COLUMBIA — In the early morning darkness, Providence Road lies deserted. The dark silhouette of Memorial Stadium looms in the background.
Carl Cooper does not heed the night. At 12:05 a.m., he stands at the entrance of Devine Pavilion, surveying the cavernous indoor practice facility that has been transformed into a banquet hall. The brightness inside is overwhelming. White lights, white walls, white plastic floor covering over the turf, white tables.
Three men stand by, waiting for Cooper's word. Quietly, more to himself than to the others, Cooper finally says, "I think we're done here."
In less than 36 hours the Missouri football team will open its season against Miami (Ohio). These men have more work to do.
Cooper, Rick Redd, Jerry Garrett and Nathan Brown make up the athletic department's facilities crew that works the graveyard shift to prepare the Mizzou Sports Park and surrounding campus for football games and other events. Like most people, they work eight hours a day, at least five days a week, all year. But they clock in at 10 p.m., are rarely around an office, and do not leave until 6 a.m.
They move from one odd job to the next with no one night the same as the next, but their work comes down to this: setting up and tearing down.
They get season tickets to the football games, but at kickoff they are more likely to be in bed than in the stands.
10 p.m. The crew meets at Hearnes Center at the entrance on the far side of Memorial Stadium before driving a white pickup truck to Devine, where recruiting banquets take place before home games.
The four men mostly work in silence. What minimal conversation they have involves logistics; where what equipment is, and who should go where. They stand around Cooper, the department's conversion supervisor, who holds a piece of paper detailing that night’s duties. These men work the overnight shift for a reason. Small talk is not a job qualification.
Cooper and Redd set up a podium from which head coach Gary Pinkel will speak, and then they figure out how to build a projector screen from a backdrop. Brown and Garrett work on adding a border to the floor mat. It's like puzzle pieces. On hands and knees, they slip black sections between the floor and the turf and step on each one to snap it into place.
At 26, Brown is the youngest and most outgoing of the four. He wears glasses and a Missouri cap and, given his job is, not surprisingly, pale. After graduating from Hickman, he worked for campus dining services at Eva J’s dining hall and University Hospital before joining the night crew three years ago.
"When I first got the job, my mom didn't believe me," Brown said. "She said, 'No one works 10 p.m to 6 a.m.'"
Brown says that communication between the day and night crews is one of the hardest and most important aspects of the job. They do not call Daryle Bascom, the director of facilities and events, every time they cannot find something or are unclear about a task. Those calls are reserved for plumbing problems and similar issues warranting immediate attention.
It is, after all, the middle of the night.
“We only wake him up when there’s an emergency,” Brown says. “Finding three feet of water in a room — that’s an emergency.”
12:10 a.m. The crew leaves Devine in the pickup truck. Garrett stands in the bed as Brown drives down Providence Road. The temperature had hit 95 degrees the previous afternoon, but now a mid-70s breeze feels refreshing and a little exhilarating.
Garrett, 39, has worked for the athletic department for 22 years. Most of that time has been on the night shift. His father, Shirley Garrett, worked for the athletic department for 35 years. He doesn’t go to bed until 9 a.m. after he takes his youngest son, Aaron, to school. Then he sleeps until 2 p.m, before his kids get home. He sees his wife, who also works full time, at dinner.
The crew drives to the parking lot below Memorial Stadium next to the new gymnastics facility. It is a silent, creepy place under the shadow of the tree-lined hill leading up to Mizzou Arena. They swap the pickup for a six-wheeled cargo truck. It is filled so completely with garbage cans for tailgating lots that they cannot close the back hatch. As the truck swings right onto Stadium Boulevard, the cans teeter and look like they will spill across the street. Somehow, they do not.
At CG1, the parking lot that sits between the intersection of College Avenue and Stadium Boulevard and Hospital Drive, the crew unloads the cans.
The men have a system. Cooper drives the truck while Brown passes cans up to Garrett in the back. Garrett then drops the cans around the lot as Redd follows on foot, picking up the ones that fall over and spacing them out in spots that won’t interfere with traffic.
As he walks, Redd explains how Saturday’s recruiting banquet will work. As soon as everyone leaves Devine for the game, the day crew will return to restore the facility.
“That’s pretty much what the job entails: setting up one day and tearing down the next,” Redd says.
Redd, 55, has worked the night crew for 13 years and is considered a lead athletic attendant. He has never married and lives by himself in a basement apartment in Columbia and a house he is fixing in Paris, Mo.
“I rarely go out,” he says. “The friends I’ve got are limited to fishing buddies. If I’m not fishing, I’m working or at home.”
Redd jokes that he has no regular sleeping hours. He drinks a pot of coffee a night and sleeps from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. He will try to nap from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. but usually finds himself wide-awake by 7. The only way he truly can catch up on his sleep is by going camping.
“I lay down in the woods and can sleep 10 hours,” he says. “It’s the only place I can. It may be my natural habitat.”
1:25 a.m. Life goes on around them: Sirens sound, loud car radios fade as they grow distant, red and blue police lights whirl behind a pulled-over car on College Avenue. But as Redd walks alone under the dim lights of CG1, still arranging the cans across the parking lot, this place feels like a separate world. The revelry to come on Saturday seems impossible.
