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Jeffrey Fuller, a burly, middle-aged Jehovah’s Witness from National City, wiped down a wall in a Qualcomm stadium stairwell. Fuller and the thousands of other men, woman and children with him were spending a Saturday in May cleaning the stadium. Not for money. They worked for a different reason.
Fuller pointed up the stairwell past others washing walls and mopping stairs.
“Up there,” Fuller said, “I wiped a big snoogie off the wall.”
Fuller cleared his throat and mimed spitting to define snoogie.
“People don’t care,” he continued, his white rag turning blacker with each swipe across the wall. “They’re just here and they go ahead and snoogie.”
For one day, at least, Fuller and his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses cared about the aging stadium’s snoogies, weeds and stained carpets.
In four hours last Saturday, 6,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses set upon Qualcomm’s seats, concourses and bowels to clean so thoroughly they picked out the discarded cigarette butts and peanut shells from cracks in the concrete. The cleaning, a happening for nearly 30 years, prepares Qualcomm for the Witnesses’ annual convention, which begins Friday.
At its mid-afternoon height, the Witnesses filled a football stadium better known for the smell of overpriced hot dogs and groans of dispirited Chargers fans with the scent of bleach and sounds of spatulas scraping gum off concrete.
Leon Opolski, a trim 68-year-old Witness with strong blue eyes, doesn’t scrape gum anymore. Instead, he’s the one other Witnesses called on Saturday when they needed to unlock Qualcomm’s dozens of gates and doors. The city of San Diego gave him the keys.
The city trusts Opolski with Qualcomm because he’s helped build part it. Before San Diego hosted each of its three Super Bowls, Opolski and the Witnesses were there, constructing and renovating stadium offices. When the city needed a club box to host dignitaries, they were there again. When the Chargers’ cheerleaders needed their dressing room re-carpeted, they were there a third time.
“We’ve been here for so many years,” Opolski said. “This is pretty much our house.”
Opolski took the silver cell phone out of his pocket, flipped it open and pulled out its antenna before he answered the call.
The stadium gates needed opening, Opolski said, clasping his phone. The Witnesses were a half-hour early. Opolski left the stadium’s administrative offices to help with the gates. Signs of him remained.
Twenty five years ago, he and other Witnesses custom made the 16-foot table that dominates the conference room. Opolski himself had sculpted a stadium relief on the wall, letting shadows emphasize the carving’s contours. Opolski noted he asked for Qualcomm’s permission before adding the company’s logo to the sculpture. The Witnesses also built or brought in the offices’ cabinets. Since then, someone else added two small filing cabinets that didn’t match the rest. Looking them, Opolski said, was like “running your fingernails across glass.”
Opolski and the Witnesses built these offices 14 years ago when the city was renovating the whole stadium prior to hosting the second of three Super Bowls. It was the second time they had constructed these offices.
The first came in 1985 when the city was scrambling to prepare for its initial Super Bowl. The Witnesses began gutting the offices on a Friday afternoon and finished the job by early Monday morning.
When he walked in and saw the Witnesses’ work, the city’s stadium manager joked that he feared a corruption investigation. The offices were too luxurious. Opolski recalled similar reactions.
“They said when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came in and built it, it turned out to be a religious experience,” Opolski said. “One guy came in and said, ‘Holy cow.’ One guy came in and said, ‘God damn.’ And the third guy came in and said, ‘Jesus Christ.’”
Over the years, the Witnesses’ deal with the city hasn’t changed: cut-rate stadium rent in exchange for odd construction projects and cleaning. While he walked to open the stadium gates, Opolski could point out work the Witnesses had completed even though some of it no longer exists. The club-level carpeting they installed now is gone. The infinite sunflower seed shells that used to drive the Witnesses’ crazy went away once the Padres moved out. At one point before the cleaners arrived, Opolski rubbed his finger across a food concession countertop. His finger was covered in grime. It returns every year.
The great flood of Witnesses into Qualcomm began even before Opolski had opened all the gates. Years ago, the Witnesses learned it was more efficient for people to bring their own cleaning supplies than provide them for everyone.
The stream of people carried with them mops, buckets, 24-packs of microfiber auto cloths, push brooms, rakes, 409, paper towels, regular brooms, dustpans, rags, SOS pads, dish detergent, vacuum cleaners, Windex, power washers, latex gloves, barbecue-grade spatulas for scraping gum, mini brooms for the children, Hefty garbage bags and leaf blowers. They brought bottled water for when they got thirsty.
A 44-year-old stadium provides the setting for all sorts of strange and squeamish cleaning stories. Zip ties on seats that needed to be cut. The vomit smell whose source couldn’t be located. Dead animals. The occasional snoogie.
