Two West Virginia University alumni have had the experience of a lifetime tracking statistics for the National Football League's Carolina Panthers, the number one ranked team in the National Football Conference.
Austin Cook and Dominic Cilento are Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources graduates, with degrees in industrial engineering and computer engineering, respectively. While they've both maintained steady jobs and growing careers, it was a consulting client of Cooks' that was the key to an exciting side project in the NFL.
Cook and Cilento contract with Zebra Technologies, the official on-field player tracking provider of the NFL. Using radio frequency identification - or RFID -- tags, the company is responsible for supplying the NFL's Next Gen Stats that give broadcasters real-time overlays and visualizations and Xbox One data-enriched replays.
The pair, friends from their days at WVU, now call Charlotte, North Carolina, home, were the perfect fit for the company, who was looking for tech-savvy employees to run game day operations at the Panther's Bank of America Stadium.
"We enjoy football, so this was the perfect opportunity," said Cook, a Huron, Ohio native. "Nothing can beat having fun while supplementing your income."
Work starts early for Cook and Cilento, who begin player activation six hours before kickoff on game day. This task requires them to activate the chips on all player - home and way - shoulder pads and ensure signals are transmitting properly. The same process is then applied to referees, pylons, sticks and chains.
Before the game starts, Cook and Cilento check accuracy, working through a command center and control points on the field to test the system. When the game starts, you could say Cook and Cilento are two of the most attentive football fans there are.
"If I wasn't in the press box watching the game, I would be at home watching," says Cilento, who grew up in Morgantown. "Now when I watch, I'm just looking for more detail, which ultimately helps others have a better viewing experience."
Each segment of every play is captured - huddle start, huddle stop, line set, snap, pass, complete pass and tackle - and individual player data is also received. While watching the game in the press box, the pair simultaneously capture timestamps on each part of the play that can then be related back to the positional data from the RFID tags. Once a play is submitted, other members of the team edit the play to ensure timestamps are as accurate as possible.
"It's really fascinating to get an in-depth look at the intricacies of the NFL and to be able to focus on and understand each team's strategy," said Cook, who admits it can be challenging to not get distracted watching replays or discussing the previous play. "You always have to be in the zone."
Cook and Cilento will be able loosen up a bit for the Super Bowl. They'll be watching the Panthers from Charlotte, while Zebra Technologies upper management collects statistics in Santa Clara, California.
In his day-to-day life, Cook is a systems engineer at SAS. He designs analytic solutions to help financial institutions improve business. Cook graduated in 2008 and was a member of the Institute for Industrial Engineers, Alpha Pi Mu and Tau Beta Pi.
Cilento, a 2009 graduate, works for Seamless Mobility Solutions as a services manager. He also works for Seamless Mobility Solutions' sister company, Infinity Technology Solutions, as a microwave engineer, where he designs and analyzes state and county wide microwave communications systems.