The article on “Turf for Every Region” in last month’s issue got me thinking about how much progress we’ve made. Back in the 1950s, I remember searching pasture fields in Missouri, Iowa and Ohio to find sod that would work on sports fields. I first met the Briggs family on their farm near Kansas City in 1957 during one of those trips. They sold pasture sod since there were no sod farms in the area then. Today they have two large sod farms there.
In the ’50s, the sod was cut by a tractor with an 18-inch-wide steel wheel with sharp angle irons 6 feet apart. A sled, equipped with a sharp blade, was pulled behind the tractor. One man rode on the sled. The cut sod was rolled up by hand. Today, there are many automated sod cutting and sod laying machines. My favorite sod laying machine for thick-cut sod was one West Coast Turf had. It used a John Deere tractor equipped with high-flotation tires, and it had a moveable side bar, so there was no driving on the sod. We sodded numerous playoff and Super Bowl fields using that tractor. Now, with thick-cut sod, we use the Woerner sod layer. We place 4-by-8-foot sections of plywood over the sod for both the sod layer and the sod pulling machine to run on. Usually we’ll have two laying and two pulling machines going at once. The big-roll sod is one of the greatest improvements around.
I remember the first time we used thick-cut sod for an in-season sodding at Soldier Field. In those days it was a no-no to use sod with native soil on top of a sand-based field, but it had to be done. The sod was purchased from Huber Ranch Sod Nursery in Indiana. It was cut in sections 18 inches wide by 42 inches long with 2 inches of soil. Working with the all-star crew of Stadium Manager Jim Duggan, Ken Mrock and John Nolan, along with Huber’s sod crew, we put it in slab by slab.
In the early 1980s, we used the same type of cut to harvest kikuyugrass sod from Kezar Stadium for Candlestick Park when the sod farm refused to thick-cut their A-34 bluegrass. Barney Barron and Jim Lucy of the San Francisco parks and recreation department teamed with groundskeeper John Wurm to do a perfect job of getting it cut and slabbed in. We used the city’s old walk-behind Ryan aerator. At that time, solid tines were never used, so we filled the corer holes with wooden dowels to spike the newly laid sod and filled the holes with calcined clay. It did the job, and two championship games were played on it.
A few years later, when the Candlestick Park field needed to be resodded down the center for a championship game, big-roll sod came to the rescue. We called Jeff Cole and Barry Mohon of West Coast Turf, and they brought in some great looking overseeded bermuda. That sod was laid in the pouring rain. We even had some pumps running to remove the standing water. I can still see my good friend, the late Barry Mohon, working on that field in his duck hunting rain gear. Even with all that, there were only a couple golf-ball-sized divots after the game.
This past year I received some heat from sod growers in Minnesota when I recommended that the sod for the new Minnesota Twins Target Field come from Graff’s Turf Farms in Colorado, for it was the best bluegrass sod that I have seen. It is used in numerous major league fields, plus the football field at Notre Dame. I did not see any sod equal to the Colorado sod in Minnesota.
A few years ago, while working with the Minnesota Vikings at their training facility, one field was rundown. Dale Wysocki and Grant Davisson went out looking for sod. Samples were brought in from many states. The only one that came close to what we all thought was the best was from Graff’s. We saw some sod in Minnesota that I would say was fine, but it would have needed some doctoring to improve it. You have to be prepared to get the best product to do the best job. I am in no way against any Minnesota sod, but in both of these cases, at the time, Graff’s sod was the best.
I was shocked to read this past April that London’s Wembley Stadium is again having sod problems so bad that the soccer players are saying that the playing field is dangerous. Following the Football Association Challenge Cup semifinals in mid-April, the field was again being resodded. According to that report, stadium officials had previously resodded the field 10 times in the three years following the reopening of the revamped stadium in March 2007.
With all the knowledge we have today, here and overseas, and all the great products, equipment and technology available to us, I sincerely believe that there should not be any bad playing fields.
We all must prepare ourselves to get the job done right. Working with Dale Wysocki and the young Grant Davisson, one of the finest turf managers out there today, they were prepared to give the Vikings the best sod at the best price. We all can take a quote from the great Vince Lombardi. Vince once said, “Everyone here has the will to win, but very few have the will to prepare to win.” That is what Dale and Grant did. They had the will to prepare to make sure their field would be a winner. That’s what we all need to do.
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.