Working nights on weekends comes with its share of encounters with drunken students. After a late football game one year, Garrett and Brown found a woman passed out in the halls of Hearnes. Students waiting in line all night for tickets have offered them 20 dollars for access to a bathroom.
The crew sets up more cans at WG1, the lot next to Laws residence hall, and then picks up additional cans by the visiting football locker room at the south end of the football stadium. They hoist the cans into the truck with one hand on the bottom. Their hands dirty quickly, and their mouths dry out. Dust fills the back of the truck.
2 a.m. The men go to their break room, Room 239, on the east side of Hearnes. On one wall is a picture of a laughing chimpanzee sitting at a cluttered desk. Above are the words: "One thing I never have to worry about around here is competition. NOBODY would want my job."
One by one, the men rinse their hands and wipe the sweat from their foreheads. They fill glasses at the water tank and then move on to the coffee pot. Four hours have passed. There are four more to go.
For Cooper, it's time for his "lunch." He reheats some tortellini and sits down at a table. Redd won't eat until at least 4 a.m., when he has cold cuts with his cholesterol medication. Brown and Garrett don't eat at all. They say it drags them down during the hours to come.
Cooper, 47, has worked for the athletic department for 10 years and has spent the past six months leading the night shift. Originally from the Lake of the Ozarks and commuting from Auxvasse now, Cooper was never much for city life. He gives away his complementary football and basketball season tickets because he does not want to be around "tons of people."
He says he is too old for this job and does not want to retire doing it, but the adjusted sleep cycle is not what bothers him. No, it's the same old routine that wears on him.
Don't get Cooper wrong — he appreciates most aspects of the job. The solitude allows him to work as he sees fit. He is not pulled around in as many directions.
"You can do your job easier," Cooper says between mouthfuls. "It's laid back. You're working just as hard, but there's not as many people telling you what to do. It beats the hell out of working in a factory."
Newspapers lie around the room. The sports sections are filled with articles on Texas A&M leaving the Big 12 and the exodus it will spark. It's a time of uncertainty for the Missouri athletic department.
But not for these guys.
"There's always going to be a need for someone like me," Cooper says. "Regardless of the sports side of things, I'm still coming to work."
2:36 a.m. They reconvene outside Hearnes. Cooper sends Garrett and Brown to Mizzou Arena to find more tables and chairs and move them to a designated area in the stadium. No one is exactly sure why, but that is what it says on the paper.
As they work, Brown and Garrett discuss the strength test new employees have to take. They must lift progressively heavier boxes, up to 50 pounds, onto a shelf. Garrett, who stands less than five-and-a-half feet, jokes that if he is ever forced to take the test, the shelf better be short enough for him to reach.
3:32 a.m. Brown and Garrett stand outside Mizzou Arena and take another break. At this hour, their immediate duties are completed and the work slows. So does time. They start glancing at the clock on their cell phones more often. While Garrett has his phone out, he shows a few pictures of the humongous catfish he has caught. Like Redd, he's an avid outdoorsman.
3:43 a.m. The water sprinklers around the arena engage. The parabolic arcs shine like silver, and in the surrounding silence the repetitive hum and intermittent click-click-click are soothing.
4:05 a.m. Back at Hearnes, the night slows even more. Cooper and Redd replace soap dispensers while Garrett and Brown spray paint silver brackets for the curtain backdrop at Devine. Then, they literally sit in the basement room and wait for the paint to dry.
4:20. 4:27. 4:38. Garrett looks at his phone.
"Huh. I thought it would have been 5 (a.m.) by now," he says.
Brown passes the time by talking about his favorite science fiction shows. He's a Trekkie and a fan of many of the spinoffs. Watching the shows as a child, he decided he wanted to be an astronaut. He laughs about that now.
5:07 a.m. Brown takes a walk down the hall to what he calls the machine shop, one of his favorite rooms. The room contains much of the building's air circulation system, and the racket of those machines contrasts with the heavy silence outside of the room and comes as a relief. Eyes stay open easier in here. The equipment isn't dangerous unless engaged, but one still gets a stimulating sense of alertness.
5:26. 5:32. 5:39. They sit outside the east entrance of Hearnes as the morning custodian staff arrives. The night crew points out a curb they had painted earlier in the week. By the next night, there was a long black scuff mark. Even their more permanent work seems to get torn down.
Brown says he will go to bed as soon as he gets back to the apartment he shares with his sister. He will sleep until 2:30 p.m, when he gets his daily lunch from McDonald's. Every day, he gets Meal No. 12 — chicken nuggets, fries and a soda. He works part-time at McDonald's, but the people at the one he goes to for lunch recognize him, too.
5:57 a.m. The sun hasn't appeared, but darkness is fading. Garrett and Brown head back inside one more time to clock out. They wait by the device until the clock hits 6.
In 24 hours, the fans will start to arrive. The parking lots will come alive, the coolers will open and the garbage cans will fill. But the night crew won't be there to see it.