Mark Hickman stands on the turf in the middle of AT&T Stadium, immersed in the prodigious blue star that’s one of the most recognizable logos of arguably the greatest franchise in sports – the Dallas Cowboys.
Hickman glances around the stadium, a $1.15 billion spectacle that from the outside resembles a spacecraft from another time. He is in charge of perhaps the stadium’s most beloved characteristic – the synthetic turf.
AT&T Stadium, sometimes referred to as “Jerry World” for the entertainment mecca that Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones envisioned it to be, is host to many events, from concerts to soccer matches to motocross racing. But the stadium was built primarily for playing football. AT&T not only hosts eight Cowboy home games annually, but also several college and high school games.
On Jan. 12, AT&T Stadium will host the first-ever College Football Championship Game, which will be contested via a four-team bracket system, the College Football Playoff, which replaces the previous Bowl Championship Series. Hickman is stoked about the game, which he calls “the Super Bowl of college football.” He’s confident the field will look and play as it should for such a marquee game.
- On Jan. 12, AT&T Stadium will host the first-ever College Football Championship Game, which will be contested via a four-team bracket system, the College Football Playoff, which replaces the previous Bowl Championship Series.
- While Mark Hickman and his crew don’t accept anything less than the field looking stellar for Cowboys’ games, they work just as hard to please the influx of fans who tour the facility weekly. People love to walk on the field, Hickman says, and he wants it to be just as perfect for them as it is for the players.
- AT&T Stadium features Matrix Synthetic Turf, which utilizes two grass blade sizes and two fiber colors to attain a more natural looking artificial turf system. Austin, Texas-based Hellas Construction installed the field.
- Since Hellas installed the field, the company also took responsibility for picking up and storing the field when concerts and other events where scheduled, and then would reinstall it after the events. But Hickman moved the task in-house, saving the Cowboys in the six figures annually.
- Having led the installation for four years now, Hickman knows the field’s many nuances. He knows how to correct problem wrinkles, and he knows when it’s spread too tight. “I’ve spent so much time moving it, I know how it’s going to react,” he says.
In that regard, though, Hickman has come a long way as an athletic field manager, a role he basically learned through on-the-job training.
Hickman has worked for the Cowboys since 1998. He graduated from the University of Arkansas and was a classmate of Stephen Jones, Jerry’s son and the Cowboys’ executive vice president.
Hickman was working in development for the Cowboys in 2003 when he heard that Jerry wanted to build a new stadium. With a background in construction from his family’s timber business, Hickman expressed his interest in the project.
“I told them if the stadium got going, I’d really like the opportunity to be involved with it,” Hickman says.
The Cowboys gave him that chance. Hickman helped manage the project with the builder from 2005 until its completion in 2009. He was then named director of stadium projects, an appointment that led to him taking on the stadium’s athletic field manager duties.
AT&T Stadium Photo Courtesy of iStock.
AT&T Stadium features Matrix Synthetic Turf, which utilizes two grass blade sizes and two fiber colors to attain a more natural looking artificial turf system. Austin, Texas-based Hellas Construction installed the field.
Since Hellas installed the field, the company also took responsibility for picking up and storing the field when concerts and other events were scheduled, and then would reinstall it after the events. Hellas employees also maintained the field, from grooming to cleaning.
But, Hickman pointed out, “Hellas doesn’t typically provide daily maintenance. The company’s primary role for the stadium was construction.”
Nobody associated with the Cowboys knew how to pick up and put down a field and maintain it – not until Hickman began to watch the process and ask a lot of questions.
Hickman did that for three months, which equated to about 10 installations. He noticed that the process involved a lot of labor and quickly realized he could save the Cowboys some money by moving the task in-house.
Brett Buchanan, who will succeed Hickman, makes sure the seams of the turf line up correctly.
Hickman knew he could assemble a crew to do it. And he thought eventually he could do it faster and more efficiently, which would allow the facility to host even more events. Hickman shared his idea with Stephen Jones, who challenged him. “You’re sticking out your neck,” he told Hickman, “so you had better perform.”
Hickman assembled a crew, some from the Cowboys full-time stadium staff and other part-time workers. They were set for their inaugural run November 2010, about 14 months after the stadium opened. They would install the field for a private event followed by a Cowboys’ game after it had been stored to stage a concert.
To ready for his first assignment, Hickman visited TG Knappick, the facility operations coordinator at the Alamodome in San Antonio, which has the same synthetic turf system as AT&T. Hickman wanted an expert’s advice. He and Knappick walked the field and talked as the Alamodome crew installed the field.
The day arrived for Hickman and his crew to make their field installation debut. They met at the stadium about 5 p.m. – they had a 10 a.m. deadline the next day.
“I was running around everywhere watching what everybody did,” Hickman recalls. “I was the only one who knew how to do it.”
At 10 a.m. the next day, Hickman and his crew still had about five pieces of turf to install. Jones and others in the front office were concerned the job wasn’t going to be completed in time. By noon, however, it was completed.
“I had worked myself to death,” Hickman says. “Did we install it as good as Hellas had before? I can’t say that we did, but we got it done.”
