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.
BELOW THE CLEATS, TALES FROM A SPORTS FIELD LIFE - EP. 1: COACH REEVES AND THE BUCKET OF WATER
In March 1985 I had just completed my first season as the newly hired and first-ever practice field manager for the Denver Broncos, only 9 months out of Colorado State with turfgrass degree in hand. In 1984 I was hired as part of new team owner Pat Bowlen’s program to bring the team’s facility up to par. “I want to be the best at everything” he often told us, and that included the surfaces his team trained and practiced on. The late “Mr. B” would usually end a conversation by asking you if you had everything you needed to get there. It was a great place to work!
But on this grey spring day I walked quite nervously to the coaches building, hat in hand, to meet with head coach Dan Reeves, and apologize.
As the club’s first-ever field manager, I had jumped into the new job fresh out of school the previous June and everyone seemed to like the improvements on the two, shortened natural grass practice fields that came to me loaded with Poa annua. It wasn’t that hard, they thought my pulling strings to paint straight yard lines was amazing.
Back then, spring camps started in March and went hard, often in full pads until July 5th, the start of the 6-week summer training camp. The entire spring was loaded with various camps of some kind, rookie camp, conditioning camp, full team camps. There were hardly any breaks and the roster sizes were huge in the off-seasons. This was full-on combat turfgrass management! I had planned my first big renovation for the spring, eager to prove my skills. Core aeration, overseed and topdress, I did it all by myself back in those days, a turf team of one. It was early March in Denver and about a month too early for the daily temperatures needed to pop seed. I can’t even remember if “growth covers” was a thing back then. I had no soil heating system. Thick-cut, wide-roll, ready to play sod technologies had not yet hit the sports turf industry. Heck, there really wasn’t a developed sports turf industry yet, the STMA only a year or so removed from an initial 25 person membership list in blue ink, straight off Steve Wightman’s mimeograph (google it youngsters).
“…It was then I was rescued by Keith Bishop, the venerable Broncos offensive guard, a tough man’s man and a team leader.”
I realized I had no chance at reestablishing decent grass cover between the hashes unless I got lucky with the weather and we roped off a few key areas and avoid destroying my efforts during the two March camps. If I couldn’t get some grass established before camps, I might not get another chance until summer’s break, when the team left for camp at UNC in Greeley, CO. I had gone to coach Reeves several weeks earlier and explained my idea. I got his approval but maybe I didn’t explain it very well, or maybe he already had an important lesson in mind for me early in my career.
When the first camp started, I had young seedlings somehow, maybe 3 day old perennial ryegrass! They had no chance. Slowly but surely coach had me take down the ropes and open up each of the three protected areas for practice during the first week. I began fuming more and more each day as I was instructed to march out in front of the team during practice and take another roped area down and watch two weeks work get destroyed. Finally, taking down the last of the ropes, wondering why I tried, I yanked up the stakes with an obvious attitude, saying nothing. I fumed off the practice field with my tangled mess of ropes and stakes in hand toward my makeshift shop, not looking back, wondering why they hired me if they were just going to destroy my efforts to improve the clubs practice fields.
Behind me, the next play was called on one of these areas between the hashes. 3rd year QB John Elway called out his classic “Red 98…Red…98. Set Hut!” He not only had an absolute cannon for an arm, he had one of the greatest QB voices I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if Red 98 meant anything, perhaps just a starter that many of the great QB’s do, like Payton Manning’s famous “Omaha, Omaha”. Maybe it’s to lull you into a sense of rhythm, then draw you offside at a critical part of the game.
Soon enough practice was over.
My office was a phone on a laminate board stretched between two filing cabinets. It was in the equipment room right off the cramped team locker room located in a small metal prefabricated building. I had learned quickly that friendly ribbings were a regular and even necessary part of being accepted by the team, just part of the culture in those days. You had to be able to verbally counterpunch. If an offensive lineman complained about the practice field, I would ask them about the holding penalty they had last game. That kind of thing.
On this day after practice it was coming in thick. Several players had come in and told me how close coach Reeves had come to fully dressing me down as I walked away defeated and angry in front of the team. I went home knowing I went too far and I would surely be called into coach Reeves office the next day. That sinking feeling when you know you messed up. You don’t show up an NFL coach in front of his team, especially as some punk 23 year old field manager.
The next morning I walked through the locker room to my “office”, a few early-in players buzzing with activity, finishing treatments and taping up for the day. Still early, there was the normal pungent smell of pre-practice Ben-Gay type sore muscle cream in the air, soon to be replaced by the even less pleasant daily odor wafting from the tiny, cramped team toilet room adjoining the lockers.
It was then I was rescued by Keith Bishop the venerable Broncos offensive guard, a tough man’s man, a team leader and a gentleman. He pulled me aside with some advice. “Go see him [coach] first, before you get called up there, and apologize like a man. Don’t try to explain it unless he asks you to. He will end up respecting you more. If you wait for the call, you’ll just end up in the dog house and it’ll take more time to get out” (Paraphrasing). So I took his advice.
Before I had even fully walked into his office I told coach right off I was way out of line and it won’t ever happen again and awaited his response. He sat back, not smiling but pleased I think that I had come to him first thing. He told me a little fable sort of, about imagining sticking your fist into a bucket of water and then pulling it back out. “What kind of lasting impression have you made in that bucket of water? It’s the same with being part of a team. Ross, we are not a landscaping company, we are a football club. No one puts their job in front of the needs of the team.” (Paraphrasing). He finished with a short pep-talk in how he appreciated my work and all the improvements I had made.
Now, I was ready to run through the proverbial brick wall for the man! Walking out, seemingly 100 lbs. lighter, I went straight to Keith Bishop, to thank him. Then I went back to work for 29 more years.
I try to never forget that as sports field mangers we are part of a larger mission than our own departmental mission in field quality. None of us work on fields we own. None of us work for organizations whose mission statement is a pristine playing surface. The worst thing one can do at a professional sports team or any other organization is to make it about you.
That day, Keith Bishop taught me about integrity and owning mistakes. That day, Dan Reeves taught me that the best way to advance personal goals was to focus on team goals.
Posted February 18, 2021