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What is the secret MVP of sports?

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

The Port-a-potty!

IT'S 12:31 P.M., and Ben Cansdale has been staring at five port-a-potties for a half hour. Cansdale is a member of a five-truck Modern Disposal Services crew, based in Buffalo, that is dispatched on game days to do what they call a "half-suck" when a home game kicks off.

From the driver's seat, Cansdale, 31, describes the mayhem that is about to happen once the Nov. 21 Bills-Colts game begins in 30 minutes. As he talks, drunk people wobble past, pointing and waving at him. One woman stands in front of the truck and tries to get Cansdale's attention so she can take a picture of him.

She laughs and points like he's a carnival exhibit, but Cansdale shrugs it off. "People treat us like a joke sometimes," he says. "But I take great pride in doing my job. I don't think these people want to see what happens if we're not here, cleaning up after them." Cansdale's job isn't glorious, but sports couldn't happen without people like him. From college football cathedrals on Saturdays to raucous NFL stadiums on Sundays, with thousands of kids' soccer fields in between, the port-a-potty is an unsung hero for most outdoor sporting events in the U.S. If you trace the rise of big-time sports in America and the boom of the port-a-potty business over the past 50 years, it's like the two things are dancing together. The portable bathroom business is at $17 billion and rapidly growing, largely because of the constant need at sporting events. And that makes toilet cleaners like Cansdale essential workers at our nation's sports fields.

He doesn't have time to let his pride take a hit, anyway. A half-suck is the Olympics for the Modern crew -- the six men, riding in five trucks, have about 90 minutes to take care of 196 port-a-potties spread over the public parking lots outside Highmark Stadium.

For each port-a-potty, Cansdale must replace two rolls of toilet paper from a latched holder, suck out as much as possible from inside the bowl and clean the seat with water and a scrub brush. He gives a quick hand sanitizer check but has never had to refill one at a Bills game. "The truth is, nobody's washing their hands," Cansdale says. "They just want to get in and get out."

The Modern drivers call it a "half-suck" because the goal is speed and just to get the stalls usable for after the game. They'll do full sucks and total cleans starting Monday morning.

The half-suck math is daunting: At about 40 toilets per guy, with people streaming in and out of the port-a-potties as they try to do their jobs, the cleaners will have less than three minutes per toilet, all while trying to navigate giant trucks through tiny windows of crowded parking lots. On top of that, the weather report says some wicked Buffalo wind and rain is about to roll in right around kickoff today, with temperatures expected to drop down into the 30s.

About 10 minutes before kickoff, Cansdale opens the truck door, and there's a light in his eyes. "It's go time," he says. "Buckle in, this is going to be a wild, smelly ride."

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