George Toma

The Super Bowl XXX in January 1996 in Phoenix was a nightmare. We had completely sodded Sun Devil Stadium with sod coming from West Coast Turf. We had it immaculate. Then, one man was not thinking, and it caused a major problem.

Sun Devil Stadium had been renovated with new drainage, a new rootzone and hot water heat under the field supplied by the college steam plant. When this was done, a sod contractor maintained the field. Alan Sigwardt worked for the contractor and did a great job, but someone was not thinking, and they set the heat up so high that it fried the field.

The college then took over the field. They had a new, young groundskeeper with little experience, but he learned fast with the help of Dr. James R. Watson.

I have a rule, when we go to spray anything, I always have three people look at the spray tank so we’ll have no mistakes. I always had Ed Mangan of the Atlanta Braves; my son, Chip Toma, and Trevor Vance of the Kansas City Royals do the checking to make sure everything was right on the money. We met in the morning and laid out the schedule for that late afternoon.

We decided we were going to spray PBI Gordon’s Bovamura and water it in. I was at Scottsdale Community College working on the Steelers practice field, and Ed was at the Cardinals’ practice field working on the Cowboys’ practice field. I came back to the stadium and saw Don Follet spraying the field. I asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m getting the field ready for March.” I said, “Forget about March now, we have a game here in two weeks.”

Don, being young and new to the position, did not realize what he had done. Floratine had given him a six-month supply of various products to be used. As the story goes, he had put the full six-month supply in the tank. Don sprayed, not telling me, Chip, Ed or Trevor what he sprayed until a few days later. The day after he sprayed—you guessed it—the playing field was dead. Wherever he stopped and then started to spray, those areas were completely killed, even the bermudagrass and the overseeded rye. Don learned from that incident that one has to have that sprayer in motion before they turn the sprayer on.

If Don would have told us what had happened right away, instead of two days later, perhaps we could have flushed the chemicals off the grass and into the soil beyond the rootzone. I did joke that I believed if there was a tree around, the crew would have hung Don. It took our crew hours of work, pre-germinating and applying ryegrass, plus many, many gallons of Green Lawnger to have a beautiful, safe playing field, but we got the job done.

What would you have done to Don in this situation? Fire him on the spot? For me, the answer is “no way.” He was still wet behind the ears and had a little lapse of honesty and integrity, but I saw something in Don—he had some of me in him. He learned a big lesson. He is currently director of fields and grounds for the Baltimore Ravens.

George Toma is an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, founder of the Sports Turf Managers Association and mentor to hundreds of sports field managers over his 66 years in the profession.