Few people can claim attendance at all 47 Super Bowls. George Toma has not only been at every version of the premier sporting event in the United States, he’s played a key role in each game.
Toma takes care of the turf.
A native of Edwardsville, Toma is in New Orleans today for Super Bowl XLVII as the head groundskeeper, a role that began with the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, the first “super bowl” in January 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Retired since 1999 from his longtime job as head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL and baseball’s Kansas City Royals, Toma has been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, the Major League Baseball Groundskeepers Hall of Fame, the Kansas City Royals Sports Hall of Fame and he has received countless awards for his work for turning playing fields into majestic fields of green.
Although he’s lived away from Edwardsville for many years, Toma hasn’t forgotten the Valley. “Every Hall of Fame I’m in and every award I’ve received has the fingerprints of every person from Wyoming Valley on it,” Toma said. “May their good fortunes be as numerous as blades of grass.”
Cracking the whip
On Saturday – Toma’s 84th birthday – the 32-man crew he leads was scheduled to be given access to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to make final preparations for today’s clash between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.
“We’ll work all night,” Toma said earlier this week. “We have to groom the field, work on the turf and paint all the logos on the field and in the end zones.”
He’s been called “The Sod God,” but Toma refers to himself as “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man.” Through the years, he’s seen plenty of changes at field level. For the first Super Bowl at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Toma said he had a truck and a box of tools. “Now we have three tractor-trailers filled with equipment and 32 people working.”
In an article in weekly magazine American Profile, Toma said his crew in New Orleans uses:
• Airless sprayers to paint logos and gridiron lines.
• Mechanized brushes to fluff the 2-inch-long artificial fibers cushioned with crumbles of sand and rubber.
• Industrial machines equipped with combs, magnets and ultraviolet rays to clean the Superdome turf.
“I just crack the whip now,” he said.
Started dirty work in Valley
Last summer, Toma visited Wyoming Valley and stopped by the place where it all began – Artillery Park, which now is where Wilkes University’s athletic fields are near Kirby Park, Wilkes-Barre.
In 1946, the 16-year-old Toma had been hanging around the park helping head groundskeeper Stanley Scheckler, his neighbor on Swallow Street, Edwardsville.
Bill Veeck, then-owner of Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and its Eastern League affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre Barons, named Scheckler the team trainer and bus driver. Toma, a senior at Edwardsville High School, was “promoted” to head groundskeeper at Artillery Park.
Toma moved on to Buffalo and Charleston, S.C., to work for minor league baseball teams. In 1957 he was hired to be the head groundskeeper for the major league Kansas City Athletics.
It was in 1965 that then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was introduced to Toma’s work.
“Pete Rozelle came to Kansas City for a press conference before that first championship game and he was asked if he saw any differences between the NFL and AFL,” said Toma. “Mr. Rozelle said he didn’t see much difference in the caliber of play, but he had never seen a more beautiful, well-prepared playing field than the one in Kansas City.”
That led to Toma’s association with a super run with the sporting event. But being at the event doesn’t mean he’s watching the game, at least in the same way as everyone else.
While others watch the players’ performance and surrounding spectacle, Toma is constantly watching the players’ cleats. Whether it is natural or artificial turf, Toma can tell if the field is safe for the players. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “To give the players the best possible conditions to play on. That’s the cheapest insurance policy.”
‘A coal miner’s son’
Despite decades of experience on the gridiron, Toma offered no prediction on today’s Super Bowl outcome.
He still likes to watch baseball and football. He loves Lawrence Welk and he remembers the Kryger Brothers Band that played venues in Pennsylvania. “I’m just a coal miner’s son,” he said.
When he goes home to Kansas City, Toma says he can’t sit still. He mows the lawns of the senior citizens in his neighborhood – for free. And his wife, Donna, plants flowers for them and trims their shrubs.
Toma turned down a job to be the groundskeeper at Yankee Stadium many years ago, he said. He calls himself a “small-town guy.”
He credits his faith for getting him this far. “I believe in God; he has done so much for me,” said Toma. “I’m old-school. I grew up near the railroad tracks in Edwardsville. In my book, you have to do your best and then some. That’s what distinguishes you from the rest.”
George Toma’s career The game
vs. San Francisco 49ERS
TV: 6:30 p.m., CBS, WYOU-22
George Toma remembers Artillery Park. Page 11A
Area native is really cookin’ in the Big Easy. Page 11A
A game preview, player updates and predictions. Full coverage of Super Bowl XLVII begins on Page 1C
Personal: Born Feb. 2, 1929; second wife, Donna, mother of Ryan; first wife, Helen Hornyak, deceased, mother of Chip and Rick.
Sports affiliations: Wilkes-Barre Barons, Buffalo Class AAA, Charleston (S.C.) Class AAA, Kansas City Athletics, Kansas City Royals, and consultant to several baseball organizations, including Minnesota Twins.
• Kansas City Chiefs, NFL – all 47 Super Bowls; 37 Pro Bowl games; consultant to NFL; has worked on fields in London, Tokyo, Berlin, Barcelona, Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico.
• Olympic Games, World Cup Soccer; field rehabilitations/installations include Candlestick Park, Soldier Field, New Orleans Superdome, Notre Dame Stadium and more.
• Worked on “Black Sunday” movie in 1973; featured in Sports Illustrated story “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man” in 1982; biography released in 2004 – “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man.”
• Awards include: John Madden’s All-Madden Team; Pro Football Hall of Fame Dan Reeves Pioneer Award; Major League Baseball Groundskeepers Hall of Fame; International Sports Science Hall of Fame; Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame.