George Toma: From Single A to the Super Bowl . . . and Then Some
By Kevin Burrows, LSMP Editor
Toma, wetting down the field at Kaufman Stadium in 1998 has been working as a Groundskeeper for over 66 years. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, has a bobblehead in his likeness and even has an award given out in his honor every year by the STMA, the George Toma Golden Rake Award. Photos courtesy of George Toma
George Toma has carved out an unparalleled career in the world of sports turf. In his 66 years (and counting) in the business he has worked for Major League Baseball, World Cup Soccer, the 1984 and 1996 Summer Olympics, not to mention the National Football League where he has overseen field preparation for every Super Bowl.
He has also lent his expertise to countless field renovations and installations in countries all over the world. Undoubtedly, he is the most well-known groundskeeper in all of professional sports. For our “Sports Turf and Athletic Fields” Issue, LSMP thought there was no better opinion to get about the industry, its problems, its challenges and its future. If you have ever spoken to him, you know, George Toma didn’t pull any punches. First, lets look back at his humble beginnings, how he rose through the ranks and how he’s enjoying his “retirement.”
Toma began working for the Kansas City Athletics in 1957 and stayed with them until they moved to Oakland, Calif. in 1967. He became the Royals Head Groundskeeper when they were formed in 1969. He remained with them along with the Kansas City Chiefs football team until he retired in 1999.
The Long Strange Trip
The son of a coal minor, Toma was Born in 1929 in the Eastern-Pennsylvania town of Wilkes Barre. He was 10 when his father passed away, so in order to help support his family he started working. He took a job on the groundscrew at Artillery Park for the Walkes Barre Barons, a Class A Eastern League baseball team, a profession far away from the mines. By 1946 had had worked his way up to Head Groundskeeper, but in 1950 he was drafted into the military and served two years in Korea before coming back to the Barons.
His big break came in 1957, when he was offered two jobs on the other side of the country. One was the Major League Kansas City Athletics; the other was the Denver Bears, the triple-A affiliate to the New York Yankees. Kansas City had a reputation of chewing up and spitting out groundskeepers, a lost cause most people said he would be wise to avoid. Denver, on the other hand, had a field with a great reputation amongst grounds crews and players alike. On top of that, it was only one step away from working at the pinnacle of all ballparks, Yankee Stadium. Against the urging of colleagues like Emil Bossard, Toma decided to take on the challenge of Kansas City. The way he saw it, he could only screw up the field in Denver, but he was bound to make improvements in Missouri.
George Toma was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch of the Kansas City Royals 1995 season after they converted the field from an unpopular artificial surface to a more player-friendly bluegrass. Underneath this new grass field was a state of the art irrigation and drainage system.
Under his direction, the field in Kansas City thrived, going from being known as one of the worst to consistently being named as one of, if not the best field in all of professional sports. In 1963, when the Dallas Texans football team relocated to town, he became their Head Groundskeeper as well. The Kansas City Chiefs, as they were now known, created an entirely different set of challenges for Toma, because as he put it, “baseball and soccer are played on top of turf, but football is played in it.” The Athletics moved to Oakland, Calif. after the 1967 season, so the town was without baseball until the expansion Royals set up shop in 1969. The two teams shared Municipal Stadium until 1972, when the Royals and Chiefs moved into their newly constructed homes, Kaufman Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium, respectively. Toma continued to pull double duty, overseeing professional football and baseball year round, all while maintaining highly-regarded playing surfaces in both sports. His work didn’t stop there though, as his fields hosted soccer to lacrosse games, not to mention a few concerts a year. Through it all, Toma’s reputation steadily grew along with his turfgrass. Even world-renowned soccer star Pele gushed that Toma’s field was one of the best surfaces he had ever played on.
P.J. Botwell, shown here at right working with Toma, is the Groundskeeper for the Minnesota Twins spring training facility in Ft. Myers, Fla. An up-and-comer in the industry, “he does it all,” said Toma. “He welds, sharpens mower blades and fixes things. He’s an artist, cuts grass, sprays and is the best rake man I’ve ever seen.”
The two rival professional football leagues, the AFL and the NFL merged in the mid 1960’s. Their first ever title game needed to be a spectacle with a field to match, for it would be on television. For this task, owners charged Toma and his crew with the job of preparing the turf at the Los Angeles Coliseum. On January 15,1957 the championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Toma’s own Chiefs was played. Dubbed the “Super Bowl” by Chiefs Owner Lamar Hunt, ice skating rink paint was used for each team’s name and logo in the end zones and Toma himself came up with the idea for using a stencil to paint a football with a crown at midfield. The turf received rave reviews not only from the players, but also for how it looked on television. The rest is, as they say, history. Toma has worked every Super Bowl since.
