From the entrances to the hallways, to the locker room, the meeting rooms, and the cafeteria, the NovaCare Complex has had an extreme renovation all in the name of safety for the Eagles' players, coaches, and staff members taking part in Training Camp, 2020. From the time the Complex was closed due to the COVID-19 global pandemic in mid-March to this point, an entire organization has worked together to make it work with the vision of team success in the months ahead.
It hasn't been easy. It has been, in fact, a series of planned, highly calculated moves to transform a building that opened in 2001 into something that works for an entire football team in this current, physical-distancing age. For Tom Hunkele, the team's director of sports medicine who was hired in February, the total team effort has paid off taking advantage of outside-the-box thinking, common sense, a commitment to education, and a willingness to everything possible to make the NovaCare Complex a safe working environment, even it if looks dramatically different than it did back in March.
"The first thing that you would notice if you were to walk around right now is that there's a lot of signage all over the place as far as physical-distancing measures, directional, if we can have two different hallways – one going one way, one going an opposite way – everything about how to follow the CDC guidelines, make sure you are wearing your (Personal Protective Equipment) that you need to do, good hand hygiene, and then there are a lot of other physical changes, too, that if you've been in the building would be different," Hunkele said in an exclusive interview that you can hear in its entirety on the most recent Eagles Insider Podcast.
"Meeting rooms have been knocked down and made larger. A good portion of the Eagles organization is working virtually right now, so we've been able to take over other areas of the facility to be able to expand where we can kind of meet with our players and have the players have more interaction. The cafeteria is wide open now. There is no seating in the cafeteria. We've put up tents on the outside and that's basically just for the players' seating and for them to be able to socially distance and eat. There have been a lot of physical changes to the building on the inside."
What's new? Well, just about everything. The lockers in the locker room, an area led by Vice President of Equipment Operations Greg Delimitros, have been spaced out, helped in part by the use of the area that used to house the players' lounge. Meeting rooms were changed to accommodate proper distancing. The strength and conditioning room, overseen by new Director of Sports Performance Ted Rath, temporarily converted huge floor-to-ceiling windows into doors that lead to outdoor tents that are, essentially, two weight rooms unto themselves, giving the team three rooms in which to train. The weight equipment is wiped down after every use. Players will have their own toiletries, whereas in the past they shared. All dispensers are touchless.
Said Rath: "It starts with Mr. Lurie (Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie) who provides us with amazing resources. His attitude toward all of this is, 'How do I protect all the players and the staff and make sure everyone is as safe as possible?' That attitude really carries through because you feel that care, the players are ultimately going to feel that when they ultimately lay eyes on this facility and they see the protocols that we have in place and the great lengths that everyone has gone through. Doug (Pederson) and Howie (Roseman) and also Arsh Dhanota, our chief medical officer – I can't even tell you how busy he has been through this offseason. I think, along with Jon Ferrari who handles all of the league protocol information, Arsh is the busiest person in the state of Pennsylvania.
"The weight room itself has undergone a remarkable transformation. We are allowed to have 15 athletes in the weight room at one time, according to league policy. With that, we went through a process of building two additional weight rooms, so we can accommodate 45 total players in one session. We can train one side of the line of scrimmage at one time. That's huge for us and our program."
Areas of the building that have housed business staff have been remodeled to give the football staff more room to meet with players. Lincoln Financial Field is available for additional meeting space, again to provide the required physical distancing for position groups and coaches.
Masks are mandated for every person in the building.
"Masks at all times. No excuses. No exceptions. Absolutely a must," Hunkele said.
Take a look inside the at all of the changes at the new socially-distanced NovaCare Complex.
Players and staff will be tested daily for at least the first 14 days of Training Camp, and from the time a player or a coach or a staff member given access to the building wakes up that day, a very specific protocol is in place, as Hunkele explains.
"It actually begins before you arrive. Every morning, we have an app that is pushed out with an alert to everyone who is OK'd to enter the facility. That's going to take you through a screening questionnaire," said Hunkele.
