Tips From The Pros
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.
A FROSTY MORNING, AN INJURED KICKER, NOW I’M THE “GRASS GUY”
As part of any organization or team, we have to try to fit into the culture. As newbies we feel like an outsider until there comes a point when we just feel accepted as part of the team. In football, you know you’ve arrived when you get a nickname. It’s part of the culture and as the great Bronco Mark Schlereth, (aka “Stink”) says, you can’t give yourself a nickname. Someone else hits on one the group likes, and that is now who you are.
I love how sports and nicknames go together. It seems every prominent pro sports player has to have a nickname. The only real rule is you can’t give yourself a nickname, it is to be bestowed upon you whether you like it or not. Some sports nicknames are very well known to fans, some are not. Legendary 49er’s QB Joe Montana was “Joe Cool” for his calmness in crazy situations. After a short college period where he was known as Neon Deion, Deion Sanders is known everywhere as “Prime”, short for “Prime Time”, a nickname given to him by his high school buddy after scoring 30 points in a basketball game. One of my favorites is “The Great One”, NHL legend Wayne Gretzky. I imagine him someday surrounded by young grandchildren, unaware of who he is other than “Grandpa”, when one asks him what his nickname was.
Around the Broncos, they called Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater “Lumber”, because he had hands of wood and missed out on so many interceptions because of it. The great Broncos safety/corner Tyrone Braxton was known as “chicken” or just “chick” for short, due to his skinny legs. Karl Mecklenberg, known as “The Snow Goose” for his fair skin and hair and having played college ball in Minnesota. Steve Watson was “Blade”. Everybody loves Alfred Williams, or just “Big Al”. Tight end Duane Carswell was “House”. John Elway was known as “Wood”. It was a play on his last name and Blues Brothers character Elwood Blues from the hit 1980 film.
Much of the team support staff are also known by nicknames. Steve Antonopoulos, the long-time Broncos trainer is affectionately known to us all as “The Greek”. Longtime Broncos equipment manager Chris Valenti is known as “Flip” for his propensity to always wear flip-flops, except during practice and games. I was known as “Grass Guy” on the team. Let me explain.
It was sometime in the mid-90’s that all-pro kicker Jason Elam injured his hamstring or knee or something else, I can’t remember. He was questionable for the next game but did not expect to miss much time. A big question for Broncos fans that week was whether the team would or should bring in a replacement kicker, or could Jason limp through and recover.
As NFL practice field managers, we couldn’t work on the fields during practice obviously. So we would just help where we could, mostly looking out for footballs laying around or anything that could hurt a player. We learned how to be “holders” for the kickers in pre-practice warm-ups so they could practice their timing as well as kicking.
When Elway cut across I just had to open the door, walk out and shout sarcastically out to the field “Hey John, thanks for cutting across the field. We were beginning to wear out the sidewalk!”
John Elway was an amazing all-around athlete and had apparently done some “toe-on” style kicking in high school or peewee or something. He was lobbying to be the kicker that week if Jason Elam couldn’t go. I’m sure that there was no way that coach Shanahan would ever expose his Hall of Fame QB to the injury risk of placekicking, but Elway came out to Wednesday’s “early out” period with the kickers and asked me to hold a few for him. Like many of the greats, Elway’s competitive spirit is legendary. He was hoping Shanahan would see him kicking and actually let him do it this Sunday, if Elam couldn’t go. He was actually very good at it, and I’m sure could have gotten through extra points at least. All I remember thinking is “I really hope he doesn’t pull a hammy or something, I’ll be complicit and feel Shanahan’s wrath.”
That night on his weekly TV show in Denver, they asked John about the possibility of kicking. He lit up and told them how he had done in practice. He told them how he had “Ross, our…um…grass guy was holding for me” and went on to make his case as this week’s replacement kicker should the need arise.
Friendly ribbing skills are necessary to survive in a sports culture. It’s never anything serious like hazing or bullying, but you’ve got to be able to give as well as take some friendly teasing to get any respect. Things like which university you attended was constant fodder. A year earlier, I had a short, tongue-in check debate with John that would lead directly to my “Grass Guy” nickname a year later.
John was and is an extremely smart man, a Stanford graduate. Like most players, he liked to cut across the practice field corner to save time on the way into the locker room rather than walking the longer, squared route along the sidewalk. When a strong frost sets in on a turfgrass canopy, the grass blades become brittle from a thin coating of ice. Now they break when stepped on instead of bouncing back like normally would happen in warmer conditions. It’s generally not fatal to the grass, usually just a strong purpling of the footprints until the affected tissue grows out and is mowed off, kind of like some hair colorings done at salons.
Now the thing with turfgrass canopy frosts is that there are two degrees of them, in my experiences. A light frost doesn’t make the grass blade so brittle and prone to the physical damage of traffic, foot or vehicle. In my experiences, it’s when ambient air temps get down to around <25-28 F (-3.8 to -2.2 C) that creates the risk of heavier damage. Every field and situation is different, so don’t use that as a guide.
There are what I call light frosts and heavier “crunchy frosts” on turfgrass. Just the presence of a frost does not necessarily mean that it is time to put the frost signs out. But to me, any time I could put the signs and ropes out to keep traffic off the practice field, I jumped on it. I figured it would make for a better, safer field deeper into the long season. As the field manager, that’s my job in the “Do your job” part of pro football.
One morning as I stood at the video room glass doors watching player after player hop over the ropes and cut across the frosted grass practice fields, I wasn’t too worried, it was a light frost this morning. Still, I wondered why they couldn’t just use the sidewalk and save the grass field from the foot traffic damage, the same field that would see them through the deep playoff and Super Bowl runs of the late 1990’s. When Elway cut across I just had to open the door, walk out and shout sarcastically out to the field “Hey John, thanks for cutting across the field. We were beginning to wear out the sidewalk!” He laughed, then walked over to me and explained how he played golf and he knew the difference between a light and hard frost on a grass surface. I came back with something about my degree from Colorado State and asked him “Do they have a turf management program at Stanford?” And that was it, just another of a million rib sessions around a football team. He was right though, it was a light frost.
Now a year later after my sarcastic sidewalk comment, I came to work the morning after John had called me Grass Guy in front of all of Denver’s TV audience, and everyone started calling me that. I was now Grass Guy. “Hey Grass Guy, what’s up?” Like Stink says, you don’t get to pick your nickname, and since Elway coined it, it was going to stick.
Later that afternoon as John walked out onto a sun splashed practice field, he apologized to me. “Dude, I was trying to think of your actual title, it’s agronomist right? I couldn’t come up with it at that moment and Grass Guy just came out. Sorry man”. I was blown away. Most people didn’t know what an agronomist is and I never used that title. Everyone around the team knew I wouldn’t use “groundskeeper” for my title. I used turf manager and field manager, never groundskeeper. And John was trying to respect that when he stumbled for a respectful title.
John Elway retired after a magnificent 16 year NFL career in 2000. I moved downtown to Denver’s new INVESCO Field at Mile high as the field manager there. A couple of years later, I asked his personal landscape manager, who I knew, if he would have John sign a football for me that I could keep in my office. While I’ve asked players for autographs over the years, it was never for me, rather it was for a sick child, fundraiser or cause someone close to me had asked for help with. But now, John was retired and I was at the sparkling new field at the stadium, I figured this small request wouldn’t be too much of a pain. I bought a ball and pen and here’s what I got back. It sits on my office shelf today.
Posted September 17, 2020