UVM's Head Groundskeeper Works 15th Super Bowl
- By Jon Reidel
Having worked the past 15 Super Bowls as a member of the NFL grounds crew, John “Lee” Keller '84 has learned to prepare for the unexpected. Best laid plans can be altered by anything from inclement weather – a major concern at this year’s game in New Jersey -- to unusual practice facility requests by coaches, potential security threats and demands by famous musicians preparing for halftime performances.
“All 15 Super Bowls have been different, but great experiences," said Keller via his cell phone during a rare break from working on the field at MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII. "Everything has to be just right, so we work 12-15-hour days getting the practice and game fields ready. Once we knew who was going to the Super Bowl we started taking up the logos of the Jets and Giants within 10 minutes and replacing them with the Seahawks and Broncos.”
Keller, UVM's head groundskeeper, arrived in the Meadowlands on Jan. 13 and has been working on preparing turf practice fields, keeping equipment running, painting team logos in end zones with paint sprayers and stencils and performing other general field maintenance duties. In short, he does whatever it takes to have the practice fields meet the standards of the teams and the playing field perfect for game day.
“Each team has specific requests, which can make it challenging,” said Keller, who worked his first Super Bowl in 2001 in Tampa. "Some coaches like Bill Belichick (New England Patriots) are very particular. He didn’t want anyone within 300 yards of their practice facility and had security guards and helicopters to make sure no one looked inside to see what they were practicing. But other coaches like Andy Reid (Philadelphia Eagles) had the tarps down and let the grounds crew watch practice. You just never know what they might want, so we have to be prepared for anything."
Weather, rock stars and security
Weather has played a key role in past games like Super Bowl XLV in Dallas when an unexpected rain storm left two inches of ice on top of the tarps covering the practice fields, rendering them unusable. Multiple contigency plans are in place for this year's event in case of a snow storm. "This is the first year in a long time that the Super Bowl has been held in an outdoor stadium in a cold climate, so it’s risky," said Keller, who majored in plant and soil science. "We've already spent a lot of time preparing the outside practice fields, but there’s about a 90 percent chance they won’t even use them because of the weather, so it may be all for naught.”
The biggest change over the years has been the increase in the level of security. When Keller leaves MetLife Stadium to get fuel for the field equipment, it can take up to three hours to get past security when coming back into the stadium. As the game approaches, bomb squads conduct security sweeps with dogs and FBI agents, and sharpshooters practice drills at night. “Sometimes we’ll find shell casings in the stadium the next day,” he says. “They don’t take any chances since 9-11.”
There are some perks to the job despite the long hours. Keller has watched halftime acts like Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, the Rolling Stones, and Billy Joel practice and was behind the stage during Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction. “Some of them don’t like anyone around when they practice, but others don’t seem to mind,” he says. "They come with dozens of trailers for their support crew and dancers. It's something to see."
The transition of NFL teams from natural grass to artificial turf over the years (the last five Super Bowls having been played on the manufactured surface), has coincided with UVM’s addition of three turf fields: Winder-Moulton, Virtue and PFG. “I’ve learned a lot working with professional crews at Super Bowls and at spring training and bring the experience and knowledge I gain back to UVM,” says Keller, who went to London this year to prepare a field for an NFL game. “I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some great crews and have made some lifelong friends with guys from NFL and Major League Baseball.”
When Keller graduated from UVM, he moved back home to Long Island but returned to Vermont nine months later after landing a job with a lawn care company. He eventually started working as head groundskeeper for the Vermont Lake Monsters and part-time for UVM. Wanting to branch out, he decided to send a letter to George Toma, founder of the Sports Turf Management Association and the undisputed "godfather" of the industry.
“I kept seeing George Toma’s name in all of the trade magazines, so I thought I’d write him a letter,” said Keller. “He’s a pioneer in the industry, so I was surprised when he responded and offered me a chance to work with the Kansas City Royals at spring training. George has been like a father to me ever since.”
Toma says he's enjoyed the realtionship over the years and values Keller's work ethic.
“Lee is one of our best men,” said Toma, who has supervised every Super Bowl since 1967 as well as the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games. “I had him start working for the Kansas City Royals in spring training for years and took him to Super Bowls and to London for an NFL game this year. He’s a fine young man.”