Super Bowl

NFL remakes Levi’s Stadium sod

Workers install new turf, composed of Bermuda grass overseeded with ryegrass, ahead of Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. For more than 20 years, the NFL has replaced the entire field for Super Bowls played on natural grass, ensuring pristine conditions for the game.
Workers install new turf, composed of Bermuda grass overseeded with ryegrass, ahead of Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. For more than 20 years, the NFL has replaced the entire field for Super Bowls played on natural grass, ensuring pristine conditions for the game. Photo courtesy of West Coast Turf

Hours after the 49ers beat the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 3 in the final game of the regular season here, a whole other team entered Levi’s Stadium for an urgent, curious ritual: to replace the entire field in time for the Super Bowl a month away.

While the players were still cleaning out their lockers, a team of three dozen groundskeepers, led by Ed Mangan, the NFL’s field director, began ripping out tons of sod to make way for 29 truckloads of specially designed grass that would arrive a week later from a farm owned by West Coast Turf in Livingston, 117 miles to the south.

The high-speed and costly swap is standard procedure for the NFL, which for about a quarter-century has replaced the field before every Super Bowl played on natural grass, to ensure pristine conditions.

Players in cleats are the least of the league’s worries.

The field must withstand the many walk-throughs and rehearsals for the pregame and halftime shows, which include not only hundreds of performers but also tons of equipment, some of which is on wheels and can create ruts. The field also must be painted and groomed, work that can be altered by rain and cold.

“You can’t guarantee that you are going to have good weather, so you start as early as you can,” said Mangan, who has worked at more than 25 Super Bowls. “You want to get the grass on the ground as soon as possible so we can get it bedded in, cured in and get it growing.”

In the early years of the Super Bowl, the league would replace only damaged patches of the field, using seed, sand and anything else that would make it look new. (Artificial turf in stadiums like the old Orange Bowl was doctored mostly with paint, while crumb rubber pellets are added to newer synthetic turf in places like MetLife Stadium, in East Rutherford, N.J., which hosted Super Bowl XLVIII.)

But a quarter-century ago, at Super Bowl XXV, the league was having trouble getting the field at Tampa Stadium ready. The Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants practiced on the field the day before the game, ripping up the turf in the middle of the field.

So George Toma, the NFL’s chief groundskeeper at the time, proposed a quick fix to Jim Steeg, who organized the event for the league then: Take the grass from a practice field at the University of Tampa and truck it over.

“He cut out the middle of the field, replaced the sod, repainted it – and no one knew the difference by game time,” Steeg said.

Although the crisis was averted, the league decided that replacing the entire field, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, would reduce the chance of last-minute adjustments.

The league has several preferred vendors for its sod, including Bent Oak Farm in Foley, Alabama, which provided the field for last year’s Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.

This year, West Coast Turf was chosen partly because it is close to Levi’s Stadium. This is the eighth time the company has provided sod for the game and the first since Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.

West Coast Turf knows Levi’s Stadium well because it has regularly provided the sod that the 49ers play on. Soon after the stadium opened, though, the field was ripped out because the improper composition of the sand underneath the sod left deformities on the field. Some players had fallen awkwardly.

It has been replaced more than half a dozen times since then because of concerts and other nonfootball events.

To get ready for the Super Bowl, West Coast Turf grew a special 75,000-square-foot field for 18 months. To ensure it could withstand heavy wear but also be used immediately, the company developed a Bermuda grass over-seeded with ryegrass. The grass was grown on a plastic membrane that let water through but not sand or roots, which grew laterally to create a thick mesh that made the field durable.

By slowing the flow of water through the membrane, company officials said, West Coast Turf used 70 percent less water, a priority given California’s severe drought.

“We have treated this field with a lot of TLC for a long time,” said John Marman, the vice president for sales and marketing at West Coast Turf. “It has its own blankets, rain tarps, special diet. You name it, we’ve done it.”

To get the field to the stadium, the sod was sliced into strips 40 feet long, 3 1/2 feet wide and about 2 inches thick, and rolled like carpet. Each of the 536 rolls weighed 2,500 pounds.

In the wee hours Jan. 11, when the air was cool, the first of 29 truckloads of rolled sod left for Santa Clara as part of a two-day installation. The rolls were unfurled one at a time on top of the sand that sits below the field. The sod was then stitched together with a special machine.

The NFL then started to prepare the field, adding sand and seed as needed. It also painted the field, including the logos in the end zone. Mangan said his crew of more than 30 went through about 500 gallons of paint, although some of it was used on the six fields at San Jose State and Stanford, where the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers have practiced for the game.

In all, Mangan brought three tractor-trailers’ worth of equipment to Santa Clara.

Because the field is mowed almost daily, it has to be repainted as well. The heavy rains that arrived in recent weeks forced Mangan’s crew to tarp the field several times. The tarp is also used during rehearsals to prevent“abrasions,” as Mangan put it.

But “you don’t want to keep it on too long because it needs to breathe just like any living plant,” he said.

The NFL also tests the field to ensure it has the proper traction and hardness. And, as the top groundskeeper, Mangan has the honor of being the last person to mow the field before the game.

Before and after the pregame and halftime shows, Mangan and his team will walk the field to repair any divots or other damage. They hope they will find nothing noteworthy.

Success is “when they’re not talking about the field,” Mangan said.

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