Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify titles of Navy and Marine ROTC members, as well as how they are compensated for their efforts.
Another game, another fourth-quarter loss. Ninety thousand crestfallen fans head straight for the exits, rivers of red spilling through the gates of Memorial Stadium and out onto the streets of Lincoln. In minutes, the stands are almost entirely deserted, and the only remnants of the fans who filled them just moments ago are the thousands of empty water bottles, Valentino’s pizza boxes and Wimmer’s hot dog wrappers they left at their feet.
Meanwhile, in a cavernous lounge beneath the North Stadium, 40 men and women are getting ready to eat some Domino’s pizza. These are the students who will pick up every last piece of trash their peers left behind.
Nothing in these students’ demeanor's implies the unenviable task they are about to perform. In fact, looking around the room at these 40 students, one would think their Nebraska Cornhuskers had just beaten the Northwestern Wildcats, and not the other way around. Dressed in civilian clothes (T-shirts and athletic shorts, many of the latter cut short in the traditional Navy/Marine style), the Navy and Marines ROTC midshipmen smile, laugh and tease one another like they aren’t about to spend the next three-plus hours picking up others’ trash with their bare hands. Some of them sit on couches, glued to the Michigan State-Indiana game on the TV in the corner of the room. Others sit on stadium security carts that have just been brought in and parked in the center of the room. Most just stand around and wait for the pizza.
When the food arrives, there is no ambush for the delivery man, no mad dash to the table to grab a slice. This isn’t a free-for-all. This is the Navy/Marines ROTC; there is a disciplined procedure to follow, even for pizza. The man in charge, junior biochemistry major Adam Brake, calls for the freshman to help themselves. Then the sophomores. Then the juniors. Seniors eat last. Like everything else the battalion does together, there’s a reason behind the procedure.
“Leadership,” Brake says. “As a leader, you always have to take care of your men first. Freshman eat first, seniors last.”
The pizza goes fast because 40 fit ROTC midshipmen eat like 40 fit ROTC midshipmen, and because everyone here is ready to get started.
“The faster we eat, the faster we get started,” Brake says. “The faster we get started, the faster we get done.”
“Fast” is a relative adjective for the job at hand. On average, it takes this battalion — and the ones from the Army and the Air Force, which alternate with the Navy/Marines battalion for stadium cleaning duties — three-and-a-half hours to collect all the trash in Memorial Stadium. On days like this one, where the game starts at 11 a.m., it means leaving the stadium somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 p.m. Other game times aren’t so merciful. For night games, the midshipmen often comb the stands until 2 or 2:30 a.m. Because many of these same midshipmen also work security for the game, and therefore have to show up for briefing four hours before kickoff, they work nearly 12 hours straight at the stadium. For most of Lincoln, Saturdays in fall are gamedays. For ROTC cadets and midshipmen, they’re more like workdays.
The program is compensated, at least, but money doesn’t make this job any easier.
They begin in the North Stadium, in the top rows, in the far left corner of the stands. The freshman and sophomores are on “row duty.” They sweep across the entire section, each midshipmen the custodian of his or her own row, picking up every last piece of litter they see. Unlike their Army and Air Force rivals, the midshipmen don’t use gloves.
Some juniors and seniors work the rows too. Others — those upperclassmen that Brake deems the fastest in the battalion — run. These so-called “runners” sprint up and down the stadium steps, carrying raggedy brown, burlap bags to and from the midshipmen in the rows. When a row midshipman has finished cleaning their row, they call for a runner to pick up their full trash bag and to bring them a new one.
Up the runners go, sprinting up the steps with empty bags in tow, dashing this way and that to swap clean (another relative term) bags for dirty ones. Then, with as many as five bags in tow, most of which are leaky and all of which are heavy, they run back down the steps. No rinse, just repeat.
Up and down, up and down, up and down, until every last row has been cleaned and every last bag has been filled and carried down to the field level. It’s hard work but no harder than the physical training that these midshipmen do every week; and, with the exception of the trash bags on their backs, no different from the mornings when they have to run every step in the stadium.
But while this job might not be more physically demanding than the midshipmen's early morning workouts, it’s still no picnic. The bags aren’t waterproof — “you try not to think about what’s spilling on you” — and the trash, being trash, can be disgusting. Some, like Brake, say the worst is the dip spit. Pick up the wrong bottle, and you might have the misfortune to wash your hands with tobacco juice. Others say the worst is the vomit. Senior nursing major Mary Marsoleck recalls having to pick up trash out of pools of puke.
“Someone will hurl in the stands, and then trash gets in it, and you want to disinfect your whole body when you get home,” Marsoleck said.
Why do they do it? For starters, stadium cleaning duty is mandatory for all ROTC battalions. Then, to make it fun, there’s the competition between the branches: who can clean the stadium fastest? But beyond all that, there’s something else, too, something sacred to these future members of the United States Armed Forces: duty.
“Someone’s gotta do it,” junior environmental science major Tucker Bonow said. “The most important part is getting it done. I don’t really care if people know (we do it). Recognition’s not a thing, especially when you’re picking up garbage.”
Indeed, cleaning the stadium row by row is often a thankless job. But these ROTC midshipmen do it anyway, every third week, and they do it without complaining. And aside from the money that the athletic department pays them, all they ask in return for their work is for the fans to be more conscious about the trash they leave behind them.
“We have 90,000 people at each game,” Marsoleck said. “If every person just picked up one piece of trash to take with them on their way out, that’s 90,000 less pieces of trash we’d have to pick up.”