For the first Super Bowl in 1967, legendary groundskeeper George Toma and a four-man crew started a week before the big game, using mowers and paint in garden sprayers to prepare the grass gridiron for sports history at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
For this year’s Super Bowl at the Superdome in New Orleans, Toma is on the job again—this time among some 30 turf specialists using tractor-pulled groomers, spring-tined rakes and airless paint sprayers to prep football’s grandest stage for the Feb. 3 spectacle. The crew of all-star groundskeepers arrived a month before the game with two tractor-trailer trucks packed with equipment.
Super Bowl XLVII will be played on lower-maintenance artificial turf instead of natural grass. Still, the task of prepping the grounds—from the playing field to practice fields to numerous venues for special events—is a gargantuan undertaking for the team of groundskeepers assembled in New Orleans.
“Our job is to give the players good conditions to play on and the best field for TV,” says Toma, now 83. “It’s the biggest game in the world, so we have to have the grounds crew for the biggest game in the world.”
As the best in their field, the crew must work with any surface and respond to any challenge—whether weather-related or a halftime show snafu that damages the turf and puts the safety of players at risk.
“There’s no higher honor really,” says Heather Nabozny, 42, working her 10th Super Bowl and one of three women on this year’s crew.
“It’s so grandiose. It’s such a huge event. We spend weeks getting ready for it, and then the game is played and 2½ to 3 hours later it’s done,” says Nabozny, also head groundskeeper for the Detroit Tigers baseball team.
Nicknamed the “god of sod,” Toma has helped prepare every Super Bowl field—47 in all—even after retiring in 1999 as chief groundskeeper of the Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs.
He created and painted the field logo for the first world title game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chiefs, champions of the then-separate National Football League and American Football League, respectively. “I made a logo with a football with a crown on it, and we had AFL and NFL on the football,” recalls Toma, who was aided by a friend who worked for a sign company.
Today, the crew uses airless sprayers to paint logos and gridiron lines; mechanized brushes to fluff the 2-inch-long artificial fibers that are cushioned with crumbles of sand and rubber; and industrial machines equipped with combs, magnets and ultraviolet rays to clean the Superdome turf.
“You’re looking at a surface that’s reused by everybody and [with] everything from sweat to blood to bacteria to staph infections,” says NFL field director Ed Mangan, 53, who has supervised the task since 2000.
The goal is to develop the “perfect surface” to allow players to turn safely on a dime but also withstand the wear and tear of elaborate pre-game, halftime and post-game shows, says Mangan, whose full-time job is grounds chief for baseball’s Atlanta Braves.
During final preparations, groundskeepers literally drop to their hands and knees to check every inch and hand brush the field to protect the logos from heavy equipment.
When the game is played on natural grass, the preparation is even more challenging. “We go into each facility and pull up the field and completely re-sod it,” says Mangan, noting that the sod is seeded at least a year in advance in southern Alabama. “The field’s got to be ready to play almost instantaneously when you put it down.”
As the game has grown in popularity, so has the surrounding spectacle, including halftime concerts that are a far cry from the college marching bands that performed during the Super Bowl’s first decade.
During the week before Super Sunday, the grounds crew works around 50 hours of rehearsals by everyone from referees to camera crews to concert headliners, plus 2,000 reporters and photographers who descend on the field for media day.
“They do rehearsals from the coin toss to the introduction of players, pre-game, the post-game, the trophy, so there’s thousands of people coming on and off the field throughout the week,” says Matt Balough, 49, the San Diego Padres’ assistant groundskeeper working his 15th Super Bowl.
With so much traffic on the turf, mishaps are inevitable. During rehearsals for a patriotic Disney-themed halftime show in 1991 in Tampa, Fla., a mammoth indentation was created in the midfield grass by a stage left too long on the gridiron the day before the game.
“It turned the (NFL) shield into what looked like an iron-on patch,” Mangan recalls. “It was depressed in the field probably half an inch.”
The crew removed sod 3 inches deep from the damaged area and transplanted 1,000 square-foot sections borrowed from the University of Tampa soccer field and transported in personal vehicles. Super Bowl’s playing canvass was restored by 2 a.m. Sunday.
“We had to repaint the shield and make it look seamless like it never happened game morning,” Mangan says.
For field specialists, player safety is primary, especially amid growing concerns about sports-related concussions. “I don’t watch the game; I watch the cleats to see how the footing is,” Toma says.
Aesthetics is second in importance: to present a pristine field of beauty for fans in the stands and watching on television.
“It’s going to be seen by millions of people so you want it to look the best,” Balough says.
For anyone who appreciates the importance of a great gridiron, groundskeepers are respected partners in the game.
For years, Toma received a handwritten note from Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt complimenting each Super Bowl field. And after Dallas defeated Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX in 1996 in Tempe, Ariz., Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith “tore out a piece of grass and had me autograph it,” Toma recalls.
Bill McConnell, 46, NFL director of event operations, lists groundskeepers among the game’s “unsung heroes.”
“What they have to do in preparing not only the Super Bowl field but the practice fields and having to adjust to any given situation that comes their way, they’re the best in the world,” McConnell says.