Published on
December 15, 2020 9:00:00 AM PST December 15, 2020 9:00:00 AM PSTth, December 15, 2020 9:00:00 AM PST

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: Let it Snow and Snow and Snow

“What are these ‘Holidays’ you speak of?” That was the sarcastic grounds crew reply to any greeting of “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” in many years as an NFL field manager, especially for us in 2006. When I started as the field manager for the Broncos at 23 years old, the NFL regular season ended a week before Christmas. If the club wasn’t in the playoffs, there was a two week vacation and time off for everyone. In the eighties, if the team was out of the playoff hunt early, it was disappointing but at least you had time to make plans with family and friends. More regularly during my 30 years at the Broncos working for the late owner Pat Bowlen, it was a cheerful, but challenging time preparing natural grass game and training fields for the playoffs. During his tenure the Broncos totaled more Super Bowl appearances (7) than losing seasons. That is incredible, yet he’s not in the Hall of Fame.

“I began to feel this grinning monster was somewhere out over the Aleutian Islands, building strength, coming to make us fail in front of a national TV audience at home on Christmas eve in a game with huge implications.”

One time Mr. B, as he was fondly known by everyone in the organization, came out on the practice fields to talk with me. He could see that after plowing the two practice fields we were struggling to get the last few windrows of snow and plow scrapple off the field before practice started. He asked me “What do you need?” “Oh, we’ll get it, but I could either use more people or more time” I said, breathing hard as I shoveled snow into a cart. “Alright I’ll get you some people”, and he walked into the training building. Within minutes, nearly every staff member not in football operations came out one by one, grabbed a snow shovel and asked me what I needed them to do. It was amazing! Pat Bowlen himself grabbed a shovel and joined in as I was showing a group of staff how to shovel snow rows off grass and into a cart. “Keep the handle end of the shovel low to the ground so the blade won’t catch. Just the main stuff, not every flake off the field. The sun will do the rest”. We knocked out the work in about 20 minutes when it would have taken the turf team a good 90 minutes. After lunch the players, coaches and support staff came out on the field for practice and onto a safe, playable grass field. These are the little things that great leaders do that folks never hear about, but motivates a passion for excellence.

Sports seasons grow into winter.

In the sports-crazy US, outdoor sports like softball/baseball, soccer, lacrosse and football season have all been extended at both the front and back ends. College baseball/softball seasons now get started in early February if not earlier, in places like Minneapolis, MN. As a kid, I can remember Super Bowls in mid-January. Now it’s in early February with many believing it will push further, to President’s Day Holiday. Preparing grass fields and playing in snowstorms used to be limited to a few weeks in November and December, and pretty much limited to the sport of American and European football which are played through the winter months and rarely cancelled for snow. Nowadays there really isn’t much of an off season for sports field mangers, and all of us that deliver fields of play in snow-prone areas need good winter storm playing surface strategies, even for traditionally summer games like softball/baseball.

Pro football field managers can’t make any hard and set plans for socializing during the holidays in general until you know what the weather will bring. You tend to make “maybe plans” because you won’t know what the weather will bring until about a week before.

Blizzard log 2006.

Christmas 2006 saw the Broncos ending the regular season with back-to-back home games on December 24th and 31st. When the schedule came out in April, I thought silently to myself “I really hope for good weather”. A Christmas week snowstorm adds a ton of work and uncertainty to manage, as well as hundreds of person-hours, much of which is done by part-time, seasonal staff. You can understand why such an employee may not be 100% available on a “just-in-case basis” during the holidays.

Sure enough, as December approached, it was coming down to the wire for the Broncos to make the playoffs. These last two back-to-back home games at the end of December would be critical. Lose either one and you’re out. And sure enough, about a week to 10 days before the first of these two crucial games-the Christmas Eve game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the weather forecast models began signaling the potential for something big to hit, right before Christmas. With each successive run the models grew more confident of this scenario. I began to feel this grinning monster was somewhere out over the Aleutian Islands, building strength, coming to make us fail in front of a national TV audience at home on Christmas eve in a game with huge implications. The battle was set for the Tuesday-Wednesday time frame with a 48 hour snow total of 20+ inches of snow forecast for Denver. Some models had even higher snow totals, but they were outliers at this stage. We covered the entire field with our snow tarps on Monday afternoon to beat the high pre-storm winds that were predicted before the snow starts flying. Then it was a nervous 24 hour waiting game of checking and rechecking equipment, back-ups, and gasoline. There were endless staff meetings to coordinate with the league and all the other departments involved in delivering the entire stadium complex in a safe manner for Sunday’s game. The in-game production meetings were mostly running through “if/then” scenarios for things like pre-game and halftime entertainment, our big holiday show for the in-stadium fans.

