The first time George Toma did this job, some 47 years ago, he ran out of paint for the yard lines and had to borrow some from a nearby ice rink. Then there was the time three years later when a flood turned the grass brown, so Toma covered it in wood shavings and painted them green. A similar solution was necessary 15 years ago, when the band KISS’s fire cannon burned a 30-by-30-foot patch of the field during a halftime show rehearsal.
The 48th Super Bowl will be played here Sunday, Toma’s 85th birthday, and he has been the head groundskeeper for all of them. When Sunday’s game kicks off at 6:30 p.m., Toma and his crew must make sure each of MetLife Stadium’s 1.4 billion blades of synthetic grass form an appropriate canvas for the country’s biggest one-day sporting event.
“I’m just nobody,” he says. “But I appreciate a good field.”
That’s why he arranged for giant rental tents, each of them outfitted with heaters, to place over both end zones and at midfield while painters worked to emblazon team and game logos. See, this is the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city, and if the field freezes, the paint won’t hold.
“We can’t do nothing about the weather,” he says now, learning long ago that it’s how he and his crew react that makes the difference. “But we prepare for everything.”
That’s why Toma has been here since Jan. 13, trying to anticipate and avoid problems the way he has for this game since 1967. Back then, he carted a three-by-four equipment trunk onto the field and worked alone; now, the Super Bowl’s groundskeeping crew is 32 strong and pulling expensive equipment from three tractor trailers
Toma began working on playing fields as a teenager. When he was a senior in high school, he was named head groundskeeper for the Cleveland Indians’ Class A affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and began experimenting with seeds and sod, sunlight and shadows, learning about the right amount of watering and when to get creative. Eventually he became head groundskeeper of the Kansas City Athletics.
That’s where then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle marveled over what he called the most beautiful field he had ever seen. Rozelle concluded that a man who cared this much about grass and dirt was needed for another big NFL experiment: what would become known as the first Super Bowl.
So Toma hauled his trunk to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where he overcame his paint shortage to produce a field that looked so good and played so well in the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, he got invited back.
As the game grew, Toma added to his list of possible threats and challenges. He kept a blanket on the sideline in case he needed to chase down a streaker, and if the NFL or a television network thought the field didn’t look green enough, Toma painted it to their satisfaction.
Players and coaches came to know him; Emmitt Smith once asked for a chunk of Toma’s turf after a Super Bowl, and Warren Sapp hugged him for such a nice playing surface. This week, New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin invited Toma into his office to reminisce.
“I just keep on going,” says Toma, who has also worked two Olympics and has overseen fields in America and abroad.
But last year in New Orleans, something threatened Toma’s streak. Though he felt no discomfort, his right leg had swollen, and a doctor discovered a blood clot above his knee. Blood thinners gave him nosebleeds, and his nasal packing was removed four hours before the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers kicked off and more than 108 million viewers tuned in.
After he returned home to Kansas City, where he retired as the Royals’ head groundskeeper in 1999, Toma had a bad aortic valve diagnosed, and last August he underwent open-heart surgery. Complications followed, and so did seven weeks in the hospital, but when baseball’s spring training began, there he was in Fort Myers, Fla., working on the Minnesota Twins’ field as he had for years. He resumed his exercise regimen of walking, a half-mile and then one and then two, and before long he was pushing a lawn mower in the yards of a few elderly neighbors.
“My grass cutter,” he says, “is my walker.”
Toma shakes his head at the idea of taking things slower after such an ordeal. Even his son says he’d be nervous if his father opted to sit out a Super Bowl.
“The second he stops,” said Ryan Toma, 30, “is the second I think problems start.”
So once again, he made the trip to make sure everything’s right for the final game of the NFL season. As he sat in a hotel lobby this week, strangers and admirers passed. Some stopped. One asked for his autograph.
“You are an idol — an icon,” a volunteer said.
An hour later, after posing for occasional pictures and telling his stories, it was time to return to the stadium across the street. While Toma was away, a dress rehearsal was ongoing, with everything from the halftime show to the coin toss being practiced — all of it on his manicured field. Maybe he’d need to brush the turf to make the blades look fresh, and if there was static electricity on the field, the crew had a machine ready that sprays Downy fabric softener — another trick he knows, just in case.
“Sports has been good to me,” said Toma, who plans on attending next year’s Super Bowl, and as many after that as possible. “When the Lord says that’s it, that’s it.”