Toma stopped working full-time in 1999, and in the nine years since, he has averaged about 45 days at his home in Kansas City. You see, his retirement is nothing close to what most people would define as taking it easy. Instead, he works contracts throughout the year at sports complexes across the country. Whether he is needed at the Senior Bowl in Alabama or consulting for the Atlantic Coast Conference on their baseball fields, he has little time to relax and reflect. For his marquee event, the Super Bowl, he and his team normally spend about 4 to 6 weeks on site leading up to the game. (For the 2004 game in Jacksonville he worked the 6 months prior to get the field prepped). Once finished, he heads to Hawaii, making sure that Aloha Stadium is ready for the Pro Bowl (he has worked 36 of them). Once his NFL obligations are complete he heads off to Ft. Myers, Fla., where he has spent 9 weeks every winter since working at the spring training facility of the Minnesota Twins. The last few years have been especially busy, including time spent in Baton Rouge, La. in 2006 to prepare the field for Saints games after Hurricane Katrina, and most recently rehabbing the Notre Dame football field. When asked if he gets nostalgic about working NFL training camps in August, Toma answered simply, “I’ve got enough to do.“
Calling it like it is
A founding member of the Sport Turf Managers Association (STMA), Toma has a great affection for his chosen profession. But when he does see substandard work, he is not afraid to give his opinion. “A lot of people think I’m negative,” he said. “I’m not afraid to tell it like it is. Before you get positive, you have to tell the negative parts. If I tell them they have a bad field, I don’t think that’s negative. I mean, everyone in the country knows. They don’t want to hear it, but we’ve just got to do a better job.”
“I have groundskeepers tell me they wish the manager wouldn’t play certain guys because they always complains to the media about how bad the infield is. I simply answer, “You’ve got bad infield. Everyone in the league knows it. Do something about it.”
George Toma, shown here before Super Bowl XXXV, believes “sometimes you have to use a pesticide on a field, because if you don’t, insects are going to take over.” He also believes you need good relationships with the sod grower. “If he had insect damage and you bring it into a field and players get cleats in it, the turf will fall apart. You have to check with your farm for any disease or insects first.”
One Title, Many Jobs
Toma takes pride in the fact that he helped give a face and personality to the groundskeeping profession. “I think I started getting the groundskeeper noticed, and now I make sure they are doing a good job,” he said. “My job is to help them.”
A groundskeeper does more than cut grass in Toma’s opinion. He’s a doctor and the grass is his patient. Sometimes it may get sick and he has to analyze the disease. He then becomes a pharmacist. Does he need to use a fungicide, a pesticide or nutrients? He is also an artist, decorating the end zone and painting logos on the turf. He is a weatherman, a supply clerk, and even a plumber, performing irrigation work under the field. “With all the jobs he’s doing, he should get paid at least $100,000,” said Toma.
In all the years that Toma has worked at the Super Bowl, he has seen and done almost everything you could imagine in regards to turf. What happened at Miami a few years ago, however, could have been the in his words the “worst disaster in Super Bowl history.” A week before the crew was going to lay the sod, they went up to the farm to see the product. “I looked at and I knew it wasn’t much good,” said Toma. When they brought it down, it took six truckloads just to lay 6,000 feet of sod on the sidelines. Realizing this wasn’t going to work a decision was made to replace the sod at the last minute. To Toma’s surprise, the field that they ended up using turned out to be the second best sod he had ever seen in his 66 years in the business. The game between the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts was the first the Super Bowl ever played in a rainstorm and the newly laid sod worked to perfection. “If we ever put that first sod down in Miami, that would be been a big disaster,” said Toma. “We left the original sod on the sidelines, and when it rained that area was a pigpen. Just think what that playing field would have been like.”
While Toma is technically retired, he has stayed extremely busy, due to his “And Then Some” attitude. In 2006 and 2007 he worked at the Minnesota Vikings training complex to build two practice fields, while also breaking in their new grounds crew. He is shown here breaking the huddle with the team after practice.