I sent assistant field managers Abe Picaso and Andrew Hoiberg to the grocery store to load up on groceries. The turf team would be living at the stadium for the next few days, something we were used to. “Get a bunch of high-energy food, we got a lot of wood to chop this week!” I told Andrew as I gave him $200 out of my pocket. We had a line item in the budget for “Staff Meals”, but it didn’t account for groceries for a turf team basically living at the stadium for a week.

As the head field manager, I was going through our playing surface snow removal system and trying to identify the weak links with my first assistant Cody Freeman. “What could prevent us from delivering this field Sunday?” I asked. Cody brought up a good point. We could run out of fuel for equipment. The stadium fuel depot would be a busy place and refill trucks may not be able to make it out on unpassable roads. We topped off all tractors, carts, etc. We topped off every fuel can we could find.

Nowadays clubs use new lightweight inflatable tarp drums.

The way we plowed the field with large roller drums for plows on the tractors was a great technique taught to me by my friend Tony Leonard, the venerable field manager for the Philadelphia Eagles. Plowing with rounded drums minimizes the chances of tearing through the snow tarp. It really works well but has a couple drawbacks. Unlike a traditional metal plow with rubber tip method, you can’t tilt the plow and slide the accumulating snow off to the side. As such, we could not plow more than about a 2-inch depth off the covered fields using this method. So if the storm ever got ahead of us and overloaded our drum plow system, we have no good backup. We could bring in trucks, tractors and contractors to muscle the snow away, but that might leave a trashed snow tarp and a very poor playing surface for the players. I was working out the rough math in my head. “With two tractors running, we can plow a stage of snow off the covered field in about 30-45 minutes. Anything above around two-inches accumulation and we could lose the upper hand. They are predicting snowfall rates of up to 2 inches per hour or more at the peak of the storm. We have to be ready to go continuously with the plows during the peak. Two guys on plowing, two guys resting, warming up. A simple mechanical breakdown could defeat us. This 8-12 hour storm peak will be the key.”

Here’s the thing. The NFL will play the game. “Rain or snow it’ll go!” was our turf team motto. They almost never cancel games for snow. That day before the storm everything in Denver and along Colorado’s Front Range was beginning to close down for the approaching storm. Schools and all the usual things closed quickly. They closed the international airport that was designed to handle snow. They even shut down the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, a rarity. As we sat ready for battle with a no-retreat policy, it was unnerving hearing about how the entire city was shutting down and headed home to ride it out. Our task was to remove around 2.5 million pounds of snow off of a $1.5 M natural grass playing field, then paint and prepare it in a manner that was safe for the players and suitable for a nationally televised football game. I told the crew “Someday, we’ll have great stories to tell!” trying not to let my anxiety affect them.

I could not sleep that night before. Finally at 3:45 am I gave up trying, I got up and headed in to the stadium. By now, senior staff at the stadium were meeting twice a day when the forecasts were updated to adjust plans and manage the hurdles. We set up a “womb-room”. A warm, dry, quiet and dark room where staff could go to warm up and get a little sleep.

Blizzard Log: 6:00am Wednesday

By the snows start, we had 4 of us turf teamers and two tractors ready to battle the storm. Over the next two days we would plow the field 17 times by my count, about every two hours. The few cat-naps we got were broken up by the loud clanging of the temp-labor crews futile attempts to clear the stands during the storm. It was a brutal 33 hour shift for the turf team of four, but somehow by Thursday afternoon, we had only flurries and a clean tarp.

Blizzard Log: 9am Wednesday

Blizzard Log: 11:00am Wednesday

Blizzard Log: 2:30pm Wednesday

Blizzard Log: 5:00pm Wednesday

Blizzard Log: 11:00pm Wednesday

When we were done I was so relieved that I didn’t even care that it may not be possible to drive home with all the roads now packed under 24 inches of snow. The four of us headed out of the stadium for 30 minutes of digging our cars out and long sketchy commutes home where we all got to dig out there as well. It was surreal walking out of the stadium. We hadn’t left it during the two storm days and seeing nothing but white everywhere was a shock.