If the answers indicate that it is safe for the person to enter the facility, the individual will receive a QR code that he or she can use to scan into the facility. If a question is answered in a way that indicates that follow-up is necessary, somebody from the medical staff will contact that person to make sure that everything is medically OK and determine the next steps.
Staff members have been broken down into specific tiers based on the amount of interaction they would have with each other and with the players in order to limit the amount of unnecessary contact among employees and players.
"Once you come into the parking lot, you're going to see that we have a big, white pop-up drive-thru tent station. Everybody coming in for a daily test will enter through that tent, go through the nasal swab PCR test. It takes two minutes. The crew from BioReference Lab (the NFL's centralized testing laboratories) has been fantastic and has been so great to work with. It's been a phenomenal process," Hunkele said.
"Once you've done that, you park your car, you walk up toward the building and you'll notice these other white tents by the entrance that we've separated out – player entrance, Tier 1 and 2 entrance, Tier 3 entrance. At those entrances, you scan your QR code; then you'll stand in front of a thermal camera that will give you your temperature. If your temperature is below 100.4 and you have the QR code, you can enter the building. Everything is touchless, automated, and as you go into the facility, you pick up the Kinexon contact tracer that will alert us for proximity events and you get on your way, starting your day like a normal day.
"I've had a high level of confidence, for sure. Our medical staff has been in there throughout this entire time, taking care of the individuals that we needed to take care of. Those who had surgery and those who had injuries, that kind of doesn't go away. We've seen these protocols, these measures, all develop as the organization has vetted different processes, looked at the science, and has followed the CDC guidelines, and I can say with extreme confidence that I'm very proud of being a part of the team and getting it up and running. I feel that our facility, and what we're going to offer our staff and our players, it's safer than any other place that they could be."
On the field, players will have their own water bottle and will have single-use towels. If a player feels sick during the course of the day, the medical staff will be notified and act according to protocols negotiated between the NFL and the NFLPA. When players take a practice rep, it's going to be football as the new normal dictates in terms of pads and contact and length of time on the field.
Off the field, it's a different story. The NovaCare Complex will be cleaned vigilantly during the day and after the football work is done for the day and night. There is still work to do on the logistics of gamedays and team travel, as every team is going through the same process.
Hunkele's primary message is that it has taken a large team of Eagles to reach this point, and it's a credit to the organization for having a great plan in place.
"The first step is to acknowledge all the work that's been done by so many individuals. I know you are talking to me today, but by no means am I the mastermind of all of this," Hunkele said.
"It has been an incredible collaboration from Marla Axelrod (director of legal and government affairs) to Kristie Pappal (vice president of human resources) to Jon Ferrari (vice president of football operations and compliance) to Ryan Hummel (vice president of facilities operations) ... the list just keeps going on and on of those individuals that have not only kind of tried to pull it all together, but then all the others that have gone on just to try to make the changes, do the physical-distancing things that we needed to do and come up with the protocols that we needed to do as an organization and not just waiting for the NFL to tell us what to do.
"I think the overarching theme is safety. Everything that we've done, all of our measures, all of our protocols, everything that we've put into place has all been geared to make the environment as safe as possible for our players, for our coaches, for our staff. We knew that we were eventually going to get to this football season and things have to progress somewhat normally and players have to be able to do certain things and coaches have certain needs and medically we have to be able to do certain things and the only way to be able to do it is to create as safe an environment as you can.
"We want to provide the best medical care that we can and we want to help the team win a championship. My attitude is that everything that I'm going to do is going to be focused around those two goals. When I go home, I don't want to do anything that jeopardizes those goals. I think it's going to be a bigger burden upon everybody to realize that the situation we're in is not normal. It's not normal life. If I have to look out for my health, I also have to look out for the health of those guys coming into Training Camp, for my coaches. My decisions affect them. It's going to be important to drive that point home. We're all in this together. It's about team. It's about being together. It's about getting through this together better than everybody else."