Call him ‘The Sodfather.’ Kansas City’s George Toma has tended the turf at every single Super Bowl
The groundskeeping legend, known in the discipline as "The Sodfather," worked for the Kansas City Chiefs for 26 years. This week, the 94-year-old is in Glendale, Arizona, where he's hard at work preparing State Farm Stadium for the Super Bowl game and Rihanna's halftime show.
By the time George Toma became the groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs, in 1963, he was already a household name. Prior to joining the franchise for its inaugural year here, Toma kept the Kansas City Athletics’ baseball field in working condition.
Four years later, his reputation earned him a summons from the National Football League to the very first Super Bowl, between the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. Toma has worked every Super Bowl since.
This week, Toma is in Glendale, Arizona, for the 2023 Super Bowl, working once again with the NFL.
“There’s my cane,” he said, pointing to a walking stick on the sideline at State Farm Stadium.
Toma, known widely in the football world as “The Sodfather,” plans to keep returning to the big game’s sidelines as long as he’s able to walk.
To help him on his way, Toma’s son, Ryan, a commercial airline pilot, drove him from Kansas City to Arizona.
Why exactly would a 94-year-old continue to take on the challenge of a modern turf under a retractable roof and a major halftime entertainment show?
“It’s that generation — that Depression-era generation," says Ryan Toma. "They just don’t stop.”
George Toma attributes his work ethic to his upbringing in Pennsylvania.
“When my dad died when I was 10 years old, I had to get a job,” he said. “When I was 12, I got a job with my neighbor, who was a groundskeeper with the Wilkes-Barre Indians, (a minor league team) owned by the Cleveland Indians. From there, I went on.”
Toma was named head groundskeeper for the Wilkes-Barre team when he was 16 years old.
As a Pennsylvania native living just a couple hours from Philadelphia, Toma developed a love for those local teams.
“I always rooted for the Eagles,” he said. “When I was 9 or 10 years old, my uncle would take me down to Shibe Park to see the Phillies play and the Eagles play.”
But after spending most of his adult life in Kansas City, Toma changed allegiances. In 2019, when the Chiefs played the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in Miami, Toma had a message for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I said, ‘Commissioner, I’m sticking up for the Chiefs today,’” Toma recalled. “Me and Lamar Hunt were so close.”
This year, though, things are different.
“He told me that I can’t stick up for the Chiefs,” said Toma. “He says, ‘George, you work for the league. The league pays you. You’ve got to be neutral.’”
“If I had two hearts, one would be with the Chiefs and one would be with the Eagles,” he added.
On with the show
Even after all these years, one of Toma’s biggest pet peeves is people walking on his meticulously prepared turf. That’s why he’s not exactly thrilled with a worldwide pop star like Rihanna performing on the big stage during the halftime break.
But he takes it in stride.
“Actually, I hate to say this, but the halftime show is more important than the game,” he said.
During halftime show rehearsals leading up to Sunday’s game, Toma and his crew adjusted on the fly.
“Saturday, we started to have rehearsals, so we covered the field with a field cover” to protect the turf, Toma said.
Toma also knows his work has influenced others in Kansas City’s turf business, some of whom also made the trip to Arizona.
“Randy Baker, who’s the head groundskeeper for Belton High School, this is his 24th Super Bowl,” Toma said.
He also singled out Travis Hogan, the Chiefs’ head groundskeeper.
“When Travis came here, he brought all his electronic equipment and he has it on the field,” he said.
“In the first 27 Super Bowls, we didn’t spend $1,000 on the field for a game,” said Toma. “This one here is $750,000.”
Still, the turf he tended from 1963 until 1989 has a special hold on Toma. Though off-season concerts and motor vehicle events are scheduled this year at Arrowhead, the football-playing surface won’t be used again until late summer.
“I never stepped on better grass in 81 years in this game as I step on when I go to Arrowhead,” he said.