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: TEAR GASSED FOR TURF
In early September 1999, I found the limits of my dedication to sports fields, and so did Dr. Tony Koski, professor of turfgrass science at Colorado State University (CSU).
That summer at Denver’s now-retired Mile High Stadium (MHS) the Broncos had concerns over the field conditions after a brutal summer field events season of concerts and such. Coach Shanahan trusted my skills on the club’s training fields and kept “asking” me to do something about the field at MHS, where the management and maintenance was done through the City of Denver’s Parks Department. The venue was owned and operated by the municipality, as was typical in most MLB and NFL stadiums back then. The Broncos leased the stadium. I tried to explain to coach Shanahan how I had no authority down there, and it was as much a field booking issue as a maintenance issue, but I always said I would go down there and do my best.
The club was fresh off the back-to-back Super Bowl Championships and the greatest QB ever, John Elway, had just retired after a magnificent 16 year Hall of Fame career. This may be a good time to disclose that I am a Colorado State University alum and a huge Broncos fan. I don’t hide my bias.
“Those of us who do turf consulting for a living like to share stories about our most interesting visits over beers at conferences or meetings. It’s really fun that, as far as we know, Ross and I are the only turfheads who can lay claim to being tear-gassed while inspecting grass at a stadium. It’s one of those things that no one else can say “Hey, that happened to me once too”. – Dr. Tony Koski
After an exhaustive report from hired engineers, the club had shown how it would be more expensive for taxpayers to do all the deferred maintenance and repairs needed at MHS than it would be to finance a new stadium. There were certainly legitimate arguments against, but in November 1998, a new stadium was overwhelmingly passed by the voters of the 5 counties making up the Denver metro area. The new stadium, INVESCO Field at Mile High would open for the 2001 season (now called Empower Field at Mile High).
The big field question before the September 9th CSU vs CU football game in 1999 was whether or not the MHS field must be re-sodded after this game, in part or in whole, in order to meet NFL standards for a Monday night home-opener showdown with the Miami Dolphins, featuring HOF QB Dan Marino and HOF coach Jimmy Johnson in town just 4 days after this Rocky Mountain Showdown game. The City and the Broncos decided to have an independent expert agreeable to all sides down on the field after the college game and evaluate the field surface and make recommendations on any sodding. Anyone who has ever met Dr. Koski over his 32 years at Colorado State knows his competence and agreeable posture. I’ve just known him as Tony, a great friend who is always there if I need him, always.
In the previous year’s Rocky Mountain Showdown, it was the University of Colorado in a 42-14 rout, as it often had been in this series. CU dominates the all-time series 62-23 (couple bad calls I always say!), and even more so in recent history. The Rams had not beat CU since 1986. For much of the 90’s, CU was ranked in the top 10-15 and CSU was ranked in that 15-25 range. It was a legit in-state football rivalry played on opening weekends for college football, however one-sided the results. But in 1999, the upstart Rams took off to a 28-0 halftime lead on way to a 41-14 drubbing of CU’s nationally recognized program. It obviously wasn’t CU’s day this year and many of the fans on the CU side of the stadium had left early. On the northeast side of the sold-out venue of 76,000 plus, the CSU fans, many fueled by alcohol that was much less restricted back then, began to get rowdy and celebrate. Many of the fans were sober moms and dads, staying till the end, peacefully making sure their kids take it all in and remember the day. There was a large section for the CSU marching band, drumming out that wonderful college football music that creates an electricity no other sport can match. Here is CU’s fight song, a classic! Here is CSU’s, just as good.
According to Denver police, there were rumblings of swarming the field after the game by the victorious CSU students. The concern was justified, because for some reason, this dangerous and damaging idea of field storming is quite common in college football but is never done at NFL venues. The field conditions had been the fodder for sports columnists and cartoonists in Denver’s media. There was a lot of incentive to keep fans off this field after this game.
I arranged for a field pass for Dr Koski and we headed down to the north end zone and waited for club and city officials to arrive after the game. Both teams had ran into their south end locker rooms, CU players keeping helmets on and receiving incoming bottles and other items thrown from the stands. I remember a full beer in a large plastic cup being thrown, what a waste. I could have used a beer, we could feel something brewing. You quickly realize in these situations that a bottle thrown by a fan some 30 or more rows up in the stadiums falls so far vertically that they almost hit terminal velocity, even if the thrower couldn’t start for a beer-league softball team.
Police dressed in riot gear came out to the north end field and joined the police without gas masks or any such protection. Police now ringed the north and east sides of the field. A couple of CSU fans (presumably) jumped over the “moat” which was just a fenced walkway ringing the field and were immediately subdued and arrested as will always happen at a pro sports venue. Now it was on. I remember watching just a few feet away riot police walking in front of the CSU band section and hitting them all with a large, hosed tear gas sprayer. The police threw tear gas canisters into the crowd. Students in the stands grabbed the canisters and threw them back down on the field. Children and elderly were injured in the mad rush to get out of the lower bowl. If you’ve spent any time at these huge stadiums, you know they have weird, mixing winds and soon the entire lower bowl, field included, was in a cloud of tear gas.
I’d never been tear gassed like this before or since. Once exposed, you have few other thoughts than to run away to fresh air as fast as you can. Before I knew it, I found myself in a full sprint with Tony and many of the non-riot geared police into the south stands grounds crew shop and offices to rinse our eyes and gasp for a breath of fresh air. I actually remembering have a quick thought crossing the field at full sprint, wondering if there would be any effect on the grass from the thick tear gas cloud. Would it just be a canopy burn that would grow out in a few days? “Fresh air now” I thought, realizing that the 120 yard sprint was making me breathe the gas even more deeply. “Would walking be better or just prolong the agony?” We all just burst into the grounds crew offices, teary-eyed. It was a crazy scene, police and turfheads all pouring bottled water over our eyes, some worse off than others. An anxious line formed at the sink.
We never even really had a field meeting. After things had settled down, Tony and the head stadium field manager Jose Palma chatted and quickly agreed the best idea was to sod the middle 1/3 of the field, and that was ultimately done very well. I wonder if all the officials had been involved, would such a quick, reasonable solution have been made? I agreed with them both and the MHS field staff worked like champions to get it done and painted before the big nationally televised home opener. I remember after all that stress and worry and tear gas, the field performed beautifully for the Monday night game. Sadly, the Broncos got trounced by the Dolphins 38-21. (Couple bad calls!).
My old turf prof at CSU, the late Dr. Jackie Butler preceded Dr. Koski. One of his go-to sayings was “There are no grass problems, only people problems”.