In July, I received a call from my friend Sid Pillai, director of football operations for the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League. Sid asked me to look at a former softball field that would become the Mountain Lions’ practice field. It was located at the Harvard Corporate Center where a large company called United Service Automobile Assurance (USAA) had their headquarters before relocating to Texas a year ago.
The big question with this site was putting the football field on the softball outfield. In early July, Sid and I met at the field with the company maintaining it. Since no one had been using the field, all they had done was mow and water it. The grass was about 6 inches high and growing in such marsh-like conditions it felt like walking on a wet sponge. There were four different grasses: turf-type tall fescue, bermuda, Poa and bentgrass, but very few weeds.
The first thing we told the company to do was to cut back on the water and drop the height of cut. Their next steps were to be using a VertiDrain or Soil Reliever followed by core aerifying and then laying sod up to second base to even out the sideline.
Sid called again and asked me to come back out on August 17 and stay a couple of weeks to oversee the field during training camp. He also asked me to find someone in the area to mark the field, since the maintenance company didn’t do field painting. I found Chris Ralston, head groundskeeper for the Sacramento River Cats of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League. Chris told me he and Chris Martin, whose family had previously owned a sod farm, had a company called Sports Turf Management that worked on many athletic fields.
So, Chris Ralston and I met with the maintenance company at the field. We found the grass height was lowered, but the playing surface was still a wet marshland with tire marks of black dirt showing the mower path. No one could play on the field in that condition, and two-a-days would start in six days. At that point, we asked Chris’ company to take over the maintenance and field painting.
Our first step was to shut off the water to dry-down the field, but problems arose. Wet spots surrounded most of the heads. About 12 dry spots appeared where no water was hitting the field. Each ranged from 8 to 12 feet across, about the size of a pitching mound. The irrigation system had so many flaws it became a nightmare. Heads were leaking on top; loose threaded joints were leaking underneath; too many heads were running on one zone. Chris Martin changed the irrigation clock, repaired leaking joints and ended up replacing 24 of the 36 heads on the field. We had to use a 5-ton roller to level out the ruts left by past mowings on the wet field. We dropped the height of cut to 2 inches.
Chris, Chris and I looked at a few different ways to lay out the field and settled on an 80-yard setup. Dennis Green, previously a coach with the Vikings and the Arizona Cardinals, is head coach for the Mountain Lions. He had us set it up as a 60-yard field with two end zones. We marked the 30-yard line as center field, with arrows going toward both end zones. We gave the end zones the Notre Dame diagonal lines. Past the end zones, we were able to get another 15 yards, but only number to number wide. We also painted hash marks through the end zones and those 15-yard areas.
We’d only had five days to do it, but the field was ready for play. Two-a-days put 70 football players on that short field for an average of eight hours each day. After each workout, we mowed, filled divots with Chris Ralston’s organic soil mixed with pregerminated ryegrass and picked up any loose divots. After a full day of practice, we ended up with a 5-quart bucket of divots, which wasn’t bad. At the end of each day’s practice we mowed the field and, when needed, rolled it.
Some of the grass went dormant from the heat, the lack of water while we worked on the irrigation system and the bad soil. We aerated with a walk-behind Toro on 1.5-inch centers, 1.5 inches deep. Those holes made a good seedbed for the ryegrass. We had a few thin spots that were helped out by the grass growing in the holes. The bentgrass did a terrific job in combination with the bermuda. The Poa was outstanding, showing just a few rooster tails from the lack of water. We got the same for areas of tall fescue, with some going into dormancy.
Practice dropped back to one-a-days on September 13. That short field held up with 70 players for three weeks of two-a-days when I’ve seen many two-field practice sites get run down. My hat goes off to Chris Ralston, Chris Martin and their crew. The miracle in Sacramento proves again that it can be done through a lot of hard work and doing things together as a team.
During the bye week of October 3, we again aerified in three directions on 1.5-inch centers and 1.5 inches deep. With a limited budget and no suitable power rake or verticutter available, I walked the field, making 1,800 passes with a power edger, to make slits 2 inches apart for the pregerminated rye mix. The coaches and players were amazed when they returned to the field 11 days after they had started their road trip. The work went on to make sure this short field would stand up through the end of the season.
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 68 years in the profession.