Witnesses have found carcasses of rats after owls had done away with them. Witnesses have cleaned up dead bats and birds who had broken their necks on the stadium’s upper decks.
But more than anything else, it’s the gum. Oh, the gum. The gum, black from feet and weather, stuck everywhere. Its ubiquity led to a false rumor that the Witnesses weighed it all before they left. The organization even provided extra gum scrapers in case people needed them.
On his hands and knees in the concourse, Rodney Garcia, a 53-year-old from Temecula, went after the gum with vigor. He’s plenty familiar with the stadium. The company he works for recently was subcontracted to do wallpaper work at Qualcomm. He did that job just fine, he said. But this work is different.
“I would never see myself scraping,” Garcia said. “For the stadium? No. For my God? Absolutely.”
Garcia and other Witnesses said they saw their cleaning work as an extension of the convention. The three-day event is expected to unite about 38,000 adherents from San Diego, Riverside and Imperial Counties in prayer, baptism and song.
It fits with Witnesses’ beliefs that they see Qualcomm as their church when the convention is here. Witnesses believe that Armageddon is coming soon and Christ will usher in a paradise called the “Kingdom of God” for the faithful on earth. Annual conventions, which the 7 1/2 million Jehovah’s Witnesses hold all over the world, are the most large-scale public practice of the faith and a key unifier for adherents, said David Weddle, a religion professor at Colorado College who has studied the Witnesses. In short, they want their conventions places clean.
“There’s not going to be litter in the Kingdom of God,” Weddle said.
Still, the housing of a religious convention at a football stadium leads to curious dichotomies. Two years ago, as the Witnesses were wrapping up their services, DirectTV was moving in to shoot a commercial starring rapper LL Cool J. The Witnesses’ customs come out in small interactions, too.
Fuller, the snoogie wiper from National City, had to think twice when asked his age.
“I was born on ’56 so I guess I’m 54,” Fuller said after a while. “We don’t celebrate birthdays so … “
One of the first times Jim Steeg, a former NFL and Chargers executive, visited the stadium he was told the managers were working out of trailers in the parking lot. At the time, Steeg was in charge of planning Super Bowls for the league and was checking on the city’s progress before the 1988 game.
Steeg couldn’t understand how stadium administrators could work out of trailers. He learned the Jehovah’s Witnesses were renovating the conference room.
“It was a little different,” Steeg said. “But this is California and this is San Diego.”
The renovation work, he added, professionalized the stadium and the city in the NFL’s eyes. It didn’t hurt the city’s bids for future Super Bowls, either.
The tension between San Diego wanting to be an NFL town and not wanting to pay to sustain an NFL stadium isn’t new. Maintenance needs always have outstripped cash, as a recent report detailing an $80 million stadium repair backlog shows.
The Witnesses helped fill in some gaps. Page after page of City Council actions over the years praised the Witnesses’ work and how they saved taxpayers money.
“They were just always able to help us,” said Jack McGrory, who oversaw the stadium from 1984 until he retired as city manager 13 years later. “When the contractors couldn’t get something done, we called them and they got things done.”
But in many ways the arrangement between the city and the Witnesses is a relic. The Witnesses, who used to hold massive gatherings in Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium, have moved all their United States’ conventions indoors except for the one in San Diego.
And the original deal between the city and the Witnesses flourished as much because of personalities as dollars. Bill Wilson, the city’s stadium manager from 1984 to 2005, said one of the main reasons he agreed to let the Witnesses work every year was that he trusted Opolski.
“God bless Leon,” Wilson said. “I know he’s a man of his word. If he says they’re going to do it, they do it. It was a handshake with us.”
Opolski didn’t do any cleaning himself on Saturday. He’s been slowed slightly by a hip that’s now made of stainless steel. He dressed in a shirt and tie, but left home the suit jacket other senior Witnesses were wearing to direct cleaners. “I break some of the rules,” he said. As the day wore on, Opolski’s left eye began to droop. He was the first Witness to arrive at the stadium and one of the last to leave.
Opolski grew up in San Diego and remembers sneaking as a child to watch Padres games through the knots in Lane Field’s wooden fence. He became a Jehovah’s Witness after converting when he was young, convinced the religion held the truth. He worked as a photographer and contractor before becoming a lawyer. He’s semi-retired now and most of his remaining clients are Witnesses.
He’s been married 50 years. His secretary prints out every email he receives.
“I’m a paper guy,” he said.
Opolski’s not sure what will happen to the Witnesses arrangement if the Chargers leave town and Qualcomm goes away. Other possible convention sites in San Diego are too expensive, he said. For now, though, he’s focused on this weekend’s event. It’s open to the public, he emphasized.
How will people know to come?
“Every man, woman and child in San Diego will see that invitation,” Opolski said.
The Witnesses, Opolski continued, will go door to door to give one to them.