Traveling with the Knights is a different experience
It’s officially Boise State game week. The Knights will meet the Broncos for the second time in the Gus Malzahn era. Their last meeting was in 2021 in a highly contested and thoroughly rain-delayed game that saw the Knights secure the win, late in the 4th quarter inside the Bounce House.
Boise is coming off of a harsh loss to a very good, Top-10-ranked Washington Huskies team. The Knights put on a great show against MAC opponent, Kent State, in the first week of the 2023 season. The Broncos are better than their first game would indicate and the oddsmakers are expecting a close game on Boise’s famous “blue turf” field. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about the “Famous” Idaho Potato Bowl, there, somewhere. Gus even has UCF practicing on a local high school blue turf field to prepare for the game. Hopefully, the team and coaches will be locked in during game prep this week for what should be a big one.
Later this week, though, UCF will make the five-hour and over 2,000+ miles flight from Orlando to Boise, Idaho. There are a ton of logistics to address when a college football team travels for an away game. Getting to the game is a huge endeavor for the players, coaches, and staff. The game this week got me thinking, have you ever wondered what it’s like to travel with the Knights? I’ve been lucky enough to travel with the team to multiple away games. It’s an experience unlike any other and I wanted to share my memories with you in honor of our first road game of 2023.
Before we can even talk about the players and staff traveling to an away game destination, we have to talk about the first person to leave Orlando — the UCF Football truck driver. Right after the Kent State game, the equipment staff will have gotten to work packing all the Knights’ gear into an 18-wheeler to travel to the game. We’re talking helmets, pads, shoes, uniforms, sideline equipment, and medical gear. Everything the team will need outside of the Bounce House. This is all loaded into a rig and then DRIVEN (yes, you read that correctly, it’s driven) to the game location. In this case, it’ll likely take a few days for the truck to make the journey all the way to Idaho (and then also have to drive back to Orlando after the game is over)! So, while the team is practicing, the truck will be road-tripping and have left days in advance.
Later, once the team has wrapped their weekly practices and prep, they’ll fly out to their destination. Typically, this means that the team will leave Orlando on a Friday, for a Saturday game. Friday morning, the team, coaches, staff, and accompanying visitors (this is where yours truly comes into play) arrive at the Wayne Densch Center and board the buses waiting to shuttle the team to the airport. Traveler beware: Do NOT be late, or you will be left behind. When Coach Malzahn says it’s time to go, we go. More on this later.
Players will load into buses two and three, while the VIPs (i.e. the UCF President, any UCF Trustees, Gus and Kristi, Marc Daniels and the broadcast staff), and others will board bus one. From there, it’s a police escort all the way to the airport. This really feels like a presidential motorcade at this point. No stop lights, no traffic jams. Just smooth sailing to MCO (or maybe Sanford). It’s one of the more memorable parts of the trip.
At the airport, the team is makes its way through security and over to the terminal. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like shuffling through the security line surrounded by guys who are, on average 6’4” and 200+ pounds. These guys are BIG. Really big. Gigantic. You know it in the back of your head, but it’s a completely different experience when you’re standing in a crowd, shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounded by them. I’m 5’10” and I could get stepped on and nobody would notice. And they are all wearing matching UCF gear. You simply cannot miss them.
The charter flight is typically scheduled to depart at a set time, of course. Guests are warned ahead of time not to miss the buses or the flight, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, this falls on deaf ears, unfortunately, and I witnessed firsthand as prior head coach George O’Leary yelled at a fellow VIP to get his… uh “butt” on the plane right now. If you know Coach O’Leary, he doesn’t ask, he yells (and he didn’t say “butt”). It wasn’t me luckily! I was already on the plane in my seat!! Remember, when coach says it’s time to go, it’s time to go!
The team is provided with a meal in the air (usually a boxed lunch of some kind). These boys need to eat, after all! From there, it’s time to rest, catch up on work, listen to music, catch some shut-eye, chat with the VIPs and coaches, and enjoy the flight.
Upon touchdown, business has officially started. You’ll hear all of the players tell you that away games are 100% business trips. No sightseeing is involved. We are there for one thing only — A football game.
There is another set of buses waiting to shuttle the group away from the airport. Cue police motorcade number two! Typically, the first stop is to the stadium, where the team is allowed to do a walk around and inspect the field and facilities. Trace would find himself right at home here, walking around an empty stadium with his camera out! No interview questions, please!
Back on the buses again and we’re off to the team hotel. Disembark, find our rooms, and meet back up, later on. The team will stay at the hotel from this point on. They will have breakout sessions with their coaches. Go over game plan details. Make any adjustments to planned schemes. Review any other important items prior to the following day’s game. Team dinner is served and then the boys are off for a night of rest. The VIPs are normally escorted to a nice dinner off the hotel grounds to talk business, donations, and other niceties. Stadiums, lazy rivers, and other facilities don’t just build themselves, ya know!
The next morning, there’s a team breakfast, where again, I’m shuffling through a breakfast buffet line surrounded on either side by giant players who are looking at me like a bacon strip for their breakfast. These guys can close down a breakfast bar, trust me.
After breakfast, it’s back to our favorite spot again, the buses! Time to head to the game. The team has their warm-ups and then it’s into the locker room for pregame preparations. The VIPs get to take in the sights and sounds. Check out the local tailgating, meet fellow fans, and eventually make it up to the stadium boxes for kick-off. We’re also normally given field access passes, which, if you’ve never been on the field during a game, is a pretty unique experience. It’s definitely NOT the best place to “watch” a game, since your view of the field is limited, but it’s fun to walk around and see the sights from the players’ and coaches’ view. Just make sure you’re not standing downwind of the players later in the game, as the smell can be… strong.
Once the game is over, there are team showers and press conferences. Folks are already breaking down equipment and preparing it for the long journey back home. Buses are loaded up (yes, yet again), and we are headed back to the airport. There is no time to waste, as the longer that charter jet sits on the tarmac, the more money it costs UCF! Board the plane for a late-night flight home to Orlando (hopefully with a win to talk about—or more likely dream about, as everyone is thoroughly tired at this stage)! Early morning arrival back at MCO, anywhere from midnight to 3-4am depending on how long the flight is, and we’re BACK ON MORE BUSES! Quick ride back to the Wayne Densch Center and disembark. The team scurries off to their dorms to sleep and coaches and staff head home to catch a few hours of sleep. They’ll be back at it shortly to prepare for the next game on the schedule.
All in all, it’s a HIGHLY orchestrated 2–3 day adventure. I tip my hat to the athletics staff who plan these away games with such accuracy. The level of execution and planning is uncanny. Naturally, some destinations are better than others. New Orleans is a much different destination than say Greenville, North Carolina. Along with our new conference, we’ll be seeing some new destinations, much different than what we’ve been used to!
But that’s a peek into team travel for the UCF Football Knights. If you’re lucky enough to witness the team buses pulling out of the school or headed down the highway to MCO, make sure you wave and give a shout.
Oh, and don’t forget to Charge On!