P.J. Fleck wanted his team at the opposite end of the field so he made a mad dash. It’s an unusual sight, the head coach of a college football team doing his best Usain Bolt impression during practice.
That wasn’t the craziest part, though.
Trailing Fleck in full sprint was a staffer who had an air horn in his pocket and carried a giant flag adorned with Minnesota’s Block M. The man started waving his flag with gusto. Within seconds — less than 20, per Fleck’s rule — Gophers football players scrambled to that spot and commenced a new drill.
Two thoughts immediately came to mind: What just happened, and who is that man with the flag?
“The hardest working equipment manager in college football,” Fleck said.
Kyle Gergely might be the most physically fit, too. His task during Gophers practice — carrying the flag and acting as Fleck’s personal shadow — is no easy task.
His official title is director of football equipment operations. His unofficial title is the Guy Who Works His Rear Off In Practice.
The Gophers hired Gergely in 2010, which means he has worked for five football coaches and four athletic directors.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he said.
Nothing like this. Fleck blew into town and told Gergely, “You’re my guy.”
Gergely’s job requires him to wear many hats. Handling equipment needs for a college football team before, during and after practice becomes a blur of long hours.
Gergely logged 115 hours one week in camp. He hasn’t mowed his grass in more than a month. His wife, Sara, handles that for him.
“A saint,” he said.
They finally found time to have dinner on a recent Saturday night. Sara asked if he had gotten a haircut.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Monday morning.”
She probably noticed that he has lost weight, too — about 20 pounds. Gergely tries to keep himself in shape by running on a treadmill, but being Fleck’s flag man brought a reality check.
“I wasn’t ready for it,” he said.
Fleck conducts practice at warp speed, determined to run between 90 to 100 plays. That leaves no time to waste.
Players have 20 seconds to get in position from the end of one drill to the start of the next. That’s where Gergely steps in.
He has the entire practice script on a sheet of paper. Each drill with the spot on the field, hash mark, direction and time allotted is mapped out.
Gergely blows his air horn, places the ball down, waves his flag, and it’s gentlemen, start your engines.
“When the drill ends,” Fleck said, “just run and look for the flag.”
Fleck estimates the team would waste 10, 15 minutes without Gergely waving the flag. Losing 10, 15 seconds drives Fleck bonkers.
Gergely rarely leaves Fleck’s side because he has the practice plan and keeps Fleck updated between drills. Fleck seems incapable of standing still and loves to run during practice, which means Gergely is on track to become a marathoner.
“After that first spring practice, I went home and told my wife, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make this,’ ” he said.
He was so sore after the spring game that he iced his knees on the drive home. He sat in his garage for hours with ice on his feet, listening to music.
“I didn’t budge,” he said.
He checked his phone to see how many steps he took that day: 24,296 — or roughly 11.5 miles.
On a normal practice day, he takes between 16,000 and 18,000 steps. He clocked a “light” 12,422 one day last week.
“I sat at my desk a little bit this morning doing bills,” he noted. “Those still have to get paid.”
Before Fleck, he usually stayed with the offense on one end of the field and fixed any equipment problems. Now he’s the Road Runner.
Gergely loves the challenge, though he admits it isn’t easy keeping pace with Fleck, who is the same age (36) as Gergely but played in the NFL as a wide receiver.
“I worked in the pros,” Gergely said. “But not as a player.”
A native of Indianapolis, he interned in high school with the Colts and served as quarterback manager, which meant he caught passes from Peyton Manning while receivers did other drills.
Gergely landed a gig as a student manager at Purdue, starting as a freshman when Drew Brees led the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl. He worked with the San Francisco 49ers after graduation, arriving a year after Fleck’s stint.
Now he shadows Fleck in practice.
He describes his job as “fun,” but he knows better than to forget his flag in the office on the way to the field.
“That would not be a good thing,” he said.