Originally created 01/31/05

'Dirt Man' grooms Super Bowl fields with passion



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - George Toma walks to the middle of Alltel Stadium, gets on his hands and knees and starts scouring the ground for sprigs of grass.

He finds some seeds, several sprouts and plenty of optimism.

"It's coming along nicely," Toma says about a week before the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Then he picks up a metal hand tool with three prongs on one end and plunges it into the sod. He twists the tool purposefully, then lifts and sinks it again. No divots. No damage. Just a few small indentations.

"We could play the game today and not have any problems," he says.

He should know. The confident, charming and compact Toma has been the NFL's turf consultant for every Super Bowl, responsible for getting the playing field ready for sports' biggest game. His job is always pivotal, sometimes challenging and often overlooked.

Toma loves every aspect of it.

Even though he turns 76 on Wednesday, has prostate cancer and has been retired for several years, he refuses to slow down.

"I can't sit still," he says. "I tried to slow down and take it easy, but that didn't work for me. I just couldn't do it. I need to stay busy."

Toma estimates that in the six years since retiring as head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals, he has spent less than 150 days at home in Kansas City, Mo. He's been on the road even more in the last six months.

He first arrived in Jacksonville in July to begin preparation for the Super Bowl. Working through the four hurricanes that affected Florida, Toma built one practice field at the University of North Florida and two more at Bartram Trail High School. He even did most of the physical labor himself.

He worked until late November before heading to Hawaii for five weeks to prepare fields for the Pro Bowl. He returned home on Christmas, took it easy for two days, then couldn't rest any longer. He mowed several neighbors' lawns despite chilly temperatures.

"He's one of the hardest-working guys I know," says NFL fields director Ed Mangan. "He's always running around doing something. I just have to try to keep up."

Toma developed his work ethic at a young age.

When he was 10, Toma watched his father fall to the ground as they walked. George Toma Sr. died from lung disease caused by years of working in coal mines.

Though Toma's friends already were getting paid to separate rocks from coal, his father's death prompted him to do something else with his life.

He spent three years on chicken and vegetable farms, then began working with a neighbor who was the groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre Barons, a Class-A baseball team in Pennsylvania. Four years later, in 1946, Toma took over as the Barons' head groundskeeper.

Toma quickly learned the importance of doing good work. Whether he was mowing, raking, weeding, watering, edging or fertilizing, he did the job "and then some" - a phrase he has since adopted as his motto. Nearly six decades later - and after becoming the best in the business - he expects everyone working with him to have the same approach.

They do.

They also have countless stories about Toma - but not nearly as many as they hear from him. Toma could spend hours chronicling the places he's been and the people he's met along the way.

There's one about his first day as head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs, when he kicked a man out of the stadium for walking on the field and later learned it was team owner Lamar Hunt.

There's one about how New York Yankees' players pooled together some of their own money in an attempt to lure Toma to the Big Apple.

There's one about how former Texas Rangers star Alex Rodriguez asked him to move to Arlington just to take care of the infield between second and third base.

"I was offered about every job in the big leagues," Toma says proudly.

There's more, too. There's the story about sleeping in a wheel barrow while re-sodding Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium before the 1996 Olympics. He also fondly recalls his favorite baseball player, George Brett, who refused to spit his tobacco on the turf at Royals Stadium because of Toma's dedication.

Then there are the Super Bowl memories, from his first one in which he used just a small trunk of supplies (he now has a 36-person crew and four tractor-trailers) to several that stand out because of field problems. Two of those happened in Florida.

For the Super Bowl in Miami in 1999, Toma used grass grown on professional golfer Greg Norman's sod farm in central Florida.

Toma says the farm burned the sod by fertilizing it before transportation.

"It looked like grandma's quilt," he says.

Toma and Mangan eventually used 250 gallons of green paint to "make it look like a million bucks."

At the Super Bowl four years ago in Tampa, when a large section of grass near midfield was singed during rehearsals for the pregame show, Toma ordered 1,000 square feet of sod removed the night before the game.

Then he had several members of the grounds crew follow him to the University of Tampa, where he rammed his truck through a locked gate and "borrowed" sod from the school's soccer field.

"Sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get the job done," Toma says. "But they were well compensated later."

The father of three boys, Toma was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, had his autobiography, "Nitty Gritty Dirt Man," published in 2003 and recently had a bobblehead doll created in his likeness.

The doll is wearing a big smile, holding a rake and ready to work - just like Toma.

"He's the pioneer of this business. He pretty much started it all," Mangan says. "If he hasn't seen it or done it, it probably hasn't been done."