Super Turf

Story by Melea Reicks Licht

Image contributed

They start to arrive three weeks before the Super Bowl.

Turfgrass professionals from across the globe assemble like superheroes to prep the prestigious eld. Semis roll in full of turf equipment and tools. Owned by the National Football League and moved from location to location, the tools are unloaded, prepped and operated by this traveling team of turf experts including many College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni. The team is managed by Ed Mangan, the NFL’s field director.

“There’s 27 of us in all different types of jobs that come together to take care of the turf for the Super Bowl. There’s minor league and major league baseball turf managers, NFL guys and one turf expert even comes from Japan,” says Kevin Hansen, sports fields and grounds manager at SMG-NRG Park in Houston. NRG Stadium is home to the Houston Texans and hosted Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Hansen (’13 horticulture, ’15 MS professional agriculture) says many people don’t realize turf science is a career. He first stepped foot on a Super Bowl field in 2012 as an intern with the Toro Super Bowl Sports Turfgrass Training Program for Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes- Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Toro has partnered with the NFL since 1967 to provide equipment to prepare the game eld and practice fields leading up to the Super Bowl. In 2003, Toro and the NFL established the training program. Iowa State has had three students accepted into the Toro program—more than any other college.

As grounds manager, Hansen is responsible for the eld at NRG stadium and their practice fields.

“We keep the natural grass growing and healthy including aerating and top- dressing. When those big NFL players come out and beat it up day after day, we work to keep it healthy, safe and playable,” Hansen says.

He says healthy grass starts with healthy soil.

“Once we have a good subsurface for plants to grow in, we feed the plant the right nutrients and fight off diseases and insects throughout the year,” Hansen says.

Two weeks prior to the big game Hansen and most of his teammates leave their home turf to serve at Super Bowl stadium.

“We lay out stencils for logos on the center of the field. Once we know the teams who’ll be playing, we’ll lay out team logos,” says Hansen. “In Minnesota (in 2018) we managed an indoor stadium and two practice facilities.”

The team also focuses on ensuring a safe, level playing field.

“We do some in-fill to make the field level and consistent. It has to pass NFL requirements for hardness and in field depth,” says Hansen.

Lee Kuiters (’00 horticulture, agricultural and life sciences education), superintendent of grounds maintenance for the Atlanta Falcons, has worked every Super Bowl for the last 15 years.

“We work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. Once you get there, it’s pretty much straight work. But a lot of us take the day Monday to do something unique to the city before heading home Tuesday,” Kuiters says.

With a week left before the Super Bowl, the turf team spends much of their time touching up paint jobs after frequent rehearsals by halftime performers.

When game day arrives, Hansen, Kuiters and other CALS alumni join their colleagues in running nets on the end zones, scanning the field for debris and, when playing on natural turf, replacing divots. There were four Cyclones on the turf management team in 2018.

An Ames native, Hansen grew up working for Iowa State turf programs and visiting the Horticulture Building with his mom Barb Clawson, a senior lecturer in horticulture.

“I like being outside. Turf management fit my skills and what I wanted to do. Tim Van Loo (Iowa State manager of athletics turf and grounds) and Mike Andresen (Iowa State manager of facilities and grounds) were big mentors growing up,” Hansen says. “And the Toro program is really how I got my start.”

Kuiters graduated before the Toro internship program began. He says Iowa State’s name recognition for quality turf grass graduates helped him land his first job.

“I wanted to be a teacher and coach, but halfway through my student teaching I realized that wasn’t for me. I took a hort class with Mike Gaul and remember going over turf management and knowing that’s what I wanted to pursue,” Kuiters says. “Then, working for Mike Andresen on the Iowa State athletic fields played a big part of me going into sports turf and athletic field maintenance.”

Following the Super Bowl, post-game confetti rains down upon thousands and fans celebrate for hours, including the CALS grads.

“We pick up our equipment and hang out to celebrate, too,” says Hansen. “The host facility cleans up—that was me last year when it was in Houston. My favorite part is networking with other turf professionals, getting to know them and meeting new people over the years.”

Kuiters says working in turf management provides him a niche in professional sports.

“I grew up on a farm, and I loved sports. This was a nice combination of the two,” says Kuiters. “It’s the one job in the (NFL) organization that I can do. Not many people can play and not many people can coach, but I can do this. It’s been a neat experience.”