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 - FOOTBALL IS A GAME OF INCHES
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.
Our original 6’ x2’ numbers. Circa 1991.
Rain or snow may come at the worst times, the field plays slow, soft or slick and there’s only so much you can do about that, but you must have your boundary lines and other marking functional to the game perfect and in accordance with the rules. With today’s technologies and commercial products available, there’s just no excuse for having any measurements, lines or marking not dialed in.
I’ve always put a high value on this most basic sports field management skill, correctly laying out and marking a field for play, yet we have all seen and read stories where things are off. If you manage an outdoor playing surface, you will be called out on your measurements sooner or later. Field managers know what I’m talking about. Coaches, referees and players love to question these things and this makes for opportunities to establish your competency. It can also serve to diminish your credibility if you are off.
Way off my first year!
As a newbie out of college and into professional football practice fields, I ran the same system they had always used to paint the fields. It was a common thing and still is today at many fields to measure once at the beginning of a season for the first paint job and then just pull strings over old lines for each successive painting. One frosty March morning I was measuring out two practice fields to be painted for spring camps. I soon realized that our old lines from the previous season, clearly visible as dead grass now from successive coats of the phytotoxic athletic field paints back then, were off by as much as one foot. I call this the ‘walking boundary line syndrome’ and if the measurements of a field are off, it can really bring down the reputation of even a high-quality playing field. From then on, I committed to pull long tape measures each week, a day before painting, and make a string mark with a can of spray paint. It was labor intensive but back then there weren’t any commercially available ways to add more permanence to the string marks used in painting lines.
In 1991, the Broncos moved to their new training facility. From a playing field perspective, it would now mean we would have two full, 100-yard football fields rather than two shortened fields at the “old facility” where we had never painted number sets. We just painted 6-ft boxes to let the players know where the number sets are. They use the numbers on a football field to run pass routes and to define zone coverage boundaries on defense. You have to have something marked. Whenever you see a collegiate or high school football game played on a professional field, you will almost always see a set of two “tick marks” painted outside of the professional number sets. With wider hash marks, collegiate number sets are out wider. In high school football, they get pushed out even further with 53 ft., 4 inch wide hash marks. Now at our new facility I was eager to begin painting full number sets on two fields every week during the season and mini-camps as they were called back then (Nowadays they are called OTA’s, or On-field Training Activities).
The first thing we did, correctly, was consult the NFL rule book to confirm the exact location and size of the number sets. Using ½-inch plywood and an overhead projector to trace and then cut out the numbers. We also made arrow stencils that would allow us to paint the arrows at the right height relative to the number set and the correct distance of one foot off the number stencil. The number stencils we first made were 6-ft tall and 2 feet wide, just like the wording and diagram in the NFL rulebook.
Yet when I would watch games on TV, everyone’s number sets seemed wider and looked bolder than our sets on the practice fields. I was convinced the entire league was off and I was spot on. It was right there in the rule book. Numbers were 2 feet wide by 6 feet tall. So I called the league operations department and was told the rule book was a typo, and that numbers were to be 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide, like I was seeing on the television game fields. The late Tim Davies assured me they would change it in next year’s edition of the rule book. Now, I was off specification, not the league. I should have trusted my eyes earlier, I knew something wasn’t right when I watched the games on TV.
In early November that year, our incorrect number sets were fairly “burned in” after once-a-week paintings for a few months, but my assistant Troy Smith, CSFM and I spent a weekend at work building new number stencils to the correct measurements. We had gone to a local print shop (pre-internet days) and bought a set of number fonts from them that we liked for a few dollars. I didn’t like the skinny number sets that were popular, we wanted something unique and bold. This same unique font is used to this day by the club at the training and stadium fields. When Troy and I made the change and painted the new numbers the next week, we had shadows or ‘ghosted’ numbers for a week or two until the old number sets grew out and were mowed off. We could have just waited until the off-season to make the change and no one would have known but I felt it better to be correct and a bit embarrassed with the two-toned numbers at practice, even if it wasn’t our fault.
