George Toma is ready for anything at Super Bowl XLVIII. Let it snow, let it rain, let MetLife Stadium freeze over.
Toma, the renowned groundskeeper from Kansas City, will not be intimidated or undermined by the elements this week as he prepares the field for the first Super Bowl played outdoors in a northern city.
Toma has served as head groundskeeper for all 48 Super Bowls, and this could be his most daunting challenge.
“It could be a mud bowl or a snow bowl,” said Toma, who has been overseeing preparations for the past two weeks at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., as well as the fields at the New York Giants and Jets’ facilities, where the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks are practicing.
“But we’re ready. We can’t fight the weather. But we can be prepared. We love pressure. When things get tough, we start to work.”
Though the temperatures are expected to be in the teens on Tuesday and Wednesday, the forecast for Super Bowl Sunday calls for temperatures in the 30s, with a 60 percent chance of a wintry mix during the day and clearing in the evening. Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
Toma’s crew of about 50, in addition to hundreds of stadium workers, will be armed with snow-melting machines, snow blowers, power brushes and field heaters to keep the stadium’s 1.4 billion blades of synthetic grass warm and playable.
Yet no matter how inclement the weather may be, Toma, the head groundskeeper at Municipal Stadium and the Truman Sports Complex for the Royals and Chiefs from 1957 to 1995, will savor every moment.
Toma, who turns 85 on Super Bowl Sunday, almost didn’t live to see this first cold-weather Super Bowl.
Last year in New Orleans, where Toma prepared the San Francisco 49ers’ practice field leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, he returned to his hotel, took a shower and noticed his right leg swelled “like a fire plug.”
Toma was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that affects the large veins in the high and lower leg. It can block blood flow, and if the clot breaks off, it can travel to the lungs with deadly consequences.
NFL doctors put him on blood thinners to reduce the swelling, and he was out of the hospital in time to supervise the final lining, cleaning and decorating of the Superdome field.
“I’m a worker,” Toma said, “and with the bad leg they brought me a captain’s chair. But I wasn’t in that chair very long.”
When Toma returned to Kansas City, his leg was swollen again, and he underwent successful surgery for the blood clot.
He resumed his normal schedule, but a follow-up visit to his doctor revealed the aortic valve in his heart was closing.
Toma underwent heart surgery Aug. 5, and complications arose, requiring another surgery. A five-day stay in the hospital turned into five weeks.
Once he was discharged, Toma began rehabilitation at the St. Luke’s Muriel I. Kauffman Women’s Heart Center.
“Muriel treated me great,” Toma said of the wife of the late Royals co-owner, Ewing Kauffman. “I see her picture there, and I say, ‘Thanks for the beautiful heart clinic.’
It was November 1965 — nearly a year before the National and American football leagues would merge — and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle came to Kansas City and watched the Chiefs play San Diego at old Municipal Stadium.
Rozelle made a few tactful comments about the quality of play he saw from the rival AFL teams but also spoke admiringly about “the most beautiful field I have ever seen.” That, of course, was the handiwork of Toma, who began manicuring Municipal in 1957.
After the leagues’ 1966 merger, when the AFL-NFL Championship Game was created, there was little question Rozelle would hire Toma to prepare the field at Los Angeles Coliseum for what would become known as Super Bowl I between the Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers.
The Super Bowl would permanently belong to Toma, who still brings grounds crew members from the Chiefs and Royals to work with those from the Super Bowl venues.
“Having George on site instills confidence that the game-day field and practice fields will be in top condition for our Super Bowl teams,” said Frank Supovitz, the NFL’s senior vice president of events. “The league, teams and coaches trust his experience and expertise. George has earned his place in Super Bowl history.”
Toma hopes to work at least two more Super Bowls after this week, giving him an even 50.
“And then some.”
Those are the words Toma learned as a boy who grew up poor in Edwardsville, Pa., a coal-mining community.
He’s never satisfied until every blade of grass or every fiber of turf, every spec of dirt, every mark of a chalk line is in its place.
“You do the job and then some,” Toma said of his mantra. “That distinguishes the mediocre from the great. We want everything perfect. If it’s not perfect, we’re not doing our job.”
Trevor Vance, who understudied Toma and replaced him as the Royals’ head groundskeeper, worked 15 Super Bowls with the Sultan of Sod.
“He expects excellence,” Vance said. “There’s no reason not to achieve it, in his eyes, whether it’s hard work, harder work, long hours, longer hours. ... You do whatever it takes to make that Super Bowl field the best surface they’ll play on all year. Taking pride in what you do is what separates him from everyone else.
“There’s all kinds of challenges with a Super Bowl, and you have to deal with them. Pregame rehearsals and halftime rehearsals. To the people doing those, they’re bigger than the Super Bowl. Everyone wants perfection come Super Bowl Sunday, whether it’s the pregame, the game, the halftime show. Those are challenges, and whatever Mother Nature deals you, you have to overcome all of that.”
Even in domed stadiums and warm-weather climates, where conditions would seem to be ideal for a Super Bowl, Toma has encountered obstacles.
Tornadoes threatened Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, and the unseasonably cool weather turned the old Tulane Stadium into mush for the Chiefs’ victory over Minnesota.
“We didn’t sod in those days,” Toma said. “So we used wood chips and sawdust, and spread it over the field and painted it green to make it look like grass.”
He dealt with two weeks of rain at Super Bowl XVIII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which had no drainage along the field. He has had to paint artificial turf fields in New Orleans and Minneapolis because the television executives said the fields looked gray on folks’ televisions. And he had a pigeon problem at Super Bowl XXII in San Diego.
“I read that airports put dead birds around as a distress for the other pigeons,” said Toma, “so we asked a veterinarian for some dead pigeons. I’m out there putting dead pigeons around the field, and there’s a front-page picture in the Los Angeles Times: ‘Toma poisons pigeons.’ Well, the vet brought the dead pigeons.”
Two years ago at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, his crew was on its hands and knees scraping lint off the field.
“We sprayed liquid Downy the same stuff you use to soften your clothes that breaks up the static electricity that keeps the rubber (from the artificial turf) from getting into the players,” Toma said.
“My first job is to give the players the best possible conditions to perform on. The cheapest insurance for a football player is a good, safe playing field. And for the fans on the stands and watching on TV, we want to give them a field of beauty.”