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: CHASING THE FOX
As a sports field manager, there are so many moving parts and variables that we cannot control. Daily adjustments to unpredictable weather and dynamic game and event scheduling are just part of the job. One thing we can control is the most basic deliverable for the sports field manager, a credible layout with markings of the playing field in accordance with the governing body of the sport. It may seem obvious, but it is really a bigger issue about credibility and building one’s professional brand.
Below the Cleats – Tales from a Sports Field Life: Chasing the Fox
“Everyone treated me differently after that. Coach Shanahan would even make small talk with me sometimes before practice.” –Brooks Dodson, sports field manager – Denver Broncos Training Facility.
In this pandemic year of 2020, sports field managers everywhere are doing a great job of adapting to new ways of doing things and daily uncertainty. Like almost every job anywhere, this year is about adapting, adjusting and overcoming, even if it gets downright silly. In 2020, team-oriented attitudes and resilience are being tested. As always, sports field managers are fortunate to have responsive and innovative commercial support companies to help with these changes. CoverMaster and other suppliers have a special page set up to help with all aspects of pandemic facility conversions (e.g. gymnasiums to classrooms) and getting sports back and running safely. It’s really impressive to see the quick response by our commercial suppliers and the innovative products and services they have come up with, in response to current realities.
For the sports field manager, this dynamic environment is nothing new. I always say, you have a 3-word job description as field manager, “read and react”. “Ross, what’s your post-concert plan?” “Read and react”. Managing daily changes and unpredictability in weather, event schedules, staff availability and the reaction of the field to it, all is what sports field managers do. Rigid, preplanned, specific remedies and treatments do not hold up well in such a variable situation.
One of the greatest variabilities for some sports field managers and all support staff is the head coach, not the individuals, but how often they are changed out. We used to have a saying, “new coach, new approach”.
At some point sitting with a new coach, I would always say something like this. “These fields will never be in poor shape due to lack of effort on my part, but if you tell me that I need to rototill these fields because it will help us win, I’ll do it.” A coach is a team builder, they love to hear this. A great leader will build this spirit of team-first throughout their organization. Great football coaches will often test the team’s willingness to go to the absurd if they are asked, same with their support staff. You hear it in the proverbial player quotes about their respect for a coach being so deep that they would “Run through a brick wall for the guy”.
21 years ago, my newly hired field technician, Brooks Dodson, was given such a test. The vote to fund a new football stadium in Denver had passed in 1998. Now a year later, we hired a newly graduated turfgrass science student from The Ohio State University, to free me up to act as the owner’s representative for the field design, and subsequent construction at the new stadium. In his first season on the practice fields, Brooks was just learning the ins-and-outs of professional football culture, everything from leaving your cell phone in the office for practice, to coach Shanahan’s rule that during practices no one ever sits on their butt anytime on the practice fields; not even the media that covered the team. He once sent me far across two fields to tell someone sitting in the seat of the equipment cart to get off their butt. About 50 yards into my run, I saw that it was Pat Bowlen, the team owner. I turned around, came back to coach and told him who it was. We both had a good laugh. During the main practice, coach Shanahan would be out in the middle of the field watching and coaching either from behind the offense or defense. It was an amazing thing to watch one of the great coaches orchestrate a practice. The club’s equipment manager at the time, Doug West, would stand by coach’s side with his radio ready. If coach needed anything, the equipment manager would call someone on the support staff over to take care of it. Usually, it was to run off someone watching practice through a fence, but swathe detail he saw was amazing. He might quickly point out a player safety issue like, an unattended football laying off to the side of the field.
Once during a Raiders week practice, Coach Shanahan sent me to run off four people hanging out along a fence far from the field the team was on. As I got close to them, they saw me and walked back to work, repaving the parking lot of the building just north of us. I went back to coach Shanahan and said “It was just some asphalt workers repaving the lot over there. They went back to work.” “Did you see them actually doing the work?” coach asked. “No, but they are not watching practice anymore through the fence.” I said. The coach turned his attention back at the team as he told me “Go watch ‘em for a few minutes, make sure they are actual asphalt workers”.
