JACKSONVILLE, FL (AP) A short, very fit, very tanned 75-year-old man has been pacing around the football stadium at Bartram Trail High School, scratching at the dirt, tossing aside rocks and studying the lay of the land.
The man is George Toma, whom Sports Illustrated once dubbed “the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man,” a name he borrowed for his recently published autobiography. In the foreword to Toma’s book, Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett calls Toma “the greatest groundskeeper in the history of the game.”
Toma is supervising the construction of two fields at Bartram Trail and another two at the University of North Florida that will be used for practice by the teams participating in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Toma, who has been preparing the playing fields for every Super Bowl since the first in 1967, also will lay new turf at Alltel Stadium once the last Jacksonville Jaguars game is played this season.
“The guy knows how to make grass grow,” said Jim Steeg, the NFL’s senior vice president in charge of special events. “He could grow it on a billiard table.”
Toma said his goals, as always, will be to prepare a field that will “give the players the best possible conditions to play,” will provide spectators with “a field of beauty” and “will not take too much money out of the city’s coffers.”
He achieves those goals, he said, by working hard and asking others to work hard. A recipient of the Daniel J. Reeves Pioneer Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, he hustles around the practice fields in shorts, a Super XXXVIII cap and wraparound sunglasses, but no shirt –– he prefers to work shirtless.
“He motivates people by the fact they see him working so hard,” Steeg said.
Toma even has an expression, “and then some,” as in “we did our job and then some,” that encapsulates his philosophy.
The Sports Turf Management Association, which he helped found, has an award called the “George Toma And Then Some Golden Rake Award.”
Toma has been getting fields ready for games since he was 13. Born in 1929 in northeast Pennsylvania, he was 10 when his father, a coal miner who suffered from black lung disease, died.
Toma, who had no desire to dig in cold, black shafts deep in the earth, instead went to work digging in the dirt under the summer sun.
After a couple of summers spent working on local farms, in 1942 he was hired to work on the baseball grounds crew at Artillery Park for the Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Class A Eastern League. In 1946, at the age of 17, Toma became Wilkes-Barre’s head groundskeeper.
Two years later Toma went to work for the man he calls the greatest groundskeeper who ever lived, Emil Bossard, of the Cleveland Indians. Among other duties, Toma helped Bossard build a 12-field minor league complex called Indianville in Daytona Beach, on ground now covered by the Daytona International Speedway.
After a decade in the minor leagues, with time out for service during the Korean War, Toma’s big break came in 1957 when he was offered the job of head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Athletics.
Bossard advised him not to take the job, arguing that Municipal Stadium had the worst field in the majors and that Kansas City’s extreme weather would prevent Toma from improving it.
But Toma decided the poor condition of the field worked in his favor, since no one would blame him if he couldn’t make it better.
In 1962, while working in the empty stadium, he found a stranger walking across the field and angrily ordered him out. The stranger turned out to be Lamar Hunt, owner of the Dallas Texans of the American Football League.
Despite Toma’s unfriendly reception, Hunt moved the Texans, renamed the Chiefs, to Kansas City and Toma went to work for them as well.
Toma said he got his second big break when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle came to Kansas City for a news conference in 1966, shortly after an NFL-AFL merger was announced. Asked the difference in the quality of play between the two leagues, Rozelle said he didn’t think it was significant. Then he added, “I have never seen a better-kept field than they have right here.”
That caught the attention of NFL teams, notably the Dallas Cowboys, who hired Toma to prepare the Cotton Bowl Stadium. The stadium was hosting the Cotton Bowl game between Georgia and Southern Methodist University on Dec. 31 and the NFL championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers the next day.
When the Packers met the Chiefs in the first Super Bowl two weeks later, Toma was in charge of preparing the turf of the Los Angeles Coliseum. He’s been working for the NFL ever since, doing Super Bowls and more recently Pro Bowls.
Despite Toma’s love of working with grass and dirt, he spent most of the 1970s and 1980s tending to artificial surfaces in Kansas City’s Truman Sports Complex, which included both Arrowhead Stadium for the Chiefs and Kaufman Stadium for the Kansas City Royals, an expansion franchise that arrived after the A’s moved to Oakland. Those fields are now grass.
As a consultant, he also helped prepare fields for the 1984 and 1996 Olympics and for the 1992 World Cup tournament.
“I’m like Red Adair,” he said, referring to the famed oil well firefighter. “I go and get fields that were dilapidated and get them ready for championship events.”
Toma said he hasn’t studied the field at Alltel Stadium yet but knows it has a reputation as one of the best playing surfaces in the league. The bigger challenge, he said, will be getting the four practice fields at Bartram Trail and UNF in peak condition.
“Since the players spend more time on them, they have to be in better shape than the game field,” he said.
Although he retired from his jobs with the Royals and the Chiefs, Toma said he remains so busy he has spent only 150 days at his home in suburban Kansas City in the last five years.
“Baseball –– and sports –– have been good to me,” he said. “I have the greatest job in the world.” And then some.