When it comes to the Super Bowl, it’s no surprise that preparing and taking care of the playing field is of the utmost importance.
But it may be a surprise to some just how far we’ve come regarding how that field is managed.
Take this example: For Super Bowl IV, played in 1970 between the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, crews had to spread wood chips and sawdust across the field and paint it green to make it look presentable.
Or this one: For Super Bowl I, played in 1967 between the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in California, paint borrowed from an ice rink was used for the team names and logos in the end zones.
Those solutions were certainly crafty and resourceful, but they won’t be necessary on Feb. 1, when Super Bowl XLIX is held at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Roll it in, roll it out
State-of-the-art equipment, technology and lots of exact science are now the primary vehicles for preparing and maintaining the Super Bowl playing surface, whether it’s natural grass, artificial turf, or the unique playing field University of Phoenix Stadium boasts: 19 million pounds of soil, sand, water and Tifway 419 bermudagrass in a movable barge that rests on 546 steel wheels.
This surface, one-of-a-kind in North America, rolls in and out of the stadium before and after games. It remains outside the stadium until game day, which allows it to get the maximum amount of sun and nourishment while also eliminating humidity problems inside the stadium.
According to Evergreen Turf, the company that maintains the field, this turf technology combines a soil and sand base with synthetic fibers that help the grass roots bind tightly together. Water is applied under the sod so the roots grow deeper into the sand. The field is typically cut to a height of 0.5 inch.
After the NFL season, the old turf will be removed and new sod will have been replanted twice, once before college football’s Fiesta Bowl and again before the Super Bowl.
It’s safe to assume folks prepping the field for Super Bowl I back in 1967 would have ever imagined any setup quite like this.
Always a constant
No matter how much science, technology and new-fangled equipment are used to prepare a field for the Super Bowl, one element never changes.
It takes people with the knowledge and skills to get the job done.
Whether it’s George Toma, the living legend of the groundskeeping industry who has worked the crew of every Super Bowl that has been played, or wet behind the ears, eager to learn students, it always takes people (skilled people) to make the Super Bowl field sparkle for those in the stands and the millions watching on TV.
For Super Bowl XLVII, played in 2013 between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, one of those people was Kevin Hansen, a student at Iowa State University.
In 2012, Hansen was the winner of Toro’s Super Bowl Sports Turf Training Program, an annual contest for college students that are enrolled in the second year of a two-year turf program or the third year of a four-year program. The winner gets to spend a week helping to prepare the game and practice fields for the Super Bowl.
As part of the Super Bowl grounds crew in New Orleans, Hansen worked alongside Toma, NFL Field Director Ed Mangan and other notable industry names. Hansen was part of the crew that worked on turf maintenance, field logo and hash mark painting, media day field preparation, halftime preparation and cleanup. He also helped maintain two practice fields.
The goal is to develop the perfect surface for player safety that will also withstand the wear and tear of pregame, halftime and postgame shows. During final prep, groundskeepers get on their hands and knees to check every inch and hand brush the turf to protect the logos from heavy equipment.
“It was a pretty cool experience for me, the Super Bowl being the biggest stage,” Hansen, now a graduate student at Iowa State, recalled.
“I did an internship with the [Green Bay] Packers the summer before that, so I had a little experience with the NFL,” Hansen said. “But nothing compares to the Super Bowl. There’s a million things going on at once. The crew consisted of [about] 25 people from all around. A lot of university guys, a lot of Major League Baseball guys, and a lot of NFL guys. To network with these guys, to see how they do things … you learn a lot.”
Hansen took advantage of the unique opportunity.
“It was very humbling for me to go there and meet these people and work beside them,” he said. “I just tried to take everything in and learn from their experiences.”
The week was also great for networking. Hansen landed a spot the following season working the fields at Wembley Stadium in London for one of the two annual NFL games played there – all expenses paid, plus pay.
As if that wasn’t enough, Hansen is also going to Arizona to work Super Bowl XLIX.
“They asked me back, so maybe I did good enough to have them ask me back for another one,” Hansen said. “I’m pretty lucky.”
Perfection the goal
“The field had to be perfect. There is no room for error. There was a lot of intricate work that needed to be done … it took time. We worked 14- to 16-hour days.”
Doesn’t sound like a pleasure cruise, does it?
That was Chris Fondren, a graduate of Mississippi State University, describing his experience working on the field crew of Super Bowl XLI, played in 2007 between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears at Dolphins Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Fondren, who won the Toro contest in 2006, is currently a sales rep at Dickens Turf and Landscape Supply in Nashville, Tennessee. He remembers the rain, which lasted pretty much from kickoff to the final whistle.
“It was not a vacation trip by any means,” Fondren said. “I’m still drying out.”
Despite the wet conditions during the game, the weather in the Miami area was dry during the week leading up to Super Sunday. That allowed Fondren and the crew to prepare the field so well that it’s condition was not an issue during the game – something he and the crew took great pride in.
“Sunday it began raining,” Fondren recalled. “There was a light drizzle all day, and it turned into rain at about kickoff. Still, we were able to mow and do what we needed to do pregame. The [wet] field had no bearing on the game itself. There were no slips [by players] or anything like that. That was a pat on the back for us. Ultimately, that’s what a groundskeeper tries to do, make the best field possible under drastic conditions.”
Much like Hansen’s positive experience in New Orleans, Fondren characterized his week on the Super Bowl crew as tremendous in every way, despite the rain.
“I tried to put as much into the experience as I could,” Fondren said. “And I certainly got a ton out of it. I was able to spend quite a bit of time with crew members, [and] asking questions. As a young, aspiring groundskeeper, I had a lot of questions regarding the industry as a whole. It was very interesting for me to hear about how everybody [approached] their day-to-day work.”
Aside from your travel itinerary, where else do the words “Super Bowl” look good? How about on a résumé?
“Working on a Super Bowl was like résumé gold,” Fondren said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’d be going through a [job] interview, and they’d be going through my work experience, and they would get to the Super Bowl and they’d say ‘Whoa!’ It’s a great résumé builder.”
Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, current Fox broadcaster and four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw once said “As a player, it says everything about you if you made the Hall of Fame. But, then again, boy … there’s something about winning a Super Bowl.”
For field care professionals, it may work the same way. Finding success at your job is one thing … but there’s something about working on the crew of a Super Bowl.