When he was a kid, Ken Mrock would ride his bike from his home on the west side of Chicago to Cubs games at Wrigley Field. As a native Chicagoan, Mrock says he’d always been a sports fan, but he never imagined that when he grew up he would be the head groundskeeper for the Chicago Bears.
“As a child, I wanted to be a fireman or policeman, but my mom would have no part of it,” says Mrock, now 64, laughing at the memory. “My dad was fine with it, but as you all know, Mom won!”
At the age of 14 Mrock became a caddie at Ridgemoor Country Club in Harwood Heights, Ill. After a summer working there, he realized working in sports was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He asked the club’s superintendent how he could get a job on the course. The response: “Kid, see me when you’re 16.”
“The rest,” Mrock says, “is history. I never left the industry.”
In fact, he continued to work at Ridgemoor for about a decade, eventually becoming a groundskeeper there. He then moved on to work as a golf course laborer, greenskeeper and superintendent of golf courses for the Chicago Park District (CPD).
It was 1985 when Mrock first made contact with the Bears. That winter, Mrock and the 80 members of his CPD crew were asked to assist in the snow removal and clean up of Soldier Field, home of the Bears. During the process, Mrock met Tim LeFevour, general manager at Soldier Field; Bill McGrane, the director of administration for the Bears; and George Toma, the groundskeeper who was in charge of preparing the field for the Super Bowl.
Shortly after the Bears won the Super Bowl, LeFevour reached out to Mrock and offered him a position as a consultant to the Bears. After two part-time seasons of meetings with park and civic groups and working on payroll, he decided to take a step back from the administrative side of the business and return to groundskeeping, which was “the best decision I ever made,” he says.
Today, as the Bears’ full time head groundskeeper, Mrock spends his days “mowing, fertilizing and the daily joys of being a groundskeeper.” These “daily joys” tend to vary.
“A typical day in my life is not typical,” Mrock says.
He wakes up around 4:30 a.m., checks the weather and heads to work to face each day’s new challenges, with the weather being one of the biggest he faces. But, Mrock says, “that’s when the reward comes, when you are able to present a safe, playable field under all weather conditions.”
This reward does not come in the form of a pat on the back, but, as Mrock puts it, through “the sense of accomplishment when the playing surface performs the way you have envisioned it.”
He considers the colleagues who became his friends over the course of his career to be another of the job’s biggest rewards.
“I would be remiss not to mention my long-time assistant and confidant, John Berta,” he says. “He worked on one of my golf courses (with the CPD), and when I got the job with the Bears, I was able to hire an assistant. It was John, and I am very thankful for all his loyal years to the Bears and (to me). Without him, my career here would not have been the same.”
Looking back on his years in the industry, one of his favorite memories was attending the 2006 Super Bowl, a match-up between the Bears and the Indianapolis Colts. Even though the Bears lost, Mrock says, “just all the hoopla and being right in the middle of it on the sideline through the whole game; the people-watching was priceless.”
His time as a groundskeeper has also provided him with opportunities to meet many NFL greats, such as John Madden and Mike Ditka. Ditka, Mrock says, “was very generous to all, and you always knew you would get the truth (with him). Just a man’s man!”
He will always remember the day Ditka was fired from his position as the Bears’ coach.
“We were in (Ditka’s) office having a going-away party with the other coaches who were let go, and there was a large crowd outside chanting for him to come to the window,” Mrock recalls. “I persuaded him to acknowledge the couple hundred people who were sad to see him let go. He said ‘yes,’ and the picture of him in the papers and on the news casts that night will always be remembered.”
While Mrock spends a lot of his time working, when he’s not on the field, he likes to watch and play sports, as well as spend time with his family, including his wife Carol; his three kids, Jennifer, Timothy and Kristina; and his three grandchildren, Megan, Vivian and Quincey. Mrock says he grew up believing that family comes first, and has carried that belief into adulthood.
Even though it seems simple, he says his favorite part of the day is catching up over dinner with his wife.
“In this day and age, everything is super fast-paced,” he says. “We all need to find time to slow it down a bit.”
Mrock’s 30 years in the business have given him a lot of insight into the business, and he has advice for anyone who may want to follow in his footsteps.
“Be honest. Be a good listener. Be a good communicator; sometimes you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear,” he says. “But you have to be upfront on all aspects. Be professional. Look professional. And most of all, be humble.”