When you go the extra mile to get your layouts dialed, you’ll begin noticing things about layout on other fields. In the early 1990’s, I was really bothered by Cowboys Stadium in Irving, TX. The number sets appeared to be too wide. The more I looked, the more I was convinced they were 6 feet wide instead of 4 feet wide like the rest of the league. It also stuck in my craw how their white border sideline painted around the entire field in all professional football stadium is specified at 6-feet wide. But in Texas, where everything is bigger, they painted a white border that appeared 12-ft wide to me. I never called them on that one, it was a first generation artificial turf field, but you can plainly see these issues on this 1990 Cowboys highlight reel.
Made you change.
The Raiders are a big division rival, that’s a different story. In 1993 the Broncos finished the season with an important game at the Los Angeles Coliseum, then home of the Raiders. Both teams had clinched a playoff spot and the winner of this game would host the loser again the following week for the opening round of playoffs. So it was a game to see where next week’s playoff game would be played. I was on the Broncos sideline in Los Angeles that warm and sunny January day and confirmed something that had bothered me watching Raiders home games on TV. They had painted their hash marks in the middle part of the field 4 inches off specification. All hash marks and cross-hash marks on the fives are to be 18 feet, 6 inches apart, measured from the inside edge of each.
The problem was the coliseum had the cross-hashes at the correct measurement but the 4 hash marks between yard lines were painted from the outside of the cross hash. When a play ends outside the hash marks in football, the referees place the ball at the inside of these hash marks on the side of the field the previous play ended. So the Raider field was effectively 8 inches off in my mind, 4 inches on each side of where they placed the ball. This error is plainly seen on the end zone camera of the winning field goal at the end. Flying home with the team after a bitter 33-30 loss, I decided that it may seem trivial but we always hear how football is a game of inches and it was my job to mention this to a few assistant coaches and staff the next day at our practice facility. I didn’t go with the Broncos to the playoff game at the Raiders for a second straight week, but I did notice on TV they had the outermost part of the old hash marks painted dark green to mask the mistake and the hashes were now painted according to league specifications and aligned on the inside edge of the cross hashes. It was another Broncos loss, the second in two weeks at the rival Raiders, and it wasn’t close, 42-24. In my disappointment, I remember thinking “Oh well, made you change Raiders!” The fun of a great rivalry in sports.
Game of inches.
One spring day during the Broncos back-to back super bowl run a large group of players were out running 40’s for a conditioning camp. The strength and conditioning coaches had cones set up on the goal line and 40 yard line of field #1. They were timed on everything and had to hit certain percentages of their fastest recorded time. As the drill progressed, some of the gassed players started complaining that this had to be off and it was certainly more than 40 yards. By drills end, as players stood hands on knees or hips, a few players with hands locked together on the tops of their heads walking around trying to catching their breath, I was called out and challenged in a friendly way to prove this was indeed 40 yards exactly. “Oh, it’s exactly 40 yards” I assured the doubting players, some of whom are in the professional football hall of fame now. I got Troy on the radio and he brought out the tape measure. Troy knew as well as I did, the front (field side) edge of the 8-inch wide goal line is where the player “breaks the plane”, and where the line is measured to. All other yard lines are 4-inches wide and measured to the center of the line. After Troy set his end I stretched out the tape, giving it a few lift waves to set it straight and pulled it tightly across to the center of the 40 yard line. Boom, 120 feet exactly! In the “Do your job” part of football, Troy and I had done ours. By the mid 90’s we were having the fields laid-out and certified by a licensed surveyor using the new laser surveying transits. Back in the day, we would drop a plumb bob from the center of goal posts as benchmarks and used two tape measures to triangulate the four main corners of a field and layout the field for painting off these.
Then a group at the goal line started arguing about how they were also correct because they were starting their 40’s from behind the 8 inch goal line, adding 8 inches to each one of the 10 40’s they had to run. These players were right. They too were so dialed into their jobs, they could tell when a 40 yard sprint was actually 8 inches too long. As Troy and I walked off the practice field, I thought to myself, “It really is a game of inches.”
Posted November 17, 2020