The Sports Turf Managers Association spoke to some of the best NFL field managers and groundskeepers in the business at its roundtable event.
Participants include Darian Daily, head groundskeeper, Cincinnati Bengals; Allen Johnson, CSFM, fields manager, Green Bay Packers and Lambeau Field, president of the STMA; Tony Leonard, director of grounds, Philadelphia Eagles; John Nolan, head groundskeeper, Chicago Bears; and Tom Vaughan, head groundskeeper, Carolina Panthers.
Below is the Q&A.
What is something unique about your field that most NFL fans would not know?
DAILY: What’s unique about Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati is the game field, even though it’s synthetic, has an underground heating system. It was originally installed when the stadium opened as a natural grass field.
JOHNSON: Lambeau Field’s nickname, “The Frozen Tundra,” is actually a myth.
It is commonly reported that the heat system failed during the “Ice Bowl” causing the field to freeze; however, the heat system did not fail in a mechanical way. Instead, moisture accumulated under the tarp near the surface and it couldn’t produce enough heat to overcome that moisture freezing once it was exposed to the extreme cold.
It wasn’t frozen solid during the entire game, but did get worse as the game wore on.
LEONARD: We kick off the season with a bermudagrass field and in late November we switch to Kentucky bluegrass. This provides our players with the best of both grasses when it matters most.
NOLAN: We are adjacent to Lake Michigan and essentially have a micro-climate here. The lake’s effect will sometimes keep it cooler in the spring and summer and warmer in the fall and winter.
Also, we receive lake-effect rain and snow sometimes, and it is always damp here, which makes it difficult to dry out the field.
VAUGHAN: Something most NFL fans might not know is that outside of Panthers games, our stadium hosts college football and high-profile soccer matches as well.
How many hours do you spend a week preparing and painting the surface prior to a home game?
DAILY: All of our game field markings are inlaid, which saves us time preparing the field. Depending on events leading up to Bengal games we average 30 hours per week prepping and cleaning the field for competition.
JOHNSON: It takes a crew of four people approximately eight to 10 hours to paint the entire field. We do it slightly faster in the winter.
LEONARD: We will spend up to 60 to 70 hours, including the game itself. However, this is just a normal game week. If we have to tarp or remove snow, it will increase.
NOLAN: We are always looking ahead of the schedule to prepare the field. With the weather always a factor in Chicago, it is an integral part of our preparation.
It takes about one-and-a-half to two days to paint the field. We tackle all of the lines, numbers and hash marks first then paint the logos.
VAUGHAN: Our crew spends about 60 hours per week on average.
Can you provide a brief overview of your daily routine?
DAILY: Our daily routine starts with a staff meeting each morning to delegate job responsibilities.
Then, our turf staff heads out to prepare for practice at the natural grass fields and the horticulture crew goes out to maintain the eight acres of landscaping we sustain around the facility.
After, I go to my office to manage team finances, order supplies, develop PO’s and attend an array of meetings.
In the afternoon, the turf staff usually moves into the stadium to maintain the game field or help the horticulture team. This is important because I have the opportunity to watch how the practice fields are performing during Bengals’ practice and talk with coaches, players and ownership regarding any field challenges.
JOHNSON: Each day is different depending on the time of year and how our agenda looks, which is one of the things I love about my job.
In the spring, we work hard to plant seed in the ground to begin growing the fields back into shape for the season in the fall.
Once the team is on site, practicing or playing a home game, normal maintenance practices take place according to what their schedule allows and what the weather dictates.
Many of our practices are similar, but when and how we accomplish it may change.
LEONARD: Between 6:30 and 7 a.m. I arrive at the stadium. After arriving I check the weather, check in with my staff at NovaCare Training Facility and walk the stadium field.
From there, I will go to NovaCare, check the fields and talk more with the crew.
My routine often varies depending on meetings or appointments (it changes daily).
Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend as much time on a mower as I would like, but when I do, I realize how much I love this profession and job.
NOLAN: We walk the field once we arrive, check the weather and then decide what our course of action is. To reiterate, the weather is always a factor.
When it is warm we will probably decide whether to mow, fertilize, etc. However, when we are close to the games we might have to cover the field with tarps, per NFL rules.
As we get further into the season and the weather is colder, we might be looking at snow removal, turning our field heating on, switching the regular benches to the heated ones, tarping more often, resodding and so on.
VAUGHAN: We mow the field daily and fertilize and perform cultural practices as needed.
We work with practices when the team is in season. On game weeks, we usually start painting the field on Friday.
What is the best compliment you have received from a player or coach about the field?
DAILY: My best compliment actually came from Mr. Mike Brown, owner of the Bengals.
Mr. Brown complimented our team on the practice fields last year after we fraze mowed the fields for the first time. He had told others that he thought I was making a mistake by fraze mowing. He had never seen it before. When training camp opened in 2014 Mr. Brown approached me and said, “The fields look good. I don’t give many compliments, so you know how impressed I am.” That was the first time he had ever complimented our staff on the field conditions in the 12 years I had been at the stadium.
JOHNSON: I can’t recall one in particular, but our coach has routinely said positive comments about our playing surfaces in the media, so knowing that the head coach is happy is always a sigh of relief.
LEONARD: We have had a few folks come to the stadium and ask if it was real grass before they walked on it.
Anytime a coach or player comments publicly praising the field and staff, that is pretty cool. We’ve had that happen in the past which is a compliment for everyone to hear.
NOLAN: The best news is no news. We have had our share of compliments and always hope that the field is not an issue.
VAUGHAN: If a player, coach or equipment manager says the field “played well,” that’s the greatest compliment you can hope for in football.
What is your biggest challenge in managing a natural grass football field in the NFL?
DAILY: Our biggest challenge is maintaining a safe and playable surface in December in Cincinnati.
Practice fields don’t have in-ground heat and bermudagrass stops growing in October, to name a few obstacles we encounter.
JOHNSON: In general, I would have to say for most NFL fields the sheer amount of wear-and-tear that takes place in between the hash marks is an uphill battle. In Green Bay the short growing season is also difficult to combat.
LEONARD: The weather and expectation levels.
Throughout the fall, we are always anticipating changing weather patterns.
With both Temple University and Eagles’ games being played at Lincoln Financial Field, there will always be rainy games at some point during the year.
All you can hope for is that they don’t occur during consecutive games in the same weekend.
The expectation level is that the field is nearly perfect every game.
Our entire staff here works tirelessly every fall and winter at both facilities to make sure they are safe, playable and look pristine.
NOLAN: The weather in Chicago can be 95 degrees in August and below zero in January. We have to be ready for just about anything.
The heavy schedule of events is also a challenge at times.
VAUGHAN: The colder months at the end of the season present a challenge. We usually have a busy schedule in December as well.
Note: All five NFL groundskeepers interviewed above are members of the STMA. This Q&A was provided by a news release from an STMA representative.