After some sleep, we faced the next challenge. According to NFL rules, we had to remove all the stacked piles of snow from plowing off the field from the entire field area. Not only that, the entire stadium, seating areas and walkways, along with 76,000 seats had to be completely cleared as well. Basically, all snow and ice must be removed from the entire stadium. All of it. Much of that snow would have to be pushed down onto the field service track and removed with heavy equipment. All this cart and tractor traffic on the grassed sideline areas turned much of it to mud. We eventually called this part of a storm week “Running the gravy train” because we would train-up a line of carts for each tractor and we sometimes made gravy out of our sideline grass after big storms. All the giant parking lots would also have to be cleared along with miles of walkways around the stadium by our engineers and conversion teams along with an army of temp and maintenance workers. Where would we stack this literal mountain of snow? We needed the parking lots for parking. We considered giant snow melting machines but eventually contracted to have it all trucked off site with giant tractors and trucks. It was a huge operation and expense.

As Thursday morning’s sun came out, there was a notable mood lift at the stadium. The snow removal operation would seem insurmountable, but there was good weather forecast until a flurry or two during Sunday’s game. Once that glorious Colorado sun warmed the field snow tarp up a bit, we removed it. Beautiful green grass! It was a stark and beautiful thing. We got the mowers out and gave the field a shave. I heard television news helicopters buzzing around the city again. When the army of hundreds working at the stadium felt that winter sun on their faces, they also saw and smelled that universally loved fresh cut green grass. A summer scene in a winter’s ocean of snow letting everyone know that this game, which so many had questioned, would go on. Late that night when I got home I saw a TV news helicopter shot of the stadium. As the camera pulled back, it was amazing to see our work as the only non-white thing of any kind in the entire city.

Blizzard Log: 2:45pm Thursday – Green Grass!

Friday and Saturday were paint days, with most of it done Friday in a long-day effort to leave enough drying time for the field paint in the deep of winter. On Saturday we were scrambling to finish painting the hash-marks before the Bengals came in for a walkthrough practice. Chad ‘Ochocinco’ Johnson, a 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame nominee, was out on the field early before the Bengals walkthrough. He helped us paint the hashes and was actually pretty good at it. That big warm smile is what I remember. He was very complimentary of the field condition, especially after what the Bengals had seen in snow totals and abandoned cars bussing over from the airport. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had agreed to a strictly short walkthrough. Like all coaches, he kept pushing more time on the field until I began looking at him and tapping my watch. The late Darian Daily was the Bengals head field manager and a great friend to me and so many others. He came out to Denver with the club for the game. He later called me to tell me how the owner of the Bengals, Mike Brown, was quite impressed with the field and how this had added tremendously to Darian’s passion to show how they could play on a natural grass field in Cincinnati and remove the artificial turf.

The Broncos won the crucial game in snow flurries when the Bengals muffed a would-be extra point at the end of the game that would have tied the score and forced overtime. It was a tired but celebratory field staff raking and cleaning up our field after the game and putting it to bed with our radiant turf cover.

That night driving home in a state of relief I got the latest forecast on the radio. This week’s storm was now shaping up similarly to this last one, another blizzard. The all-or nothing New Year’s Eve game Sunday against the 49ers would be after yet another blizzard week! A Broncos win and they were in the playoffs. I can barely remember our second consecutive holiday blizzard week save to say it was a bit easier as we had just tested our blizzard plans the previous week. The TV production trucks, usually about a half dozen or more for most games was reduced to two that week because they couldn’t get trucks into Denver after two blizzards. There was a sideline camera and an end zone one. That’s it, no TV cart sideline cameras or anything else as best I remember. I’d never seen such a minimal production set up in a few hours, something that usually took hundreds of people the better part of an entire week.

On a chewed up field in overtime, the 49ers made a game-winning field goal. Like that and we were out of the playoffs. One consolation was that the season was now over too. 9 months of grind was over. Tomorrow was a day off for everyone on the turf team. It was New Year’s Eve but I didn’t make it to 10pm before conking out exhausted in bed. My back had given out from all the snow work and would require rehab.

3 months later we were recognized by the late Tim Davies, legendary head of game operations for the NFL, at the annual NFL Field Managers Symposium for our efforts. He told the group of our peers how all he heard about Denver all week was carnage and doubt whether the game could be played as scheduled. He said when they finally got a TV feed established at the stadium, all he saw was beautiful green grass. He wondered “What the (bleep) everyone was so worried about”. That was Tim. We got a standing ovation.