George Toma is 94 years old. The groundskeeper of all groundskeepers has been retired from full-time work since 1999. But when it comes to the Super Bowl, the National Football League still asks him to help plant the seeds, till the soil and lay down the most beautiful green turf in football.
This is his 57th big game. There have only 56 before it, starting with Green Bay’s defeat of Kansas City in the inaugural NFL-AFL championship game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. For that game, commissioner Pete Rozelle gave him free reign to oversee painting logos on the field. Since then, Toma has worked under three commissioners, even supervising the painting of emblems and designs on artificial surfaces.
Tuesday he was at State Farm Stadium showing off the playing surface where the Kansas City Chiefs will take on the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday in Super Bowl LVII, kicking off at 4:30 p.m. MT.
His face appeared as craggy as the mountains that surround the greater Phoenix area, and he was a little hard of hearing. But he’d worked with a crew that made sure the grass was as silky as a pasture. He wore a gray sweatshirt with the word “Sodfather” splashed across the front—it’s one of his many nicknames.
“Some call me the Sultan of Sod or the Sod God,” Toma said in an interview. “The NFL presented me this shirt, and they wanted me to wear it at the Super Bowl.”
And so, Toma did.
I met Toma in 1998 when he was cultivating the turf that later would be laid down in the late Qualcomm Stadium, where the Denver Broncos defeated the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. He led a tour of the facility.
Toma did not remember that meeting, but he did remember that Super Bowl.
“The same company that grew that sod, grew this sod—West Coast Turf,” Toma said, citing a California and Arizona based turf-growing company.
Most fans aren’t aware of it, but since Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, the NFL has replaced the sod on fields at the Super Bowl host sites that have natural grass before the game. For the first 27 Super Bowl games, the NFL spent about $1,000 a year to refurbish the grass in stadiums such as the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl. The cost of replacing this year’s field was $800,000, Toma said.
“Prices are higher now than the earlier days,” he said. “You see the difference. The ones that were $1,000 a field had to be ready in seven to 14 days. We’ve been working on this one for 18 months.”
Toma has a history in Major League Baseball as the head groundskeeper for the Kansas City A’s and later the Royals. When separate football and baseball stadiums opened in the Kansas City suburbs in 1972, Toma found himself caring for the fields at both facilities, which had artificial turf.
Toma is as revered in baseball as his in football.
“George is just the best,” Murray Cook, his baseball field guru counterpart, said in a Tuesday text message exchange. “He helped pave the way for a lot of us in our sports turf industry.”
Toma discovered that even artificial surfaces have problems that must be constantly managed. Last year’s Super Bowl LVI, the first at new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, was played on an artificial surface he called the best he’s ever seen. Toma supervised a complex design painted on that turf.
Groundskeeping wasn’t something Toma had been trained for, having grown up in Edwardsville, Pa. as the son of a coal miner. Toma said he dreaded that life and the inherent illness that came with it, so instead, he went to work on a chicken farm for 50 cents a day and lunch.
“That farmer taught me so much that I use what he taught me on this field today,” he said.
Of course, there have been pratfalls and problems to solve over the years. Toma said his greatest Super Bowl challenge came at in 2015 at this same stadium that will host this year’s game. The sod was trucked in from Alabama, and it “wasn’t good enough,” he said. It had to be reseeded, fertilized, and “brought back” in about three weeks before the game.
Another memorable situation was heading into the NFC championship between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park in 1982, when an already torn up field was hit by a week of pounding rain. It was so bad the NFL had to call Toma in on an emergency basis.
Toma ordered the field reseeded and covered. When they took the tarp off before the game, Toma recalled the crowd gave him a standing ovation. He was praised for what was deemed a “beautiful and artistic,” but more importantly, a playable field.
That game ended with Joe Montana hitting Dwight Clark in the end zone for the game-winner, sending the Niners on to their first Super Bowl win.
When he was interviewed about it at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., before that Super Bowl, Toma told the press that he deserved no credit.
“There was a lady wearing a rain hat, a raincoat and mud boots who came down to the Candlestick Park field every day asking me what I needed,” Toma said. “That lady deserves all the credit. And that lady was Mayor Dianne Feinstein.”
Forty-one years later, that lady is still a senator from California. And Toma is still working his magic, making sure the grass is ever greener at another Super Bowl.