Meet the students and workers who spend their Sundays cleaning nine tons of trash out of Kenan Stadium after UNC's home football games
Above: Bags of trash wait to be carted off during cleanup at Kenan Stadium. Roughly nine tons of trash are picked up after every game. Photo by Jack Frederick.
This story was written by Jack Frederick for UNC’s feature writing class.
It’s 7 a.m. and the campus is dead. As the sun peeks over the nosebleed seats of Kenan Memorial Stadium, the light blue sky might have marked the start of a beautiful Sunday morning — if not for the festering smell of garbage rising out of the bleachers.
Yesterday had been a busy day in the stadium, but now all that remains are the items left behind. An empty bag of potato chips blows in the cool morning breeze. A mangled Bojangles’ Supremes box with stale fries here. Trampled popcorn and peanut shells there. It’s inescapable in both sight and smell. Half a dozen smuggled in airport size liquor bottles are strewn across the concrete along with empty Dasani water bottles and a pair of women’s underwear. Who knows how that got there?
You won’t find many college kids who get up when the sun does, especially not after a late Saturday night out. But at the stadium, you’ll find 50 sleepy-eyed students from the UNC Navy ROTC gathered in t-shirts and shorts in the early morning light. They’re chatting about the weekend and blaring music from their phones, but they’re about to face a full day of picking up nine tons of someone else’s trash.
“Sunday mornings are usually stay in bed until one or two o’clock days,” said Cameron Barringer, a junior and the midshipman in charge of cleanup. Today won’t be.
Football games are among of the biggest trash-producing events on campus all year. Last season, 62 tons of trash were discarded. That’s roughly 372 of lineman Jordon Tucker — who, at 335 pounds, is the UNC football team’s heaviest player. The garbage will be sorted into three categories throughout the day (recyclables, trash and cardboard), then bagged and discarded to the proper bins. That includes even the grossest items discovered in the stadium.
“It’s always been filthy. Sometimes it’s filthier than others,” Barringer said. “It’s a hard day’s work, but we are well compensated for it.”
In exchange for the work, the UNC Navy ROTC receives funding from the athletic department, enough to cover the cost of many of their events all year. The money helps when it comes down to picking up slimy hot dogs and peanut shells. Peanut shells go everywhere.
Today, it’s a little less filthy. The cool weather is a blessing, and a reminder about how much worse a day it could be. When it’s hot, the garbage reeks a little something extra, and when it rains, soggy trash creates a whole new list of problems. When everything is wet, the trash and filth sticks to the concrete like a suction cup.
“Picking up stuff sucks,” said Junior Will Ford. “Picking up wet stuff sucks more.”
The clear sky and dry ground is something worth smiling about.
Across the stadium, Billy Johnson is also hard at work with a smile on his face. Today, he’s a lead driver for Waste Industries in Orange County, but back in the 1970s, he used to play running back for the UNC football team.
Nearly 40 years ago, Johnson traded in shoulder pads and a jersey for a reflective neon green shirt and gloves, and laced up workman’s boots instead of cleats to go to work. He started working in 1987 after running into former teammate Jon Richardson, the son of Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. Richardson offered the “big man” a position at his trash company, A-OK, and since then, the job just stuck.
The spectacle of a late 1970s football game used to fascinate the small-town boy from Buckingham, Virginia. He couldn’t help but step out onto the field and let his eyes wander up the stands, admiring the thousands of expectant fans in attendance. Even though his relationship with the stadium and the fans has changed, Johnson still feels a connection to the campus.
“There’s good days and bad days,” Johnson said. “I meet a lot of nice people with what I’m doing, so I take a lot of pride in what I do.”
He’s out at the stadium every Sunday to assist the cleanup effort and ensure garbage is deposited in the right truck to be compacted. He wants the stadium to be cleaned up right, and it doesn’t matter to him if he has to be a part of it.
The game day stadium had been manicured down to the smallest details. The bushes were trimmed; the bleachers had been freshly pressure-washed; and the concrete, which by Sunday looks more like a landfill, was relatively free of dirt and grime. The Sunday landscape showed an uglier side of college football and the work it takes to keep a stadium clean. It doesn’t happen by accident.
When the last seconds ticked off the clock Saturday, fans dart toward the exits with a million different destinations in mind. It’s Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill. A long list of weekend homework awaited back at the dorm. Bellies needed to be fed. Small children in cheerleading and football uniforms had wide smiles on their faces as their parents carried them to the car. This was the only game they’d see all season.
On the way out of their seats, the crunch of a can or the squish of nacho cheese smearing under their feet goes unnoticed. The fans toss aside their Coke bottles of chewing tobacco spit and weave in and out of the crowd. It’s impossible to not see the trash, but there’s too many fun things going on to pay it any attention. That’s someone else’s problem now.
The college students know as they bend down and stand over and over again that most people haven’t thought about who picks up the trash for them. They shuffle a few feet further down the bleachers every few minutes only to start process again. But they aren’t miserable.
“It does feel good to be doing some work and knowing that this is benefitting the university,” first-year Mikayla Patrick said. “I’m not really in a bad mood or anything.”
Once the larger pieces of trash are cleaned from the top concourse, the industrial leaf blowers are fired up to push the smaller filth out of the crevices. For the rest of the day, it rained down peanut shells and popcorn under the low hum of the machinery. It’s chaos, but everything moves quickly.
“It does get messy, but it also gets cleaned up really fast, too,” B.J. Tipton, program manager for the UNC Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling, said as she observed the work.
When the last piece of trash is picked up, a unanimous sigh of relief releases into the afternoon air. After a full day’s work, the stadium looks way different. The garbage trucks crank up and pull out for the landfill, where they will dump all the day’s work. The equipment is put back into storage, and the college students can move on to an afternoon they’d much rather be having.
The stadium is clean and the hard work is over. That is, at least, until the next game.