Friday is “Groundhog Day,” the mention of which conjures the movie featuring Bill Murray trapped in a time loop of life repeating itself over and over.
Friday also is George Toma’s 89th birthday, and as it happens those things meld together.
Toma, the fabled groundskeeper who made his name in his adoptive hometown of Kansas City, is in Minnesota — where for the 52nd straight Super Bowl, he is shepherding a crew preparing the field.
So it’s déjà vu all over again for Toma, with whom the Super Bowl resonates for other reasons: The very name of the game, lore has it (and he is quick to remind you), is understood to be derived from his former boss and Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt seeing his children playing with a Super Ball.
But like the ageless, chiseled son of a coal-miner himself, the games never get old for Toma, who came to Kansas City in 1957 to work at Municipal Stadium and earned fame with his manicuring of fields for the Athletics and, later, the Chiefs and Royals.
Toma took that job despite the counsel of mentor Emil Brossard, for whom he was working in Cleveland.
“Don’t go to Kansas City,” Brossard told Toma, according to a 2013 SportsFieldManagement.com story. “It’s a very bad field. In the springtime it will flood you out; in the summertime it gets so hot it’ll bake you out.”
To which Toma figured … “I went out and looked it over, it was a bad field. I said, ‘Well George, the best thing to do is take over the Kansas City job. It’s major-league, and if you screw it up, the field’s so bad nobody would ever notice it.’”
As it happened, everybody noticed what he was doing.
It also was at Municipal Stadium in 1965, a year before the NFL-AFL merger, where then-NFL commissioner came to visit to see the Chiefs play San Diego and called Toma’s work “the most beautiful field I have ever seen” — leading to Rozelle hiring Toma to ready the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum for what would become known as the first Super Bowl between the Chiefs and Green Bay Packers.
Who knew the role would be in perpetuity?
“Well, we’re keeping busy,” Toma said Wednesday night from U.S. Bank Stadium, where we called him just to kind of say hello and see how he is after not seeing much of him since, geez, a long talk field-side (his rake in hand) at Kauffman Stadium during the 2015 World Series.
At the moment he answered the phone on Wednesday, Toma said Justin Timberlake and a cast of thousands were rehearsing for the halftime show, leaving Toma thinking about the line of Super Bowl performers whose accessibility and goodwill he has appreciated — from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen to, last year, Lady Gaga.
“In this materialistic world today, she didn’t lose the common touch,” he said. “She was there all week, and she had no entourage, and she’d come over and talk to the crew.”
While he says the field crew works as “a family” with the entertainers, there just may have been a sigh in his voice as he considered what would have to be undone because of the rehearsals to assure both a scene of beauty and the “cheapest insurance” possible was in place: “a good, safe playing field for the players.”
That takes more than you might think, even on an artificial-turf field in a fixed-roof stadium.
“People laugh when we say we fertilize it,” he said.
But … they do, because of something that seemed to involve nitrogen and calcium and static electricity before Toma got so technical I couldn’t quite follow and then couldn’t bear to stop him.
Beyond that, the work also includes applying what USA Today described as “magnetic rake(s) of sorts to comb the field for any stray nuts, bolts or random wardrobe pieces that might have popped off. They use a stamping tool to gauge the stiffness of the turf every 8 feet or so, to make sure there are no dangerous soft spots. The sand-rubber mixture underneath the fake grass is supposed to be one-and-a-half inches thick.”
Same as it ever was, in essence.
Toma grew up near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he learned the practice of always adding “and then some” to whatever he took on.
And, you could say, maybe he had a little bit of Lady Gaga in him — never losing the common touch: As many years ago as it was that he left Wilkes-Barre, Toma still was pleased to report that his hometown paper had gotten ahold of him earlier this week for a story.
He grew up following the Eagles, mentioning Chuck Bednarik by name, but he said he won’t be rooting for either team in the matchup pitting Philadelphia against New England.
Plus, he’ll be otherwise occupied.
“We just keep on working,” he said.
Same as last Groundhog Day … and the previous 50 … and who knows how many more for the immortal Sultan of Sod?