Below the Cleats – Tales from a Sports Field Life: Playoffs?!
Tips From The Pros
Ross Kurcab is a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) and a professional sports field consultant with 30 years’ experience as a head turf manager in professional football. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Turfgrass Management program and now operates and owns Championship Sports Turf Systems.
Below the Cleats – Tales from a Sports Field Life: Playoffs?!
For the sports field manager, a post-season playoff run by your team is so much fun! In baseball, groundskeepers may call August “the dog days of summer” just like the players, but no one calls it the dog days of October. You get a fresh batch of professional energy, a second wind.
I was incredibly fortunate. In 30 years working for Mr B, I was part of 32 playoff games, including 6 Super Bowls and only 5 losing seasons. Some amazing groundskeepers excel at their jobs for years but don’t get nearly as many opportunities to display their talents in the playoffs to a national TV audience in the 10’s of millions. In the NFL, some of the very best sports field management is done at training facilities and almost no one sees it, and it’s the same at many universities.
1986: Bagging Dog Bones
After a home divisional round win, the Broncos were headed to Cleveland to play the Browns in the AFC Championship Game known for the story of the day, The Drive. Game-week Friday at our training facility saw a huge shipment of Milk-Bone dog treats arrive after practice. It seems a local radio station in Cleveland arranged for Dawg Pound fans to donate them in a promotional stunt. I remember staying after practice, putting in some OT with the equipment managers bagging up these things so we could give them out to players before the Saturday walk-through. It was my second season with the club, second playoff season, and a good introduction into playoff fun.
Fun facts: Back then, it was common in conference championship games to paint one end zone in home team décor and the other for the visiting team. See for yourself at the end of “The Drive”. You’ll never see that again, only in Super Bowls.
“So when the radio call came in that the Patriots equipment manager wanted to see me on the field because he felt the surface was too hard, I grabbed a 10-inch long (25 cm) fat Philips screwdriver and headed out to meet him.”
What followed that year was a series of great team victories and some crushing defeats, and great stories too numerous to tell. One playoff week in 2005 would be a good example of what your team’s sports field managers may be going through during the playoffs.
January 2006. One week of playoff fun.
Lead by quarterback Jake “The Snake” Plummer, the Broncos finished the 2005 regular season with an impressive 8-0 home record and a 13-3 regular season record overall but were only the second seed in the AFC. The Peyton Manning lead Indianapolis Colts were the 1 seed with a 14-2 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
On a Saturday evening divisional round, we hosted the great Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots and handed the famed tandem their first playoff loss ever together, 27-13. It was a sweet victory in many ways and for me, I never liked when the Patriots came in town other than they never did very well in Denver. Sorry Patriot fans, but by now you realize we are all just jealous of your incredible success.
I didn’t like Patriot week home games because I knew they would try to find something to complain about with the field. It would usually just be something minor like complaining about some set up on their team bench area. There is a rule in the NFL that team bench areas must be equally equipped for both clubs. So for example if we supplied the Broncos with any sideline heaters or coolers, we must make the exact same equipment available to the visiting club. During colder games we would often bring out supplemental heaters during the game if the club requested or at halftime for a colder second half under the lights. I’d always ask the visiting club representative on the bench if they wanted any extra heaters. The Patriots would sometimes decline any extra heaters offered and then 5 minutes later back in my office I hear on my radio they are complaining about team bench equity so we hurried to bring them out the same heaters they just declined. We saw it for the gamesmanship it was and just did our best to accommodate within reason. I always wondered if these tactics ever actually worked on other groundskeepers that hosted them.
For the 2005 divisional game, their ploy was to complain about the field being too hard the night before the game when the equipment staff came to the stadium to set up. So when the radio call came in that the Patriots equipment manager wanted to see me on the field because he felt the surface was too hard, I grabbed a 10-ich long (25 cm) fat Philips screwdriver and headed out to meet him. As he babbled something about the field being too hard and his players cleats couldn’t penetrate the surface and provide traction, I leaned over and sunk the entire screwdriver into the turf without much effort. “It’s firm, like the players prefer, not hard. You get 90 minutes tomorrow pregame to choose your best footwear. You got a problem, take it to the league. Good luck tomorrow.” I walked back inside marveling at that orange and blue Colorado sunset and the nice January weather we had for the weekend.
