Thinking back to the pioneering days of groundskeeping, in 1972 we opened Arrowhead Stadium with artificial turf. We had no grass practice field, so the Chiefs practiced daily on the turf. Players started to complain of sore legs and backs. Coach Hank Stram told me to find a good grass field, but the schools in the area didn’t have good grass fields.
My good friends, Dean Scholes and Bill Latta, owned Princeton Turf Farms in Parkville, Mo., around 30 minutes away from the stadium. I asked them about using the sod farm to practice on. They said, “No problem, pick out your spot and it’s yours free of charge.” Our crew lined an area for the field, put up one goal post and brought in the sleds and tackling dummies. There was lots of room to use those sleds, acres of turf. The players loved it. They were so happy practicing on grass we had no complaints about the long bus ride.
When it rained at the sod farm it drained great, so we had no problems. Weeks later, heavy rains fell to the north and the Missouri River began to rise. The sod farm was in a floodplain. When it was about time to head there for practice, Bill Latta called to tell us the sod farm was flooded. The water covered the farm and came up to the crossbar on the goal post, 10 feet high. We lost everything except that goal post.
After Hank Stram left, a single grass practice field was built on the complex. The Chiefs’ coach was now Paul Wiggin, a terrific groundskeeper coach. He and I talked about all the use that field was getting, and we came up with the idea of painting the regular field in white lines, and then painting lines across the length of the field in yellow. Now we had three fields on one site: one 100-yard field and two 70-yard fields. Coach Wiggin moved things around, starting practice each day on a new field. It worked out great with no worn out spots on the bluegrass-ryegrass fields. It can be done with good coach-groundskeeper relationships.
Watching a game on TV from Candlestick Park in San Francisco took me back to the days in the early 1980s when I had to go there to help get the field ready for the championship games because of poor playing conditions. Today, that field is excellent, with great footing, great looking green natural turf and outstanding painted logos. It’s the most improved field that I have seen in a long time, again proving that it can be done. A standing ovation goes to the entire grounds crew at Candlestick Park.
This past year I paid a visit to my home area, Wilkes Barre, Pa. I went to the baseball park I first started to work on in 1942, Artillery Park. Now it is the home baseball field for Wilkes College. Beyond the left field fence to deep center was, and still is, a large armory, the 109th Field Artillery. Back in 1942, between the armory and the outfield fence was a horse corral and equipment storage area. In those days, horses pulled the howitzers. Now that area is lined with armored troop carriers and all types of other motorized vehicles.
We’ve made the same tremendous progress in the sports field industry. Today we have the finest equipment and all types of up-to-date products and materials to work with. So, my question, and the one many professional players keep asking me, is, “Why do we have some poor playing fields?” Some players will say that their fields are extremely dangerous; green sand does not do the job for the players like it does for TV. Some players will say their artificial turf infill system always starts out great for the year, after that it is a mess.
Near the end of the football season, Ed Mangan and I were talking about the good fields and the bad fields we’d seen while watching the games on TV. We would see an excellent playing field, supplying the players with excellent footing, then turn the channel and see a green field, looking perfect, but with more and more divots flying as the game was played. In one game, as the TV cameras zoomed in on the field, the TV announcer said, “Well, it looks like a polo field.”
We can keep those kinds of comments from happening if we all do the best job possible. That goes for those designing the fields, natural or artificial. The contractor must do a good job with the installation. Then the management should give the groundskeeper the necessary money to maintain the fields.
When you have a good coach-groundskeeper relationship, usually you will have a good field, but everyone concerned with the playing fields needs to work as a team. If not, the playing field suffers. And, where is the high echelon? Don’t they know that their boss has millions of dollars invested in the players? At times, the blame goes all the way to the owner. Everyone involved should care. As I always say, the cheapest insurance for an athlete is a good, safe playing field.
We’ve come a long way since my pioneer days 68 years ago. I know that we can improve our fields. I’ve seen it done again and again by the people who are dedicated to doing the job, 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 68 years in the profession.