How often are Deadheads and sports field managers mentioned in the same space?
Actually, more often than you think. The Grateful Dead – America’s legendary jam band, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – have been playing outdoor sports venues, large and small, since the 1960s. Each time, with their dedicated fan base – affectionately called Deadheads – in tow.
In this case, the scene was Soldier Field in Chicago, where the band was playing what was billed as its final shows, July 3-5. The three-day event was obviously a spectacle, and, by all accounts (I wish I had my own account to give!), it was a huge success.
But back to the sports field angle: Someone had to prepare Soldier Field to handle – and then survive – such a grandiose event. That someone is John Nolan, head groundskeeper.
“It’s been challenging around here lately, but we’re getting it done!” a busy Nolan told me during a phone interview July 8, not even 72 hours after the last Grateful Dead show. Even during our interview, Nolan was preparing Soldier Field for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup international soccer matches that were to be held there later that week.
Nolan and his crew do their own Teraplast turf covering on the field, which they did for the Grateful Dead shows. “We don’t hire anyone from the outside, like a lot of others do,” Nolan explained. “It’s all done in house. We waited until the last minute to put the floor down for the concert.”
Nolan had a process for the use of the Teraplast cover during the event. After the first show Friday night, half of the cover was picked up, “to let the field breathe,” Nolan said. It was then put back down Saturday morning before the gates opened. They followed the same process Saturday night and then Sunday morning. After the last concert, the entire Teraplast was pulled up, and the crew began preparing for the CONCACAF soccer matches.
This is the life of a groundskeeper for a big-league venue like Soldier Field. It’s all part of the job, and Nolan is a pro’s pro. He’s been at Soldier Field since 1988, when the grass field was installed after the previous Astroturf was removed.
“The field held up fine after the Grateful Dead concerts,” Nolan said. “We had 15,000 people down on the field each night. And in total, over 210,000 people were in the stadium over the three days. (The Grateful Dead’s three nights at Soldier Field shattered attendance records at the venue, which previously were held by U2.) If you would have told me that the Grateful Dead could [bring in so many people in a three-day span], I wouldn’t have believed you!” Nolan said with a chuckle.
“But, the shows were very good. We had the Dead here in the 1990s, for five years in a row. So we’re familiar with them.”
Nolan remarked that, before the current field-covering technologies and methods – like a Teraplast – were available, it wasn’t nearly as easy to host large outdoor concerts like these Grateful Dead shows. But, as, Nolan put it, “people have learned over the years how to do this stuff, and we do it as well as anybody.”
And they’ll continue to do it at Soldier Field, event after event, concert after concert and Chicago Bears season after season.
Much like the late, great Jerry Garcia says in the Grateful Dead’s hit song “Truckin,” Nolan and his crew will simply “hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.”