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Marquis de Sod
By JEANNE MALMGREN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000
AVON PARK -- The NFL's godfather of grass squats on a green carpet that stretches to the horizon, gently stroking the morning-wet blades.
"It's like a pool table," he says. "Juuuuust right."
Six weeks from now, this perfect grass will have 300-pound defensive linemen slamming onto it. Cleated shoes will bite into it like claws. All the blood, sweat and tears of a Super Bowl will soak it.
That's okay. George Toma knows his grass can take it.
"This is tough turf," he says with pride.
Actually, it isn't Toma's grass. It belongs to pro golfer Greg Norman. But Toma, the National Football League's turf consultant, is the one in charge of making sure that, come Jan. 28 in Tampa, this sod will be ready for a world-class beating.
What does Norman have to do with it? This is his turf farm, out in the middle of nowhere in Central Florida. This is where he grows pricey grass that becomes the playing surface for golf courses and stadiums around the world.
Norman, two-time winner of the British Open, entered the turf business several years ago. Like many big-name golfers, he designs golf courses -- in his case at $1-million a pop. Most designers leave the choice of grass up to the experts. Not Norman, a guy who likes to tinker. He helped develop GN-1, a hybrid Bermuda grass that's like the low-growing "cooch" grass in his native Australia.
Early in January, in preparation for the Super Bowl, the grass in Raymond James Stadium will be ripped up and replaced by a carpet of GN-1 -- the very grass Toma is standing on now. Each year the NFL pays for the new Super Bowl turf, with team logos, at the host stadium.
Toma has been here, at Norman's turf farm, since Thanksgiving. He says he'll spend Christmas here. He'll "babysit" the grass, as he puts it, until it's ready to ship to Tampa, and then he'll be on hand for its installation, a two-day undertaking that will employ 30 workers.
After this NFL grass of choice is installed, it will be overseeded with rye to green it up, then guarded 24 hours a day. At each corner of the field, a guard will have a radio-controlled model car. If birds dare to swoop in for seed, the guards will send the cars out to scare them off.
If that all sounds silly, consider that the price tag for this 65,000 square feet of turf is high. So high that neither Norman nor NFL officials want to say how much it costs.
Toma gives a hint, though: "This is the Mercedes Benz of grass," he says, grinning.
GN-1 is as refined as a pedigreed dog. Bred into it are qualities that make it perfect for high-profile athletic events such as the Super Bowl. It's intensely green, which looks good on TV. It can take the heat, humidity and sun of Southern climates. It has a monster root system. It grows aggressively. And, most important, it can take the abuse of a pro football game.
Toma picks up a metal hand tool with three prongs and plunges it into the grass.
"These are the cleats," he says, "And this is your player running down the field."
He twists the tool viciously in the grass, then lifts it and plunges again. And again. Faint triangles appear in the grass, indentations where the prongs were. But there's no other damage. No divots, no clods of dirt.
"This provides good footing for the players," Toma says. "Their cleats can really dig into the turf, but then they pop right back out."
Toma knows, better than anyone, what cleats can do to grass. He has been a professional sports groundskeeper for several decades, working mainly with the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals but also consulting for Pro Bowls and the Los Angeles Olympics. In 1996, he and his crew installed thousands of yards of sod in 24 hours at Olympic Stadium in Atlanta.
All 35 Super Bowls, including the upcoming one, have had grass groomed by Toma. He is 71 years old, confident, charming and bossy. He calls his assistant "Rookie."
Toma is familiar with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' premium playing surface at Raymond James, which is Tifway 419, another Bermuda strain. He knows how the field was sprigged in -- not sodded -- in 1998, how it was pampered and primped, how pretty it will look tonight on national TV for Monday Night Football.
"They have a great field already, but it gets a lot of activity," Toma says. "College football, pro football, concerts, the Outback Bowl."
After a "Monster Truck" event at Raymond James in February, the Super Bowl grass will be replaced with new 419, according to Mickey Farrell of the Tampa Sports Authority. The NFL pays for that, too.
"It's great for us," Farrell said. "We'll have a brand-new, pristine field that hasn't been played on and is free of logos. Plus, it'll be wall-to-wall 419, to match the 419 already in the end zones and along the sidelines."
Two years ago, GN-1 from Norman's turf farm was laid in Pro Player Stadium in Miami for the Super Bowl. It's still there. GN-1 is also in Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves; Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia; and several upscale Florida golf courses, including two in the Tampa Bay area: Heritage Harbor Golf Club in Tampa and El Diablo Golf & Country Club in Citrus County.
The swath of green destined for Super Bowl XXXV has been two years in the making. It was sprigged onto an endless flat field at Norman's turf farm, on top of a layer of plastic sheeting laid in the sand. Farm manager Jimmy Douberley and a small crew care for the grass, fertilizing with Milorganite, spraying with a root stimulant, putting blades of grass under a microscope to look for signs of fungus or insects.
The grass is mowed every other day, to keep it as short as a putting green. When it's time to remove it, large sheets of turf will be cut and rolled back, with the root system intact because of the plastic barrier underneath.
One morning last week, Toma and Douberley were waiting with the media for Norman to arrive and inspect the grass. Because of fog, Norman and his Gulfstream 5 jet were grounded for several hours at the Myrtle Beach, S.C., airport. He was there checking on one of his golf courses under construction.
Norman, who lives most of the year in Jupiter, is the quintessential sports star-turned-businessman. In addition to lucrative endorsement deals, he has a signature line of men's athletic wear and he hawks everything from luxury yachts to Australian wines to real estate.
When Norman finally arrived at the turf farm, he strode out into the field where GN-1 glistened in the sun.
Tall and tanned, wearing blue jeans, a Greg Norman T-shirt and mud-encrusted work boots, he looked around with a satisfied smile. "I could stand here and practice all afternoon, couldn't I?"
Alas, with no driver or putter in sight, Norman was reduced to tossing a football with Toma as the TV cameras rolled.
Norman said that one of his finest moments was having GN-1 used this year at the Summer Olympics in Sydney.
"Seeing it there in my native country, I think that was the proudest I've been. And it took a terrible beating. All the track and field events were there, it had soccer played on it. But when I looked down at it during the closing ceremonies, it still looked fine. That meant that we have the real McCoy."
Norman has GN-1 in his own front yard, and GN-2, a newer hybrid, in the back yard, where there's a putting green and a practice tee.
"I keep it really tight," he said. "I like it to look like it's a bowling green."
He and Toma drew into a close huddle to discuss plans for Super Bowl XXXV. Behind them, a worker on a mower drove across the groomed carpet. Time for the already-perfect grass to be cut again.
Behind the mower, a fine spray billowed up, rich and green -- the color of money.
-- St. Petersburg Times sports design director Jim Melvin contributed to this report.