Growing Sod On Plastic
Some of the best sod Toma has ever seen was grown on plastic. The two fields that stand out were the replacement turf at the Miami Super Bowl along with a field used at the Superdome in the late 1990’s for a game between the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
To grow sod using this method, a base of sand or dirt is laid on top of plastic. Next you sprig the Bermudagrass and as it grows and top-dress it to the thickness that you want. Because of the plastic, the roots have no place to go. “You can’t pull it apart because it’s so tight and clean,” said Toma. “You can’t use a sod cutter to cut it out. You will need a wheel knife. It’s clean and doesn’t fall apart. It’s excellent sod.”
“Eddie Warner started using the process with paspalum.” To be able to fit it on a truck, each piece is cut to a width of 7 feet. At 41 feet long they can be laid down easily. You can do a field wall to wall in 10 hours,” said Toma.
“Sometimes they think I give ‘em hell. I just tell the truth. They think it’s hell.” —George Toma
Honesty and integrity are two values Toma often comes back to when discussing Sports Turf Managers. “I’m against a groundskeeper that buys bad sod and puts it on his field. How can you sod one week and take the whole field out the next? In my opinion, that gentleman is buying sod and getting a kickback. If the sod is no good there’s better sod out there, excellent sod. If you don’t have good grass, go to another grower. Otherwise, you are taking a good field away from players. It took me five years to find out why some of these clubs had bad fields, and it came down to that they didn’t have honesty and integrity. They were buying sod because their palm was getting greased. I’ve seen it happen not once but many times. We have to get honesty and integrity back.”
The 2007 NFL season saw a number of bad playing fields in Toma’s opinion. “Tony Leonard, in Philadelphia for one, had some issues using the DD Grassmaster system,” he said. The surface at Lincoln Financial Field is home to the Eagles along with a number of college and high school games, which caused the turf to break down late in the season. “It’s not his fault, but when you have a lot of games, the grass is going to wear out. With a normal grass field, you can sod down the gut, but with the DD Grassmaster, you’ve got to sod the entire field,” said Toma.
Pittsburgh had similar problems, most notably during a Monday Night Football rainstorm. “Maybe someone fell asleep,” Toma said. “They should have punched some holes in the field so it could have drained.” Toma made sure, however, to speak to the Pittsburgh groundskeeper this off-season and told him to keep his head up and stay positive. “He learned from the ordeal and I don’t think you’ll ever see that happen there again.”
“Poor Kansas City,” Toma went on. “They have one of the worst fields in the league.” The field at Arrowhead was re-sodded three times last year, twice in a seven-day span. “They did not pick out the right sod if they had to sod twice in one week.”
Toma, shown here at the NFL’s big game recently held in Miami, has worked every single Super Bowl as well as 36 Pro Bowls. For football fields, Toma’s first choice is bluegrass. “It is excellent, and when that wears out, Bermudagass sod grown on plastic is a good choice,” he said.
Toma has seen some good artificial turf fields and some bad ones, but it is obvious when speaking with him which one he favors. “I’m not against artificial turf, but it has to have a good installation,” he said. When turf replaced natural grass at Kaufman Stadium in 1973, Toma and his team were asked to make a checklist pointing out any problems. “There were so many uneven areas, the manufacturer had to replace it at their own cost,” said Toma.
“There are a lot of great new (artificial turf) systems on the market–both sand and rubber filled–but I’ve seen many bad jobs,” he continued. With the rise of so many turf options he feels that these artificial surfaces will be taking over in football more and more often. “Not so much in baseball,” he said, “but you will see them in football. And who do we have to blame?
While management often cares less about the field than the crew, the groundskeepers have got to blame themselves,” said Toma. “At old municipal stadium we had the best field with football, baseball, soccer and rock concerts, and we never re-sodded. Now you see football fields sodded 2 to 3 times a year. That’s when artificial turf comes in and takes over. If we don’t straighten out, Arrowhead Stadium will be next.”
Doing a Better Job
“There are a lot of good fields out there, and there’s a few bad ones,” said Toma. “They just have to do a better job. Today you have all these experts, but sometimes with them the fields aren’t what they used to be, or at the top in the league like they should be. People don’t want to hear me say that. Some high school fields are better than what we often see on Saturday and Sunday, and they don’t have any money to spend.”
Toma’s main advice to groundskeepers is to satisfy the players and owners, especially in football because of the investment both groups have. “The cheapest insurance is a good safe playing field,” he said. “We can do it If we want. There are a lot of good groundskeepers out there. We’re just like a team. We just need to do a better job.”