Kansas City's 'Sodfather' skipped the Super Bowl for the first time ever. Grass problems didn't
George Toma, a 95-year-old former Kansas City Chiefs groundskeeper, had worked every single Super Bowl since the very first. But after a slippery playing surface in Arizona last year garnered harsh criticism from players and fans, the NFL hoped to avoid turf troubles in Las Vegas.
Kansas City groundskeeping legend George Toma made a big splash at last year’s Super Bowl, when the Chiefs won their third in franchise history. But the field conditions in Arizona made headlines in all the wrong ways.
This year, the NFL wants to avoid a repeat of those turf woes. And Toma, for the first time ever, isn’t on the scene to monitor it.
“Maybe something now will change,” said Toma on the prospects for this year's field.
Across the country, Toma is known as “The Sodfather.” In Kansas City, George Toma’s career as a groundskeeper goes all the way back to the days of the Kansas City Athletics and the old Municipal Stadium, at 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue.
But even he has to admit that last year’s Super Bowl field was a mess. The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles were slipping and sliding throughout the game, and Toma declared soon afterward that it would be his last Super Bowl as an NFL consultant.
“I laid everything out for them,” he said. “So what happens to Super Bowl 57? It’s the worst game-field I’ve ever seen before an NFL groundskeeper stepped on.”
Toma, who was involved with the grounds crew in every other Super Bowl, says that it wasn’t just the Arizona game field, either. Toma didn’t like how the practice fields were tended.
“The two practice fields (were) the worst fields that I’ve seen — maybe not at the Super Bowls, but in the entire NFL,” Toma said from his Westwood, Kansas, home.
The problems with last year’s overwatered field became evident to Toma when rehearsals for the halftime show finished, and a mat to protect the grass was removed.
“When we pulled it up after practice, it was mud. Retracted mud,” said Toma. “And it was wet, wet, wet.”
Despite everyone’s best efforts, field concerns have come up again this year.
While the Chiefs are practicing on natural grass at the Las Vegas Raiders’ facility, the San Francisco 49ers are practicing on grass laid over a synthetic turf surface at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The Super Bowl surface, meanwhile, will be natural grass.
The discrepancy was raised Wednesday during a news conference with Lloyd Howell, executive director of the NFL Players Association.
“The mere fact that you’re asking this question on the biggest opportunity in our event just means that it is an issue,” Howell told the media.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the issue, too, on Monday — and dismissed it.
“It’s (the) consistency of what players are playing on during the game, (and) leading up to the game: What they’re practicing on and what they’re (playing) on,” said Goodell.
Players Association President JC Tretter, a former offensive lineman himself, said that’s not acceptable.
“When we talked about last week that we need to raise the level to make both surfaces high quality, and then a week later you’re saying it’s OK because it’s ‘playable’ — playable is not the same standard as high quality,” Tretter said.
Toma also takes a little issue with Goodell and the lack of a conversation before his own departure from the Super Bowl grounds crew.
“It doesn’t hurt me,” said Toma. “I still love Roger Goodell, but he hasn’t given me 30 seconds. That’s all I want to this day.”
The general public got its last glimpse of Super Bowl preparations at Allegiant Stadium on Monday. The natural grass there is under tender care outside the stadium. It’ll be moved inside, like a giant tray on wheels, before the game.
Among those on the grounds crew this year is Kansas City Chiefs groundskeeper Travis Hogan, who declined an interview. Toma is a big fan of Hogan.
“In my 80 years in the game,” said Toma, “I’ve never seen a better groundskeeper than Travis Hogan, and never stood on better grass than Travis Hogan has.”
The Kansas City Chiefs, meanwhile, will get to touch Super Bowl grass for themselves on Sunday.