Spring is just around the corner, and in some areas of the country it will be most welcomed by many sports-minded people. The winter was a rough one on many sporting events, even canceling football games. Out West the rains hit sporting events. In the upper Midwest and East Coast, heavy snowstorms led to cancelled NFL games. Snow can be removed, but flooding plays havoc on the playing fields.
I can recall removing snow off the football field at old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. We had a heavy black 18-ounce tarp. The tractor we used had no cab. Then, when football moved to the new Arrowhead Stadium, it was the same thing – the tractors with no cabs. Though it was very cold, the crew got the job done. We had a field cover for the artificial turf and that helped. We used small tractors with brushes and rubber blades. On the larger tractors, we put PVC pipe over the steel blades. When we were hit with freezing rain or snow, we put down urea fertilizer to keep the field from freezing. One has to be careful in what is used. For one game in St. Louis for Cardinals’ football, urea was supposed to be used, but someone made a mistake and grabbed bags of calcium chloride instead, which is a huge no-no. Over a dozen players had to go to the hospital for severe skin burns over their bodies, especially in the areas under their pads.
I can recall at Soldier Field for NFL Playoff games we used urea on artificial and natural grass fields to help thaw out the turf. The job got done with a crew headed by Jim Duggan, Ken Mrock, John Nolan and Eric Adkins – a very “and then some” crew. We would use two large heaters set up beside a tractor-driven golf course fairway leaf blower. This would blow the tarp up nearly 10 feet above the turf. This also allowed the crew to paint the field. The crew members had to use gas masks because of the buildup of carbon monoxide under the tarp. Some of you may remember the Fog Bowl, the playoff game between the Bears and the Eagles. Jokingly, they blamed me for the fog. They said I had the field too hot and that’s what caused the fog.
My hat goes off to Steve Wightman and his excellent crew at Qualcomm Stadium for the job they did getting the field ready for the December 23 Poinsettia Bowl game after heavy rains flooded the entire area, including the playing field. Millions of gallons of water had to be pumped off the playing field. I watched the game on TV between the Chiefs and Chargers on December 12. For that game it was a beautiful, immaculate field, postcard perfect with the color of the grass and all the logos, but most of all the great footing of the playing surface. Then the rains came. Still, for the Poinsettia Bowl game between Navy and San Diego State University, despite the field having been underwater, Steve and his crew did an outstanding job getting the field ready. It not only looked good, but the turf held up. Then, seven days later, the Holiday Bowl was played at Qualcomm with the field once again giving the players an excellent surface. Why? Thanks to Steve Wightman passing his knowledge on to his crew and to so many other groundskeepers in the game today.
The storms that brought those heavy rains in the West brought heavy snowstorms to the upper Midwest and through the East. The storm hit Minneapolis with snow so heavy it broke the Metrodome roof panels, tearing some sections of the dome. Years ago, Dick Ericson used to tell me stories about when he and his crew would go up on the Metrodome roof and shovel snow off of it. This past winter’s storm caved in parts of the dome, and snow came tumbling down onto the playing field. The Vikings – Giants game was cancelled at the Dome and transferred to Ford Field in Detroit.
The Vikings’ next home game against Chicago was played at TCF Bank Stadium, the University of Minnesota football stadium, which had been closed and winterized after that team’s last game. Here the heavy snow had to be removed from the seats and the playing field. We should give all the people involved a standing ovation.
The torn fabric dome of the Metrodome won’t be repaired and ready for use until March, causing the cancellation of some 300 baseball games, including about 40 games for the University of Minnesota baseball team, plus about 250 games for smaller colleges and some high school games.
In the early days, Dick Ericson, my idol, was the head groundskeeper at old Metropolitan Stadium. Even with all the bad weather, Dick always had the field ready. The Vikings played and practiced on the field. Under the tarp, Dick would cover the field with concrete blankets to keep it from freezing. He also would run a walk-behind woody weed burner on the playing field. I used to have one at old Municipal Stadium; I sure wish I had one today.
The same storm hit Philadelphia and New York, canceling the Sunday night NFL game between the Eagles and the Vikings. That game was played and televised the following Tuesday night. What an outstanding job Tony Leonard and his crew did. Tony sodded the field after the Army-Navy game. The Tuesday night field was outstanding in all three phases.
How about the great job Dan Cunningham, the New York Yankees head groundskeeper, did with all the snow removal for the Pinstripe Bowl played in Yankee Stadium on December 30 between Kansas State and Syracuse?
There are many stories of high school, college and parks and recreation groundskeepers with rain and snow problems who get their fields ready for football, soccer or lacrosse. You people are our unsung heroes.
I really enjoyed watching the College Bowl Games. There were some outstanding playing fields, both natural grass and artificial turf, with good footing, color and painted logos.
I commend all of you for your hard work – and then some.
George Toma is an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, one of the founders of the Sports Turf Managers Association and mentor to hundreds of sports field managers over his 69 years in the profession.