On this beautiful fall day in October 1999, there was a fox running around the facility all day before practice. There were plenty of rabbits to hunt inside the fence line, if you were crafty enough to get inside. By the time the team had started warm-ups that afternoon, the fox was seen running across and around the fields during our pre-practice mowing. By the start of practice, it was almost becoming a distraction, which is a four-letter word in football. As Brooks and I sat on one knee on the sideline watching how the field was playing, my first assistant, Troy Smith, was watching the defense on the opposite field. I was teaching Brooks how I watch the game from the knees down. “Don’t just watch receivers and backs, they already know their cuts and have rehearsed them. Watch the defensive ends trying to turn the corner on a rush, watch the defensive backs, they don’t do pre-planned cuts, and they have to react. If the footing is good for d-backs and ends, it’ll play fine today. Just then, Doug suddenly motioned and called over for Brooks to come see coach after the next play. Normally, coach would call on me if he had any field area related issues as I was the head field manager. Brooks looked at me and gestured something quiet that asked: “Me?” I said, “Go, see what he wants.” A minute later, Brooks came running back to me on the sideline, with a confused look on his face. “He said wants me to take care of that fox and make sure no player trips over it and gets hurt. He said, don’t hurt the fox, but just take care of it.” This was my fifth year with coach Shanahan, so I just jumped up and told Brooks “Let’s go.”
The fox had left the fenced training field area and was spotted outside the coaches building. As we quickly walked off the field, Brooks asked me “How the [heck] am I supposed to catch that fox?! “You won’t” I said, “but that’s not the point.” You need to be seen by everyone running after that fox all over creation and not giving up. “That’s absurd” Brooks replied. “Exactly!” I exclaimed. By now, I had figured it out. Coach would have called me out if he was really concerned about the fox, not the rookie greenhorn field manager.
Without realizing he was being tested, Brooks took off, outside the facility and began chasing the fox all over the place for about 10-15 minutes. He set aside his personal feelings for the task and dove into it because he was a team turf manager. I returned to the practice fields and took a knee on the sideline. Every couple of minutes, we’d see Brooks running around in the fields, outside the facility and to the building just north. There were some laughs and a few chuckles, everyone but Brooks pretty much knew what was going on. It was a test. I just smiled and thought “Good, Brooks is rototilling the field for Coach”.
Finally Brooks came running back to the practice fields. Out of breath, he told me how he had chased the fox far away from the fields and it had ditched into a drainage culvert, ran across a large open field and was gone. After he got Doug’s attention, he was summoned to the middle of the field after the next play. It was a short conversation with Coach Shanahan, as they tended to be any time during practice. Brooks came back to me. “What’d he say?” I asked. “I told him that I got to within 10 feet of it, then it just took off and is long gone. Coach just said, “OK, thanks”. That’s when I told Brooks I believed, in a way, he was just being tested a little, and how all of us on the support staff go through something similar now and again. “Coach must like you”.
After practice, Brooks was taking his fun ribbings from players and staff well. It’s like when you got a bad haircut in elementary school. If you tried to hide it with a cap and acted defensively, you got teased all day. If you laughed at yourself with the others, the issue was a done deal soon enough.
I could only imagine Brooks’ thoughts during his futile attempt to catch that fox. “I went through four years of college for this?” But by the next day, Brooks started noticing a new sense of respect for him around the team. Coach Shanahan now knew his name and said hello. Players started asking his help in a warm-up drill or stretch. “Everyone changed how they treated me after that,” says Brooks. No longer an outsider, he felt like he was now part of the team. “Coach Shanahan would even make small talk with me before practice sometimes.”
Fast forward to 2013, and now Brooks is preparing for his second round of interviews for the head field manager’s job at the Broncos training facility. The Director of Operations, Chip Conway, was leading Brooks around the building looking for Head Coach John Fox to set up a meeting. Chip was there when Brooks ran the great fox chase. As they walked down the hall from the locker room to the cafeteria looking for Coach, Brooks turned to Chip and said “I can’t believe it, I’m chasing a fox again!”
Today, Brooks is in his 8th season as head field manager at the Denver Broncos practice facility. He is a Super-Bowl champion turf manager, with a ring to prove it. He credits this fox-chasing test by Shanahan as the foundation to his successful approach. “I don’t protect the fields as if they were mine, I maintain them as if they were ours. This has really served me well.”
There is a difference between a leader and a ruler. Both are tough, but a leader knows how to build a team where everyone realizes they are part of something bigger than themselves or their individual mission. Coach Shanahan was a great leader.
In this time of pandemic changes and uncertainty, are you willing to go chase that fox?
Posted October 17, 2020