After the big win against the Patriots we were cleaning up the beat-up grass field, gently raking-out the middle third and vacuuming the rest of the playing surface with our large, tractor-pulled field sweeper/vacuum. Before you can really do anything to a grass field post-game in football, you have to get the divots, grass blades and other organic debris and trash off the field. I had a small conundrum before I released the turf team out to the city’s celebration. Should I schedule anyone for tomorrow Sunday? I mean, if the heavily favored Colts beat the Steelers tomorrow afternoon, the Broncos would travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts next week for the AFC Championship and our home stadium season was done. We needed a day off, heck we needed several weeks off like everyone else on the stadium staff so I told the turf team to sleep in and take a rest day but keep your phone handy. If the Steelers pull an upset, we’ll have to hump it in and get a field recovery and repair work in, give it a drink and put the Evergreen radiant turf covers on before it gets too dark and cold. You don’t want to work a field with a canopy frost going, you can really damage the grass.
Sunday morning I hobbled to my easy-chair and kicked on the TV. I figured if the Colts, who were 8 point favorites, were winning handily by halftime I would not bother to go in to the stadium and enjoy some rest after a long season’s grind. I’d decide at halftime.
The underdog Steelers went up 14-3 at halftime so I headed in to just vacuum the field, the first step in the renovation, should we need it. We already did the hand-raking after last night’s game. This way, should the Steelers go on to win, I would still have time to get the crew in, get several treatments done and button it up for the cold night with our radiant cover. Virtually alone in a giant stadium, I slowly ran the big field vacuum over the field, back and forth listening to the Colts-Steelers game on my Walkman.
End of the 3rd quarter now and Pittsburgh is up 21-3, I sent out the first group text message to my turf team. “Come on in, looks like we will host the AFC Championship this week!” No sooner had I sent that text than Peyton Manning brought the Colts back to within 3 with 4 minutes to go. New group text went out. “Standby, maybe no home game next week now.” Watching on TV in my office with 1:27 left in the game the Steelers sacked Manning on his own 2 yard line on a desperate 4th and 16 attempt. Steelers ball at the Colts 2 yard line and a 3 point lead.
“With our soil heat holding temps around 50F (10 C) and the dark side of the tarp facing up to catch all the suns heat, we would “boil” that inch of snow off the grass in no time and no one would be the wiser. My devious plan was in place.”
My third group text in the last 30 minutes called the crew back in again. “No way could the Colts win now.” Sure enough, just then Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, the Steelers Hall of Fame running back, fumbled before reaching the end zone, and a Colt defender was now somehow running down the field with the ball on his way to a gift of a winning playoff touchdown! I thought “I made a mistake, no game next week and I’ve called in 8 people for nothing.” Wait! ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger, the Steelers great QB somehow stuck his hand out and managed to trip the Colt defender on his way to the end zone and winning TD. I thought “Thanks Ben, see you next week”. I let it go and brought the turf team in either way. “We can always clean the shop if there is no field to begin preparing.”
With an improbable and desperate move, the lumbering QB had saved the Steelers playoff run. They would ultimately go on to beat the Broncos, then the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in Detroit. For us at the stadium, it meant another long but fun week preparing to host another huge game. Winner goes to the Super Bowl.
The weather was good that week preparing to host the AFC Championship and a TV audience of some 25 million. Well, other than an inch of snow early Friday morning that threw a little wrench in our machine.
The quick-hitting snowstorm was forecasted to hit Denver on Friday mid-late afternoon. An inch at most was expected. We had stayed late Thursday, painting logos under the lights to let the paint dry overnight. Then we would cover the field with a tarp before the snow started flying Friday afternoon as forecasted. From there, the forecast was for dry, sunny and warm weather through Sunday’s game. Piece of cake!
