina in Charlotte. Then, the Hokies sported throwbacks for the Furman game and have worn those twice since. Tech even broke out orange jerseys for the first time since 1994 when it played Georgia Tech. What the Hokies wear is decided by head coach Frank Beamer and a senior player, but the man who makes it happen is Lester Karlin, Tech’s head equipment manager for 31 seasons. Here’s a little more about what it’s like to be the man in charge of keeping the team looking sharp:

It’s not a one-man operation.

While Karlin might be one of the most well-known and longest-tenured employees in Tech athletics, he is quick to send credit toward his staff of student helpers. “First of all, I’ve got a grad student, Chris King, and eight undergrads and an intern who help me. They play a really, really big role. They know what needs to be done and when.”

The team might fly in a chartered plane, but its equipment does not.

The team’s equipment truck is the first thing to leave Blacksburg and the last thing to return, and in a season that includes trips to Miami, Tallahassee, Boston and Nebraska (over 7,500 miles for six road games), that can make things challenging. “We usually start our routine on the Sunday following a Saturday game. But the truck didn’t get back until 10 p.m. on Sunday following the BC game, so I was here doing laundry until 12:30 a.m. Everything had to get taken to the tailor shop first thing Monday morning because we had to load up again on Wednesday to get to Florida State.”

Equipment serves many purposes, and one of those purposes is to look good.

Nearly all players besides quarterbacks and kickers wear gloves nowadays, and many wear visors on their helmets, as well as armbands and other accessories. Much of it is worn for a reason, but it’s just more to keep track of for Karlin. “Whatever they see the pro players wearing, they all like to wear that, too – especially the visors. Sometimes a running back at the bottom of a pile might get poked in the eye, but I think most of them wear those for show – that’s my opinion.”

Things have changed a lot since the ’70s.

Uniforms and equipment have evolved greatly over the years, but not everything can be seen by simply looking at photos. “Everything is a lighter weight now – the helmets, the shoulder pads. The pants we have are almost nothing now – you can almost see right through them. The material stretches so much that they’re just skintight on the players now.” Then there are the gloves, which offer a sticky grip that makes one-handed catches so possible these days. “A long time ago when it got cold, we used to get gardening gloves and that’s what they used to wear. But that was way back in the dark ages of football.”

The job makes you feel like one of the guys.

Karlin began his career before he ever took a class in college (he graduated from Tech in 1974), and his favorite part of the job is a simple one. “I don’t feel old, because hanging around these kids, you stay young. I just enjoy doing it. I did it for track and football in high school as a way to get involved, and it just stuck. A lot of people have asked me how long I’ll continue, but I don’t know. Five, six, seven years … who knows? As long as I can keep doing it and feeling young.”

Nike helps Tech out, but Tech helps Nike out.

All of the Hokies’ athletics teams are supplied with the latest Nike gear, but don’t think it’s a one-way street. “Nike sends stuff to us all the time to test out for them. Usually at bowl time, they will give us some shoes to try out. During the past couple of years, I’ve tried out a lot of things. We have a very good relationship with Nike. They come to us for advice as much as we rely on them.”

Equipment room? Try equipment warehouse.

Speaking of Nike, Karlin said he bought almost 900 pairs of shoes from them this season. Other staggering numbers include: 2,060 pairs of socks, 1,340 pairs of gloves, 700 mouthpieces, 564 footballs, 500 “VT” helmet decals, 460 game jerseys, 200 practice jerseys, 46 offensive linemen knee braces and 36 new pairs of shoulder pads.