Sometimes, the less-traditional career path still gets you to where you need, or want, to be.
Just ask Dusty Roper, who, at 25 years old, is the new head groundskeeper at the University of Montevallo, an NCAA Division II college in Alabama. Roper is one of the youngest collegiate head groundskeepers in the country. And his journey to this destination hasn’t been the typical one.
Roper has been involved in the sports turf business for a long time – for as long as he can recall. His father owned an Alabama company called BR Turf Maintenance when Roper was growing up. Later, after attending a community college for business, Roper took a job with Specialty Turf Supply – a premier sports turf company in the Birmingham and Montgomery areas of Alabama – in 2011. One of his clients there was the University of Montevallo, and Roper developed a relationship with the school’s groundskeeper. He informed Roper he’d be leaving the university in 2015, and Roper decided to apply for the job.
“Several people (who) were interviewing for the job had turf degrees from larger schools like Mississippi State and Auburn,” Roper recalled during a phone conversation on a Friday afternoon in late September. “What kind of helped me was that I know the maintenance side, the equipment side and the construction side. I know that the more stuff you can do in-house, the better.
“But even when I first heard this job was going to be available, I wasn’t 100 percent sure it was for me. I thought about it and talked to my wife about it, and we decided I should go for it. To this point, I’m more than happy with my decision.”
Roper supervises four game fields (baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer) and two, 4-acre practice fields. His staff consists of one full-time assistant – another full-time assistant will be hired soon – and various student helpers.
He considers himself a “turf guy” and prefers to concentrate on things like fertility programs, aerification, grading and field spraying. “The construction and renovation side is my favorite aspect of the business,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean he’s above any task – big or small – that needs to be done.
“Being younger, I’m not afraid to do any of the work myself,” Roper says. “It’s important to me to be a leader and earn the respect of my staff. So I’ll be out there … if that’s pulling weeds, it’s pulling weeds.”
Naturally, there are both benefits and drawbacks from being younger than most of your peers. Roper understands this well.
“Being young, I know a lot, but there’s still a whole lot I can learn,” he says. “That’s why I’m a part of the Sports Turf Managers Association and also the Alabama Turfgrass Association. I like bouncing ideas off of other turf managers.”
As for the future, Roper says he may consider moving to a larger university one day, but for now, he’s happy and satisfied where he is. He enjoys being able to learn the business and do what he loves, while also being able to spend a good amount of time at home – which is especially important right now, as Roper and his wife have a 6-year-old daughter and a 7-month-old son.
“I never foresaw myself moving to this side of the business, but I’m really glad it worked out this way,” he says.
Roper’s advice for young, aspiring turf mangers is simple: Don’t let your age limit your expectations. “When applying for a job, go in with confidence – they aren’t going to be concerned about your as age as much as they’ll be looking at what you know, what you do and how you present yourself. Don’t let your age get in the way.”
COVER AND PHOTOS: UNIVERSITY OF MONTEVALLO