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story.lead_photo.caption A semi-truck and trailer prepares to leave the Fred Smith Football Center Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, before heading out to Baton Rouge, La., ahead of the Razorbacks' game with LSU Saturday. Jerry Rico of Fayetteville and Rodney Collins of Pensacola, Fla., are employees of J.B. Hunt Transport and the work together to drive equipment necessary for the Razorbacks football team to and from games away from Fayetteville. - Photo by Andy Shupe

By the time the Arkansas Razorbacks take the field today against the LSU Tigers, J.B. Hunt veteran truck drivers Rodney Collins and Jerry Rico will have been in Baton Rouge for a little more than a day.

They pulled into Louisiana's capital Friday around 8 a.m. aboard a Freightliner dressed as a hog. Behind them, a 53-foot trailer packed to the doors with shoulder pads, Gatorade, coaches' headsets, cameras, stretchers, rain gear, tents, printers and cheerleading supplies.

"Everything it takes to put on a game is inside that trailer," Rico said.

For each game the Razorbacks play on the road, Rico and Collins stop hauling freight for J.B. Hunt's customers to instead drive the equipment truck for the football team. It's a dream gig for 51-year-old Rico, a fan who has lived in Fayetteville for the past 19 years while he's worked for Lowell-based trucking company J.B. Hunt.

But Collins, 53, grew up a Florida Gators fan. He remained so until about 2014, when his supervisor asked if he wanted to haul for the Razorbacks. In interviews with equipment staff and coaches that spring, Collins remembers, head coach Bret Bielema predicted he'd become a Razorbacks fan in no time. On Thursday, decked out in a Hogs hat, standing on the loading dock behind the Fred W. Smith Football Center, Collins proved him right.

"They treat us like we're part of the team," Collins said. "A customer who treats you like this, you keep going back to them."

When practice ends Thursday evening, equipment assistants push players' game bags to the loading dock, where Collins and Rico top off the trailer with the remaining freight. Medical boxes, the game bags and supplies coaches need in the hotel Friday night are the last to board. About 75 percent of the cargo is loaded earlier in the week, the drivers said.

"Slow, slow, slow!" Rico yelled to Collins, his voice muffled by a heavy medical trunk they were loading. Once it's placed, Rico climbs to an upper deck of the trailer to secure some other item. When he's ready to come down, he asks Collins for the ladder. They work in tandem and take turns driving, splitting time behind the wheel "50-50," they said.

When Rico and Collins arrive at the game town on Friday mornings, their first stop is the team hotel, followed by the initial delivery at the stadium, where they join the advance team of nearly a dozen equipment assistants. They offload the locker room supplies before heading back to the hotel. Five hours before kickoff on Saturday, they return to the stadium to make the the final preparations.

In their first season with the team, Rico said he and Collins were not quite sure what to do when they were not driving or strapping down items. So they took it upon themselves to be more involved, asking what more they could do. Today, they even help set up the locker room and clean it up after halftime.

Watch closely during games and you can find the duo on the sidelines, until about a minute into the third quarter, when the trip back to Fayetteville begins. While packing for the game is organized and planned, tearing it all down is more of a scamper. As players and coaches head toward the plane home, Rico and Collins and the other assistants load the truck in no particular order. These truckers are among the first to arrive and the very last to leave, and they want to be out of town within about an hour after the game.

College football fans aren't always easy on visiting teams. Neither Rico nor Collins scores touchdowns or makes game-saving tackles, but the Razorback branding on the truck they drive make them a target of hecklers.

"It's just good football antics," Collins said. "Win or lose, it's nice to watch the reaction of the fans."

Big rigs are rolling advertisements for university football programs. They're hard to miss and can be used at pep rallies or community engagement events, like one each fall at the Northwest Arkansas Mall parking lot in Fayetteville. The University of Alabama football team equipment truck horn sounds like a "thundering herd" when honked.

Most of the time, the reactions they elicit are from fans excited to see the Razorbacks rolling down the highway. A lot of drivers or their passengers stop or slow to snap pictures of the truck. Rico said people honk and wave, especially when they arrive in Fayetteville after a road win.

The truck had about 64,000 miles on it before the trip to Baton Rouge. Collins and Rico will soon hit 3 million miles traveled in their careers respectively. With a cigarette in his left hand, Rico opened the door of the Freightliner, telling Collins it was time to go. As Rico inched away from the loading dock, Collins shut and locked the doors of the trailer.

Leaving the team's facility requires a right turn up a steep grade. The lane is tight, with golf carts and cars parked around. As Rico wheels the tractor to the right, two large dumpsters used by construction crews renovating Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium sit in the perfect spot to block the trailer from making the turn.

Connected with Bluetooth earpieces, Collins and Rico rely on hand signals and talk live as they negotiate the tight space. Two people have to move their vehicles. Finally, after a good 10 minutes of waiting, there is enough space to round the corner with a wider turn, allowing the trailer to ease past the dumpsters.

Collins climbs into the passenger seat. Rico pushes the rig up the hill and out of the parking lot onto Meadow Street. They head off campus, turning left onto Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., eventually to Interstate 49. The nine-hour trip to east Louisiana begins.

"It's really fueled a good friendship that I never would have had," Collins said of this job and Rico. "It's been an awesome ride."

Photo by Andy Shupe
Jerry Rico (right) of Fayetteville loads a stack of players' equipment with the help of Rodney Collins of Pensacola, Fla., Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, into a 53-foot semi-trailer before heading out to Baton Rouge, La., ahead of the Razorbacks' game with LSU Saturday. Rico and Collins are employees of J.B. Hunt Transport and the work together to drive equipment necessary for the Razorbacks football team to and from games away from Fayetteville.

Business on 11/11/2017

Print Headline: J.B. Hunt drivers haul Hogs' gear; Truckers among first to arrive, last to leave away games

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