The private event went on without a hitch, but the following Sunday was the real test – the Cowboys’ game.
“I was so nervous that we hadn’t done something right,” Hickman recalls.
His nerves were heightened when NFL field officials arrived to inspect the field. He was worried they would discover something that made it unsafe.
Hickman’s nerves didn’t subside until the game was over. As for the field, it was perfectly fine.
After the game, Hickman sent an email to Knappick, who was on-site when Hickman and his crew installed the field for the first time. Knappick wrote back telling Hickman that he would surely suffer from burnout if he didn’t become a better manager and let the crew install the field instead of trying to do everything himself.
“You were running around and trying to do everything,” Knappick wrote. “You have to back away from it and see it as the big picture.”
Hickman says, “That was the best advice I’d ever received.”
Each time Hickman and his crew installed the field, they gained more confidence. Soon the installation was only taking about 11 hours. The Hellas crew could take two days to install the field, according to its maintenance contract.
Having led the installation for four years now, Hickman knows the field’s many nuances. He knows how to correct problem wrinkles, and he knows when it’s spread too tight.
“I’ve spent so much time moving it, I know how it’s going to react,” he says.
The turf is rolled out slowly and carefully, and heavy equipment isn’t permitted on the field.
Hickman also knew when the stadium needed a new field because players were experiencing poor footing. Hickman thinks the poor traction probably resulted from the stress of the field being rolled up and stored so many times the first year few years. While the stadium was built as a multiuse facility, nobody thought the field would have to be rolled up more than 25 times a year to accommodate other events. Hence, the field was literally coming apart at the seams, which made it slippery.
Hickman and his boss, General Manager of Events and Operations Jeff Stroud, convinced Jerry and Stephen Jones that it would be a wise investment to purchase a new field, one that would be built better and last longer. Hellas devised a better way to build the field. Instead of installing the field markings the traditional way of cutting the turf backing to install the hash marks and numbers, Hellas sheared the fiber on top down to the turf backing and glued the markings on top. The backing remains solid – creating one continuous panel.
On a recent Friday morning, the stadium’s retractable roof is open as Hickman and his crew finish laying the field. Hickman is driving a forklift, which he discovered is an excellent tool for moving a section of turf to line it up with another piece so the seams meet. He moves the forklift forward and stops quickly to budge the turf and get it to tighten just right.
“It’s the technique that’s important, not how fast you go or how hard you hit the turf,” Hickman explains.
The seams must be close enough that they look connected. Crew members then topdress the seams by hand with crumb rubber infill so there are no low spots. The infill material is then brushed in with a GreensGroomer synthetic sports turf groomer that lifts the turf fibers and leaves them in a plush, upright position.
There’s no Cowboys game on the weekend, but Hickman and his crew are working hard to get the field down and groomed for the influx of fans who will tour the facility that afternoon. People love to walk on the field, Hickman says, and he wants it to be just as perfect for them as it is for the players.
Hickman enjoys watching tourists when they walk on the field, their eyes widen and many drop to their knees to touch the field.
“People come to see the great building, but they feel like they’re part of it when they walk out on the field,” Hickman says. “It’s iconic.”
The Cowboys are the most-watched NFL team on TV in America, so Hickman wants the field looking its best for every game. On the mornings before kickoff, crew members take to the field with backpack blowers to clear the yard line markers, end zones, hash marks and the midfield logo of black crumb rubber.
“We want the field to pop,” Hickman states.
Hickman raves about his crew and credits its members for not accepting anything less than the best possible field conditions. One of those workers is Martin Perez, who has worked for the Cowboys for 25 years and is in charge of painting lines and logos.
“I’m not going to lie … to know so many people are watching [Cowboys’ games] makes for a little bit of pressure,” Perez says.
Derek Barnes, who has worked at AT&T Stadium since it opened, says he looks at the crew as “behind-the-scenes kind of people,” although their job is vital.
“We’ve come a long way,” he adds.
Hickman and his crew are saving the organization in the six figures a year by installing the field in-house, according to Hickman.
Mark Hickman may be the field general, but he is surrounded by good help. Like a quarterback credits his offensive line, Hickman credits his crew for not accepting anything less than the best field conditions.
The Cowboys recently broke ground on a new world headquarters and practice facility in Frisco, Texas, about 50 miles from AT&T Stadium. Hickman is managing the process and serving as the Jones family’s representative in dealing with contractors for the project.
Lately, Hickman has been splitting his time between the project and AT&T Stadium. Shortly after the College Football Championship Game, he will give up his duties at AT&T Stadium.
Brett Buchanan, whose father is the Cowboys’ equipment manager, will succeed Hickman.
“I’m excited, nervous … what other adjectives can I think of,” Buchanan says. “It’s a huge responsibility. It’s my baby.”
Hickman would beam if he heard Buchanan’s comments. If there’s one thing he wanted to teach his crew about installing the field, it was to take pride in doing so. The Cowboys’ way has always been about achieving “greatness,” a habitude that Hickman has embraced.
“For me to not do my best or the crew not to do their best isn’t acceptable,” Hickman says. “We take a lot of pride in what we do.”