EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Walk into an NFL locker room 15 minutes after a game, and it’s organized chaos.
Athletic tape and pre-wrap are strewn all over the well-worn carpet, laughs echo from the shower, empty and half-filled water bottles dot the room, and reporters and other media members wait to see which players are ready for interviews.
On this day at MetLife Stadium, the Patriots are preparing to leave town after notching a victory over their division rival, the New York Jets.
Every so often, an equipment staffer lugs full bags of gear through the room, heading for the team bus, a player’s number in a clear sleeve on each to indicate whose is whose. Other staffers direct traffic and dole out tasks in the middle of the room, which is lined with laundry bins filled with dirty clothes, garbage cans, and equipment bins.
Some staffers talk about the Star Wars trailer as they zig and zag through the room. Some wear blue latex gloves as they pick up trash off the floor and heave it into the garbage bins.
A pair of cowboy boots sit atop David Andrews’s locker as he gets dressed and chops it up with his fellow linemen. Patrick Chung conducts interviews with his back to the room. Coach Ivan Fears ponders what he did with the clean clothes that he wound up not wearing. A couple players talk about the best Christmas gifts they’ve gotten.
Brandin Cooks stands with his back to the room, swiping his underarms with his deodorant stick, a camera and reporter waiting for him to turn around to begin an interview. Within seconds, a scrum engulfs him.
“Kind of just get used to it. It’s part of the deal,’’ captain Matthew Slater said. “I tell you, the vibe in here is a whole lot better after a win than it is after a loss.’’
Wait about 30 minutes and you will witness the whole process unfold: a room transitions from jam-packed to just a handful of folks remaining, handling their final duties of the work day.
Alan Branch just doesn’t want to get left behind.
“Better get on the bus before they leave you,’’ he said. “I can’t really say that there’s a set schedule.
“Hang out with the fellas. Get on the bus. Eat whatever they have, really. Like, there’s not really a routine at the end of a game. We kind of just try our best to hurry up and get out. Go home.’’
Branch, seated on a small black stool in front of his stall, speaks about his return to the field after not making the trip to Tampa, the run defense’s performance, and about being happy he wasn’t watching a second straight game on television.
“Yeah, this is normal. It’s definitely normal,’’ Branch said of the chaos. “It’s a little weird, but it’s normal.’’
As Malcolm Butler speaks with reporters, microphones taking over his immediate radius with television lights shining on his face, Devin McCourty is one stall over, messing with the garment section of suitcase on the floor, a colorful pair of KD’s resting near his feet. Bent over, cramped, and trying to avoid stepping on the feet of anyone nearby, he lightly slides his suitcase out of the way as he ducks behind a black curtain that separates the main visitor’s locker room and the training room.
“That’s how it be!’’ Duron Harmon said of the sometimes-cramped spaces. “Everybody wants that story. Malcolm played tremendous today. He did a great job, so you see why they want to get that story.’’
Behind that black curtain, McCourty jaws with Slater. Slater busts McCourty’s chops, saying his favorite McCourty player is Jason, Devin’s twin brother and safety for the Browns who also recorded an interception on Sunday.
“I always give him a hard time, ‘Man, if only you played as hard as your brother,’ ’’ Slater said with a laugh. “Love both those guys. Been great friends, especially Devin. Just having a good laugh.’’
If you get into the locker room quickly enough, maybe you can see Brandon Bolden dart out, usually the first out of the locker room, Slater said. There is a 10-minute period before the media can enter, and the running back usually manages to make a dash for it, much to the amazement of Slater.
“I don’t know!’’ said Slater, who is usually among the last to leave. “I don’t know, that’s a great question. Maybe you can ask him for me.’’
Slater is methodical, preferring to take his time and chit-chat as he gets ready to leave.
Just feet from the players’ exit near where Slater’s stall was, Dont’a Hightower winds up in a media scrum. A couple of Patriots staffers donning suits walk by, weighed down with work bags and trying to squeeze through the mob. Slater sticks out his hand out, offering assistance. They exchange a couple of jokes before the staffers make their way to the exit.
“I’m not going to rush,’’ Slater said. “It’s good to just connect with the guys after the game, after a hard-fought game. We talk about plays that happened in the game and stuff like that. It’s a fun time.’’
Harmon likes to linger, too. He fields a slew of questions from the media scrum and then graciously gives three one-on-one interviews, attentive but aware that he needs to continue to collect himself and his things. A button here, a belt there, socks one at a time, zipping and unzipping his camo, red, and navy Herschel backpack.
“I’m kind of always last. Me, Slate, and D-Mac,’’ he said. “D-Mac got out of here today, but we’re usually rallying the guys up.’’
Twenty minutes into the process, it is just Slater, Harmon, Elandon Roberts, and a handful of staffers remaining. One staffer points Roberts toward the proper exit, where food awaits.
One clank after another fills the room as a staffer lifts open and shuts the seat compartment of each stall, ensuring it was cleared out.
“Let’s wrap this thing up, setting a record right now,’’ one staffer said.
Stay a little while longer and the nameplates get striped off the locker stalls. Stay even longer and the only evidence the Patriots were here is one last equipment bin waiting to be rolled out and the scoreboard on the field.
Twenty minutes after leaving the locker room, that scoreboard will flicker off.