For both conference championship games, the NFL runs the show and they had league officials scheduled to arrive at our stadium 9:30 am Friday morning. Perfect! We’d show them the fully prepared and painted game field, then button it up with our rain/snow field covers per league rules.
To anyone preparing a sports field with a lot on the line, from school yards to the pros will come to view their rain/snow field cover as their greatest sleep aid. You know you have a warm, dry surface under a strong waterproof cover. You sleep well when it’s on your field. But you can’t cover the field every night and we wanted to make sure we got the field paint fully dry before we covered.
There are so many benefits in covering a sports field, but two that no one ever talks about. A covered field keeps unnecessary wear and tear like practices off the game field and it’s a great way to temporarily hide mistakes.
Thursday night of the 2006 AFC Championship week, my turfie senses were firing. Something didn’t quite sit right as I went to bed. It was another sports field manager night of slumber, one eye open. “Let it go, we are prepared!” I mumbled as I tossed and turned. Finally, at 5 am I got up. Rubbing my tired eyes as I approached my coffee maker I happen to notice it was snowing outside, snowing hard too! I tried to shake the sleep out of my head. “Am I still dreaming?” To heck with making coffee, get on the computer and figure out what is going on! You’ve got an AFC Conference Championship field, uncovered and blatantly breaking NFL rules, and they will be there at 9:30 am to see it all!”
With my computer booted up, I quickly realized the forecast was on track for just one quick inch of snow, but the storm had fooled the forecasters and came into Denver about 8-10 hours early. By the end of my first radar loop, I knew it was a typical quick-hitting snow band plowing through the Denver metro from north to south. I could easily tell it would end in 30 minutes or less over the stadium downtown. Now I was relieved about Sunday’s playing surface, our ultimate deliverable. An inch (2.54 cm) of snow this time of year in Denver is so dry it might equate to .05 inch (1.2 mm) of rain equivalent. We would likely spot water the field with hoses that much anyway on Saturday to get it into the game just slightly on the dry side.
Getting your soil moisture just right for an NFL game where footing is everything is like playing craps in Las Vegas with your mortgage money. But I knew with the stable forecast in high confidence from here on through the game, we had pretty good odds of hitting that Goldilocks zone of soil moisture, just right.
It was that 9:30 am meeting with the league officials I was worried about now. I didn’t want a decision of mine to potentially cost the club a large fine for a field covering rules violation, even if none of this would even matter on Sunday. It’s happened before but never to us. I had the crew call set for 9 am but figured I could get them in at 8 am, no problem. By now, they were all very used to constantly changing plans. My assistants and I used to laugh “We don’t make plans, we just generate new if/then scenarios!” We would roll the field cover out and button it up over the top of the 1-inch coating of fluffy, dry snow. With our soil heat system holding temps around 50F (10 C) and the dark side of the tarp facing up to catch all the suns heat, we would “boil” that inch of snow off the grass in no time and no one would be the wiser. My devious plan was in place.
Just as my adrenalin dropped a bit my cell phone rang. I had a flip phone back then and because I still had a little white blob of field paint over part of the small screen from yesterday’s field painting, I could not see the last 4 digits of the incoming call. Area code and prefix were same as the stadium offices. You want to be careful about answering your phone to unknown callers during a big game week. So many potential distractions and always ticket requests. “Hi. No, sorry, I have no way of fulfilling your son’s lifelong dream.” Doing that 20 times in a week can get a bit depressing. Better to have them leave a message and respond politely by text.
But this call looked to be from the stadium judging from my partially field-paint obscured screen. Probably from a fellow staff in operations who came in real early just giving me a heads up about nighttime snow. “Hi this is Ross.” I answered. By January’s weariness, the way I said it probably sounded like one word. “Hahsross”. “Hi Ross? This is so-and-so from KOA radio am 850 (Denver’s big flagship). Is the field going to be OK on Sunday with this snowstorm?” My first thought was “Are you serious? This at 5 am? Who gave them my cell number?”
