Blades of Glory: Not All Grass Is Created Equal
ESPN The Magazine|February 8,2016

It grew for over a year on secret membranes with special ingredients and high-tech tools, never knowing whether it would get the chance to live up to its full potential. Finally, Field No. 2 is ready for the big stage at Super Bowl 50. Question is, can it withstand the weight of the game?

Tommy Tomlinson

A REMOTE PIECE OF FARMLAND east of San Francisco, sometime in the fall. The buyer arrives to inspect the product. The farmers have tended to it for months, keeping it warm under grow blankets, dry under tarps, its very existence under wraps. The farmers have leverage; few places grow product of this quality. The buyer has leverage; he can hold out for the best.

The buyer takes the product in his hands. He rubs it with his fingers. He inhales deeply, taking in the aroma. He pinches off a bit and tastes it, to judge the quality and texture.

Around the first of December, the phone rings at the farm. The buyer is on the line. The deal is made. The discussion turns to delivery—to Levi’s Stadium.

You’ve probably never thought about the turf at the Super Bowl, which means the people who grow and tend to the turf at the Super Bowl have done their jobs. Turf is big business, and the stakes are high.

Imagine what would happen if a running back, rounding the corner for the winning touchdown in America’s biggest game, planted his foot to cut and hit nothing but loose dirt. Imagine if he tore an Achilles as he fell. Imagine the kilotons of outrage detonated in that moment. Imagine millions of dollars in bets swinging on a single crappy patch of grass. The field is important to football the way a microphone is important to Adele. You don’t notice it if it works. It can ruin everything if it doesn’t.

THE DEAL PRETTY much happened that way a few months back at a place called West Coast Turf in Livingston, California. The buyer was a man named Ed Mangan, who has worked 27 Super Bowls and has been the Super Bowl field director since 2000. (The rest of the year, his main gig is maintaining Turner Field in Atlanta, home of the Braves.) Mangan uses fancy tools like Clegg hammers (which gauge the firmness of the turf ) and torsion testers (which measure the traction that cleats get on a field). But sometimes it comes down to the senses. He really does take a deep whiff. He really does pinch off a bit of the soil and taste it. “Pulling on it, touching on it, feeling it, smelling it,” Mangan says, “everything is involved.”

Whenever the Super Bowl is played on natural grass, the NFL replaces the field. The practice started after Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl (Cowboys 52, Bills 17—the Leon Lett game). Pasadena had been soaked with 16 inches of rain that January—nearly four times the average—and even with tarping, the NFL had to patch ruined pieces of the field. After that, the NFL started replacing the turf with sod grown especially for the game. That leaves just four or five weeks to tear out the old turf and install the new turf. There’s no grow-in time. It has to be ready to go.

And there aren’t many choices when it comes to fields. This is West Coast Turf ’s eighth Super Bowl. Bent Oak Farm in Foley, Alabama, has done seven. John Marman, VP of sales and marketing at West Coast Turf, could think of only one other place that grows Super Bowl quality grass: Carolina Green, outside Charlotte. The NFL has reserved one of Bent Oak’s fields as the backup. Like the first runner-up for Miss America, it’s ready in case the winning field cannot fulfill its duties.

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