CLEVELAND — Have you ever wondered what it takes to keep an NFL playing surface in pristine condition?
The grounds crew at FirstEnergy Stadium has been hard at work since the Browns-Jets game wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, making sure everything is ready for the kickoff for Thursday night’s game against the Steelers.
“We had a quick turnaround since we had a game on Sunday and we're kind of fighting with the weather and everything,” said stadium field manager Neal Pate. “We did all the divots and stuff right after the game just to get everything back together, rolled it yesterday, and started touching up and redoing all the paint on the field.”
Pate has been overseeing the field at FirstEnergy Stadium since the building opened back in 1999.
He oversees a crew of about six guys who handle everything from tarping to painting the logo at midfield. While Pate’s team isn’t playing on the field, they’ve got the important job of protecting it. They’ve figured out the facility's quirks over the years.
“We don't have the sun exposure that we need because the stadium is so high and it's oriented east-west which makes it difficult,” Pate said. “But obviously, the weather in the wintertime, cold temperatures, the ups and downs, the extreme temperatures, it makes it hard.”
The playing surface at FirstEnergy Stadium is made of bluegrass oversewed with some rye grass that comes from a sod farm in New Jersey. The facility specializes in thick-cut and big roll sod that the grounds crew can put down and play on quickly.
“There are northern grasses and there's southern grasses. And the northern grasses are the bluegrass and rye,” Pate said. "Down in the south. They play on Bermuda.”
Pate’s crew is tasked with handling the wear-and-tear from an NFL game. The field setup, even when compared to college stadiums, poses a unique challenge.
“We’re only 18 and a half feet wide between the hashes,” Pate said. “That means no matter which side the ball's on, the tackle box is always in that 18 and a half feet.
“People will notice, say, in November or December, we'll come in and strip that middle out and put some new side down because it just takes such, such a beating and we have to resurface that”
Pate’s workday is dependent largely on the weather. If the tarp is on the field, to protect the turf from the elements, they’ll arrive at the stadium early around 5 or 6 a.m. If there’s no tarp removal, they’ll roll in a few hours later.
“If we’re in a tarping situation, we have until an hour and a half before the game to get the tarp removed,” he said.
Inevitably, because of the weather and the wear the playing surface gets, the field will need to be replaced at some point within the season. When the schedule comes out, Pate and his crew start narrowing down when the optimal time might be to replace the sod.
“This year is a little odd. We're so front-loaded,” Pate said. “After the Monday night Halloween game where we have two and a half months left in the season, we only have three games left. So if we can get to that game without reason, we have the window is right there to do it.”
Working on a tight schedule is something the grounds crew has grown familiar with over the years. Prior to the season even starting, there were a series of events wrapping up with an MGK concert on August 13, followed by a Browns preseason game just eight days later.
Because the load out of the concert took an extra two days, the grounds crew didn’t get the field back until less than a week before the Browns hosted the Eagles.
“I think the biggest challenge this year, it was a short period of time for that first game,” he said. “But then we had to turn around and play a high school game and another preseason game in less than five days. So, we had three games in less than a week on a brand-new field that one game would have been difficult that was more of a challenge.”
There’s plenty of science that goes into keeping the turf healthy and thick, Over the years Pate and his team have also learned a few tricks to speed up the process of fixing scars and divots on the field.
“Four days before we use this seed, we’ll put the bags in water and pre-germinate it. The day before the game we’ll pull the seed out, spread it out, let it dry,” he said. “Then we mix it into our divot mix. That speeds up the process of germinating that seed. We should be getting some germination in three to four days, instead of seven to eight days.”
FirstEnergy Stadium also has a heating system divided into four zones. There is 3/4-inch piping that runs on six-inch centers across the field.
“It doesn't really extend the growing season as much, but it keeps people from freezing and getting too hard and obviously helping to move that it's necessary,” Pate said. “We've had to put it into our practice facility because of that. You know, they want to be outside and practicing.”
Wednesday afternoon Pate and his team finished outlining the markers and logos on the field before pulling the tarp back on overnight in case of any inclement weather. They’ll be back Thursday morning for the finishing touches and be on hand all the way up to kickoff Thursday night.
You can watch the Browns vs. the Steelers on News 5. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with kickoff at 8:15 p.m.