“No problem, it’s only an inch of light-n-fluffy, we got it covered” I answered, realizing too late I should have just directed him to our Media Relations department. “It’ll play like a champion Sunday. Sorry, I gotta roll, I have a ton of calls coming in”. I hung up to start my crew call text thinking “That was an interesting first 5 minutes of my day”.
My hero turf team rallied and drove through icy roads to get in an hour early. By now the snow had stopped and the sun was out, we were in light sweatshirts and even some wearing shorts as we rolled out our field cover over the top of a light coating of snow. It seemed like the 100th time we had done this during the season that started back in August.
By 9 am we had it covered and anchored, storm-ready position an hour after the snow stopped. Walking back to our shop across the field with my relieved turf team, we pulled apart one of the Velcro enclosure seams that hold together our 5-section field tarp and I noticed that most of the snow had already melted. Still, another concern was how our semi-dry field paint would hold under the moisture now trapped by our field cover. We’ve had nighttime soccer-to-football conversion paint lines totally fade away from overnight dew before. A complete waste of effort for the overnight turf team shift. But I wasn’t really worried. We used the very best quality field paint available and it never let us down.
Just as we walked into the tunnel, the NFL officials, along with a few Broncos Stadium officials approached the covered field. None of them knew what had been done in the last hour. “I see you covered last night, when are you guys going to paint?” “Already done, we are game ready. We’ll probably pull the cover off this afternoon.” I said with confidence, completing my con.
The turf team cruised through the rest of the weekend, with the good weather, we could set this field up in our sleep. We’ve done that before too. The field did indeed play like a champion but unfortunately the Broncos didn’t. Pittsburgh won going away 34-17. In these types of losses, even with great fan bases some fans start leaving in the 4th quarter to beat the egress traffic. It’s well known that Steelers fans travel like no others and they had managed to get what seemed like several thousand Terrible-Towel waving fans into our stadium that day.
After the game, a dejected turf team took the field with post-game broom rakes in hand. The victorious Steelers fans were all down along the field wall behind the Steelers bench, chanting “We want the trophy, we want the trophy” in an otherwise mostly empty stadium. In the years leading up to this game, the Conference Championship trophies (The Lamar Hunt Trophy for the AFC and The George Halas trophy for the NFC champions). But out of respect for home team fans, CBS had declared well before the game that from now on, they would do the post-game trophy ceremonies in the winning club locker room if the visiting team wins, and out on the field if the home team wins. We had production plans for each contingency.
Donning my gloves, I started helping clean up the Steelers bench area with some of the turf team while others raked the field one last time for the season and another group cleaned-up the Broncos bench area. I saw a young Pittsburgh fan celebrating next to his father along the field wall. Thinking what a great lifelong memory they had just shared, I walked out to the field and grabbed a small grass divot and brought it over to the young man as a unique souvenir of their day together. The boy was just overjoyed, maybe thinking about how he would show his friends at school the next day he exclaimed “Thank you so much!” I’ll never forget as I turned away back to work how his father actually said something about why would I do that, we are enemies. Never ever interact negatively with any stadium guest. The cardinal rule. Let security handle that stuff. No response needed, I just walked away.
Just then, a stadium announcer came over the P.A. system. “Steelers fans. Your Lamar Hunt Trophy will be out in Lot C with the team, by the team buses in 5 minutes. Please be careful on your way out and thank you for attending today’s game.” The stands cleared in few minutes, an embarrassing situation resolved. “Brilliant” I thought.
For the sports field manager, nothing compares to the playoffs. None of the players are 100% and neither is your field after a long season. All the stresses and joys double. You don’t want it to end and wonder if the field has just another game left in it. As the saying goes, only one team ends the season happy, but there’s always a nice rest period on your plate.