We call them essential workers: Doctors. Nurses. Inhalation therapists. Grocery clerks. Janitors. Drivers. Law enforcement. Covid-19 has put a spotlight on them. The ones who are risking their lives to do what they have always done for us.
We call them heroes now. But they have been essential all along. Lives depend on them every day. Our way of life does, too. Every group, every team, depends on people who rarely get thanked. The people who get noticed only on those rare occasions when they mess up, as all of us sometimes do.
Jesse Bignami was the equipment man for most of my time as manager of the US Men’s National team. He was one of our essential workers during the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup. I mean that literally. If he messed up, we messed up. Our success depended on his work every day.
We never gave him the recognition he deserved. The Jesse story we tell is about the one time he did mess up—his first game with the team. The story is too funny not to share. It also creates a commitment and trust that still exist today.
Jesse joined us for a friendly in the lead-up to the 2007 Gold Cup. China in San Jose. It was going to be big summer for us. The Gold Cup would take us to LA, Boston, and Chicago. Then we were headed to Copa America in Venezuela.
Our technical staff decides to test a new idea. Peter Nowak is going to sit high atop Spartan Stadium and relay his impressions to Mike Sorber down on the bench. Mike will have a small microphone and earpiece to stay connected to Peter. Jesse knows nothing of this plan, but ends up on the bench next to Mike.
Early in the game as I stand up to speak to a player on the field, I instruct Mike to check with Peter. I don’t like the movement of our 4-3-3 and want to get Peter’s thoughts. Sounds easy. Mike asks Peter, “What do you think about switching to 4-4-2?” Jesse is puzzled. He looks left and right. They’re asking the equipment guy what he thinks about switching formations? During his first game with the national team?
In his cool way Jesse says, “Sure. Sounds good to me”. To this day, I wonder what must have been going through Jesse’s mind.
We win Jesse’s first game 3-1, thanks in part to his tactical change. But the story doesn’t end there. The next morning is a very early departure to San Francisco for the team flight to LA. On the team bus I always sit second seat on the right. On the aisle. Gives me a good look at all the guys as they move by. It’s departure time and we’ve got one big problem. No Jesse. That means no equipment.
Like anyone else with his job, Jesse has to know he needs to be downstairs at least an hour before departure time with all the bags. To ensure a smooth, on-time departure.
I ask our team manager, another essential worker, Pam Perkins to go to Jesse’s room. I’m hoping it was nothing more than sleeping through an alarm.
Twenty minutes later Pam, Jesse and every bellman in the Fairmount come out with 50 bags and start loading up the bus.
Finally, Jesse gets on the bus. He’s wearing sunglasses and realizes he better slip quickly into the first seat on the right. One row ahead of me. He quickly pulls out his cell phone and pretends to be on a call for the fun rush hour trip to San Francisco International Airport. Jesse is sweating so much that I ask our trainer Ivan Pierra to keep an eye on him.
After arrival at LAX, I spot Jesse talking to Mike, who is cracking up. Jesse still thinks Mike was asking him about tactics.
By the time we reached the hotel, every player is in on the story. Jesse had called his mom. The new equipment guy is now Bob’s right hand man!
On my way to dinner I find Jesse unpacking in the hotel equipment room. He still hasn’t said a word to me. I wink and give him my best “counting on you” handshake. I have my blood brother.
Well, that’s the story we always tell about Jesse. The one day he messed up was the day we found out we could always count on him. It reminds us of how much he and Pam and Ivan and twenty other members of our team—the ones not on the roster and never mentioned in the media—contributed to our successes.
And why does that story go untold? It’s because the daily work of mundane details is neither funny nor tragic enough to be entertaining. And because we’re not good enough at noticing everyone who makes essential contributions to our team. If there’s any silver lining in the cloud we’re now living in, it’s a reminder of the value those folks have to us.
So, here’s to Jesse. The Jesse who took responsibility for messing up. The Jesse who proved himself utterly reliable. The Jesse who in one incredible moment thought the equipment guy has a say in tactics. Above all, the Jesse who became our friend, made us look good, got us laughing, and played the best music. To Jesse, Pam, Ivan, Michael and the rest. The essential workers who deserve our thanks but rarely get it.