While fans proudly rally around the “Frozen Tundra” image of Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wiscconsin, that’s the kind of playing surface Allen Johnson, CSFM, works hard to avoid. The cold temperatures and biting winds of the “Ice Bowl” NFL Championship battle of 1967 wasn’t a fluke. Packers general manager, Ted Thompson, and head coach, Mike McCarthy, understand the effect of field conditions on player safety and the integrity of the game, and are willing to commit team resources for field quality on Lambeau Field and the team’s practice facilities.
It’s an ongoing process Johnson has been helping coordinate since 1999, when he was promoted to his current position as field manager. In the spring of 1997, Lambeau Field was converted from a native soil field to a sand-based profile topped with SportGrass, a system combining artificial turf and natural grass. It did not work effectively for the team, so, late in 1999, major changes were made and the sand profile was capped with native soil and resodded with locally grown thick-cut sod to make it through the season.
After that, the standard procedure was to resod the entire field in the spring with a bluegrass sod grown on sand. The field was verticut and topdressed to get the canopy as dense as possible before the season. Deep-tine aeration was performed throughout the season to create channels through the soil profile into the underlying sand mix. Johnson says, “The channels helped the internal drainage somewhat, but during heavy rainfall weren’t sufficient, and the field could become waterlogged, creating some safety concerns if it happened during a game.”
Resodding the center of the field also was needed late in the year to get through the regular season, and oftentimes, the playoffs. Finding cool-season turf sod for field repair in December or January was difficult. When Johnson did find a sod farm that could deliver, the height of cut was often too tall. He says, “We’d have to mow it to match our existing turf height and, consequently, most of the leaf blade was removed, leaving only the base of the plants exposed. Aesthetically, it was less than desirable. I decided to take a risk, bringing in bermudagrass, overseeded with perennial ryegrass on a heavy clay soil. We worked with Turfgrass America [now known as King Ranch Turfgrass], the Tennessee-based supplier Terry Porch used for the Titans. The height and turf density were a good match with the sides of the field. The color was a bit off, but a little green dye took care of that. Since we weren’t trying to push growth and we’d be replacing it all in the spring, the turf type didn’t matter. The chances of rain that late in the season were minimal, and snow removal would be the same on any type of turf. It was risky, because if we had received that late-season rainstorm, the middle of the field would have been a muddy mess. We got lucky, and the stability of that sod was incredible.”
The Packers’ stadium has gone through multiple renovations since it opened in September 1957. At that time, it was the first modern stadium built specifically for an NFL franchise. The site was selected because it had a natural slope, ideal for creating the bowl shape, and the design was developed to allow expansion. The two outdoor practice fields, Clarke Hinkle Field and Ray Nitschke Field, and their indoor facility, the Don Hutson Center, are right across the street from Lambeau Field.
With the site essentially landlocked, adding on-site practice field space at that time wasn’t an option. Instead, in the summer of 2004, Johnson focused on rebuilding the native soil practice fields. He says, “Drainage was poor on the main field we used for training camp and the natural turf took a lot of abuse. Once the turf canopy started to decline, the exposed clay soil would bake in the hot sun and become hard like concrete. That was putting a lot of undue stress on some of our veteran players’ bodies. Our organization supported my research, and the open sharing of other sports field managers provided insight into the pros and cons of multiple options. I traveled with the team when we played Philadelphia late in the season to observe their DD GrassMaster system. I was impressed with how well it played and many of the players gave it positive reviews as well. That was a significant selling point for me and our organization.”
Clarke Hinkle Field was rebuilt as a sand-based, DD GrassMaster system. It covers 154,000 square feet, with 180-yard length, almost double a standard field, and enough width to shift side to side 15 feet. The smaller plot of land on the far side of the indoor facility was developed as Ray Nitschke Field, a FieldTurf system. FieldTurf is also the surface for the indoor facility. Initially, the team used Clarke Hinkle Field for training camp and moved the majority of their in-season practices to the two synthetic surfaces.
In January 2005, Ted Thompson was named general manager, and Mike McCarthy became head coach in January 2006. Johnson says, “They saw the difference in playability and safety between the GrassMaster practice field and Lambeau Field and supported the push to replicate the GrassMaster installation. Work began on Lambeau in 2007, immediately following the 2006 season.”
The existing field materials were removed, including the heat system. The clay subgrade was compacted and laser-leveled with a .6 percent slope. “The sod for each of the sand-based fields we’ve constructed has come from Tuckahoe Turf Farms out of Hammonton, New Jersey,” notes Johnson. “Their native sand is a great match with our rootzone, and they’ve done a fabulous job of delivering us a young, thatch-free product. The GrassMaster system performs best when the cleats can penetrate the turf canopy and bite into the sand surface that is stabilized by the fibers.”
The GrassMaster fibers are stitched every .75 inch. They extend about 7 inches into the soil profile with about 1 inch above the surface. There are approximately 20 million individual stitches on Lambeau Field. “Coach McCarthy liked the natural GrassMaster system so much he extended the use of Clarke Hinkle Field well into the regular season. That left us with no recuperation time after training camp and was cutting into our opportunity to maintain the field to the level we desired,” says Johnson. “With his support, I was able to present the case to our teams’ officials and administration that led to securing more land adjacent to Ray Nitschke Field. Buying into our recommendation for consistency throughout our fields, the decision was made to convert the outdoor FieldTurf into another sand-based GrassMaster field.
Johnson and crew tackled a procedure for the first time in spring 2009, following recommendations for long-term maintenance of the DD GrassMaster systems. “We milled off the surface of Lambeau Field using the Koro TopMaker,” notes Johnson. “Then, we slit-seeded with a blend of bluegrasses. We used a combination of the heat system and evergreen covers for the first three weeks to get growth started. Then we shut off the heat, manipulating temperatures with only the covers for two more weeks. That gave the bluegrass a five-week head start before we broadcast perennial ryegrass seed. We ran a spiker/seeder over the surface to push the rye in for better seed to soil contact. We’re still in the learning curve with the GrassMaster system, but I was pleased with where we were in early July. With another month left before the season begins, I think we will be in great shape.”
Johnson starts the season overseeding heavily with rye, hitting the wear areas especially hard, broadcasting the seed and letting the players cleat it in; he stops overseeding by the end of October, anticipating no more growth.
With the tarp on the surface and the heat on during a cold night, moisture is drawn toward the surface collecting on the backside of the tarp, which can result in a wet, slimy coating on the underside, or, if there’s not enough sun to warm the tarp, varying degrees of frost or ice. Johnson has found that with temperatures of 25 degrees or higher, frost and ice won’t form, but at 25 degrees or lower, it will. He says, “We resolve that issue with a tip I picked up from the Chicago Bears, using torpedo heaters to blow air under the tarp. We anchor the tarp edges at intervals by parking vehicles on it. We then move the torpedo heaters that are usually used along the sidelines for player comfort to the tarp edges. We’re not trying to get heat from them, just trying to create enough air flow to keep the moisture from settling and freezing. If we get snow, it will insulate the tarp enough to keep the moisture from turning to frost or ice, so we only use the all-night vigil with the heaters when the temperatures are low and no snow is expected.”
Johnson says, “There are so many aspects of this profession we can’t control. My staff and I are committed to continually learning, applying everything we know to our field management program, and trying to make the best decisions possible for safety and playability.”