From Turf Bowl to Super Bowl

February 12, 2020 Robert Ballenger

This year’s Super Bowl marked a career pinnacle for the victorious Kansas City Chiefs – as well as two alumni of the Institute of Applied Agriculture (IAA).  Jarod Knopp (Sports Turf Management, ’15) and Robert “Bobby” Blake, Jr. (Golf Course Management, ’17) were among the 38 members of the NFL’s Super Bowl grounds crew, which included groundskeepers from professional and college football teams as well as Major League Baseball.

Both alumni currently work as groundskeepers for NFL teams.  Blake began working for the New York Giants last year, and Knopp was hired by the Baltimore Ravens in 2016.  Knopp’s hiring came soon after completing an internship with the Ravens while earning his IAA certificate.  This past fall the NFL put out a call for Super Bowl groundskeepers, and Blake and Knopp were fortunate enough to get the green light from their respective bosses.  In January they packed their bags and headed to Miami for the two-week job.

Knopp and Blake worked long hours preparing football fields at multiple Miami venues.  The Super Bowl grounds crew was responsible for the game field – which is home to the Miami Dolphins – as well as the San Francisco 49ers’ designated practice facility at the University of Miami.  According to Blake, “we did anything and everything that was needed from tarping for the [halftime show] rehearsals to painting the game field and practice fields.”  Knopp added that “the whole crew pushed 14+ hour days for two weeks straight leading up to the big day. We had days where we would paint, then it would rain and it would wash the paint away so we would have to paint again. All in all, I think we had five full field re-paints.” 

The game field became the setting watched by nearly 100 million Super Bowl fans, according to the game’s official broadcaster (Fox).  How well did the most-watched football field of the year sustain thousands of pounds of football players digging in with their cleats?  “It held up really well,” Blake said.  “It got chewed up a little bit, as is normal with Bermuda[grass], but the playability of it was incredible throughout the whole game.”  (For the record, Blake said, the field was “Tifway 419 Bermuda overseeded with rye.”)  During halftime, while worldwide viewers watched Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, the grounds crew performed a standard quality control inspection of the Bermudagrass field, fixing divots and picking up debris. 

The music stars and NFL pros weren’t the only high-profile people with whom Knopp and Blake shared the field and facilities.  “You couldn’t go 20 feet without seeing some celebrity,” Blake said.  Perhaps the biggest celebrity to the IAA alumni was one that football fans never heard of:  George Toma.  The head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs’ home turf has worked on every Super Bowl field, earning him unofficial titles as the Grandfather of Groundskeepers and the Sod God.  “He’s 91 years old and still walking all the fields,” Blake said.  “In our industry he is the living legend. …To be there with him when [his team] won – that was something special.”

As IAA students just a few years ago, would Blake and Knopp have seen themselves working on football’s most coveted field, let alone with such a legend there?  No way, they say.  “Even when I was taking classes at the IAA,” Knopp said, “I didn’t see myself working for the Baltimore Ravens. It’s truly a blessing and an honor.” 

As a Ravens groundskeeper, Knopp has had the privilege of working for one of the few sports teams in the United States that employs some particularly impressive turf maintenance equipment.  It caught the eye of IAA retired turfgrass advisor Kevin Mathias as he watched Super Bowl pre-game coverage on TV:  “I saw in the background that they had grow lights on the field, and I said ‘Wow! That’s quite an investment’.”  The grow lights, similar to those used in a greenhouse, are mounted to wheeled scaffoldings that are placed along vast stretches of the playing field.  They supplement the limited winter sunshine that reaches the grass shaded by high stadium walls.

As for Blake’s ability to help manage this technology at the Super Bowl, he credits what he learned about electricity from IAA instructor Roy Walls.  Blake said Walls’ and other IAA instructors’ classes provided him with the foundation needed to fulfill his NFL groundskeeping duties.  “The base knowledge that I got [at the IAA] I use every single day,” Blake explained, “whether it’s discoloration on the turf [or] equipment management.”

Blake and Knopp are former students of both Walls and Mathias, and Knopp is especially grateful to those two instructors.  “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Knopp said, adding that “everything that I’ve learned from my time at the IAA has helped me improve and guided me with my job for me to get where I am.”  Blake concurred, saying that “I’m able to walk into any kind of situation and use the base of knowledge that I’ve got, compounded with the on-the-job experience that I have.  And it really puts you a step ahead when you’re trying to either get in the door, or you’re in the door and trying to make the next step.  There’s no job too small.”

Now that Blake and Knopp are alumni of both the IAA and the Super Bowl, would they be up for groundskeeping at the big game again?  Absolutely. 

As Blake noted, “the hours were long, but it was fun.  There’s nothing like it.  There’s nothing like the Super Bowl… I would do it again in a second.”