They are the letter sorters and equipment haulers, floor sweepers and the uniform washers.
They are Baltimore County firefighters, the behind-the-scenes backbone of the Baltimore Ravens, playing an essential role for the NFL’s hottest franchise.
It’s a tradition that began in 1996, when the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore and four local firefighters volunteered their services to the city’s newest team. Soon, they became essential workers, were hired part-time by the Ravens, and grew in number.
“We had to assemble an NFL team in a couple months when we became the Baltimore Ravens,” said Kevin Byrne, executive vice president of public and community relations who has been with the club since 1981. “A few firemen came to us and said, ‘We work basically around the clock for three or four days a week, and the rest of the time we have free. You must need help with something. We’ll help you with something and do whatever you want.’
“They’d bring us the mail from the offices downtown. They’d pick people up at the airport. They’d set up meeting rooms. Volunteer to clean the dirty uniforms. It just grew through the years.”
Baltimore is the only NFL franchise with an entire department of firefighters — 23 men and one woman — who handle every day-to-day task imaginable, from overseeing the shipping and receiving, transporting players to medical appointments, holding up giant panels during games to create shade over the team bench, and fishing the football out of the net after field goals.
“Our fingerprints are on everything,” said Bud Reinecke, senior manager of team services, who oversees the crew when he’s not working as a fire captain at a station 10 minutes from Ravens headquarters.
Reinecke is the last remaining of those original four firefighters who helped with the franchise move. On Saturday, when the Ravens play host to the Tennessee Titans in an AFC divisional playoff game, he will be in the Baltimore locker room, making sure everything is organized and in place for halftime and postgame. It’s where he’s most comfortable.
Avon Bryant, a fire lieutenant, will be standing behind the net on field goals, wearing a dark vest with a large orange “K,” meaning he retrieves the K-balls after kicks.
“Never in a million years had I thought I’d be doing this,” said Bryant, who has been with the franchise since 2011. “What’s funny is that people every now and then will text me with, ‘Hey, was that you on the field with the K-vest on? I saw you on TV.’ Now, every week, they look for me. Never in my years of watching football was I ever paying attention to the guy who caught the field goal out of the net. But now they look for me.”
For these workers, this is a dream job they approach with tireless and childlike enthusiasm. This week, for instance, Reinecke was at the firehouse until 6 a.m. Thursday morning, and was at his Ravens office from 6:10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then, he planned to go to the firehouse for another shift, and back to M&T Bank Stadium for setup before finally going home Friday night.
“There are a lot of similarities between the players and us,” he said. “We both have to work as a team. Like the players, we have to rely on each other and everybody has a role. We have a uniform, they have a uniform.
“You have to be dependable. You have to be timely. As public servants, we’re used to helping people. There’s not a department or a person in this building that we don’t inherently want to help. We have a rule: We don’t say no.”
Kirsten Koenig, a fire lieutenant in her third season with the Ravens, is the sole female firefighter in the building. She helps with logistics, deliveries and supplies that help the office run smoothly.
“I hear from a lot of my friends who want to know if we’re hiring or have extra positions they can interview for,” Koenig said. “There’s only so many positions to go around.”
Occasionally, members of the crew get to use some of the skills they learned as firefighters. There have been medical emergencies in the building over the years. Once, a ceiling sprinkler head was hit, causing some flooding. There haven’t been any fires, per se, but florescent light ballasts have overheated and burned out.
“My brother is a fire captain in North Las Vegas, so I have tremendous respect for those men. They do this on the side, and they work their butts off.”
Steve Smith, former Ravens receiver
The firefighters are the Ravens’ answer to Santa’s elves, completing tasks — and sometimes complex ones — with almost mystical efficiency.
“We’ve had firemen who are experts on construction, electricity, they fix things,” Byrne said. “You’d go, ‘We need a lock on that door that had a code on it, because we only want the coaches to go into that locker room.’ And it’s, ‘Oh, we can do that.’ Next day there’d be a door with a code on it.”
Ed Reed, the Hall of Fame safety for the Ravens, used to chide teammates who would leave their towels or tape scraps on the locker room floor for the firefighters to pick up. He started a mantra, “Respect the firemen,” that has echoed through the years.
“My brother is a fire captain in North Las Vegas, so I have tremendous respect for those men,” said Steve Smith, a former Ravens receiver. “They do this on the side, and they work their butts off.
“One of the cool things is every time I come in the building, I see those guys, and we talk, we laugh, we smile, we check in with our families. I was only there three years, but I took pictures, know their kids. It’s really cool. It’s one of those things that make the Ravens unique.”
Said Reinecke: “It’s so much fun to be around players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jonathan Ogden. The players treat us so well. But the organization treats us the best. I can’t overemphasize that.”
And yes, he has two Super Bowl rings to show for it.