Our man spent a week getting down and very, very dirty with the behind-the-scenes folks who keep million-dollar athletes and stadiums looking so fresh and clean. So hold your nose and prepare to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of smelly feet.
The Sod Squad
Assisting the Philadelphia Eagles Grounds Crew
I arrive at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia for a game that has sports analysts across the country tipping over their desks with football boners: Giants vs. Eagles. Oh, yeah, it's on! I left New York at 5:30 a.m. to get here the day before the battle—oh, yeah, I’m tired!—and the Eagles grounds crew puts me to work converting this giant rectangle of grass into a gridiron worthy of the gods.
Our job is going to take two days, and Saturday is all about paint. Shitloads of it. It will take 125 gallons of latex to paint the yard lines, hash marks, sidelines, end zones—everything you see on the field (and take for granted, you ungrateful bastards). I quickly learn not to take anything for granted as my back begins to tweak from bending over to spray in the black of the Eagles logos and my lungs start to clog as they get coated in a fine white mist while we paint the sidelines. It takes a long-ass time to make our way around the field, and I can’t help but marvel that in a day this game may be won or lost depending on whether a receiver’s toe touches this line that an idiot like me has been entrusted to make. Then I wonder if Andy Reid will look down tomorrow and gasp at my handiwork. "Forget Vick’s TD run. Has anyone noticed how crisp the hash marks are today? Marvelous!" Then someone tells me to stop daydreaming and wash out the paint sprayers, and I snap out of it.
Tony Leonard, director of grounds, and his crew of 12 guys (five full-timers and seven part-timers who do things like lay carpet and bounce at bars during the day) manage the field here at the Linc as well as the Eagles practice field across the way. They are capable of getting the place game-ready in as little as five hours if the Temple University Owls have an early game. We finish up today’s duties around 3 o’clock and hit the nearest sports bar for wings and...well, you know what happens in a sports bar. Moving on…
Game day. Kickoff is at 8:20 p.m., and the crew assembles in Tony’s office around two. We hit the field to place red zone markers and end zone pylons. We roll out the heated team benches (wouldn’t want any millionaires catching a chill out there) and set up the sideline area. Since it is a gorgeous fall day, we’re pretty much done, so the next few hours are spent hanging out in Tony’s office, eating wings and stromboli, watching NFL RedZone, monitoring fantasy teams and giving each other heaping helpings of shit. The primary receiver of said shit is a guy named Libby, whose previous claim to fame was appearing in Mannequin Two and dancing in a two-man party posse called Sonic Boom. It’s all fun and good, but something seems wrong. Then it occurs to me: This is the most football I’ve watched in my life without consuming a single drop of beer.
We walk the stadium (I see where the rooftop snipers perch every Sunday, I see where President Obama sat for the Army- Navy game) and then, around seven, this once quiet place fills with Philly’s notoriously bloodthirsty "phans." It gets loud in a hurry. The grounds crew’s primary duty during the game is working the goal post nets. That means for the entirety of the game we get to stand about five feet from the field. It is insane. I feel like I’m the guy who sneaked down from the nosebleeds to the $2,500 seats. I keep flashing my ID badge at every security guard who walks by.
Unlike ball boys at a tennis match, the men of the Eagles grounds crew do not stand perfectly still and silent during the game. "You suck, Eli!" is a phrase that will be repeated more than once. And unlike all the similar shit fans are screaming from the stands, Manning can actually hear it when these guys shout.
As I try to prevent my head from exploding with choruses of "Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m standing here!" Vick runs in a touchdown and the crew dashes to the net. Two guys hoist as the rest of us pull it back to keep it from getting tangled on the way up. The extra point is good, the ball hits the net and drops directly in my hands. I just caught a football at an NFL game! If I weren’t wearing 15 layers of long johns, the extent of my excitement would be clearly visible to everyone around me. (Yes, I know that is two allusions to erections in this story, but what can I say? I really like the game.)
At halftime we walk across the field, stomping down the damage these players did to our beautiful turf. When play resumes we’re back in the end zone, dancing with the Eagles’ mascot, Swoop, cheering and begging a security guard to Taser a drunk fan who won’t stop shouting, "How much do you have on the game, ref?" (I’d mention how cold it was, but being that I had hand warmers in every orifice of my body and was standing directly across from cheerleaders wearing midriff-baring tops, I’ll pretend I was manly.)
When the game ends and the last ecstatic Eagles fan exits the building (if you’ve forgotten, Vick and the boys bested the Giants 27-17, with Eli fumbling on their final drive. Maybe he does suck?), the crew springs back into action.
It’s after midnight, and everyone just wants to go home. We walk the field carrying five-gallon drums of seed and sand mix, filling in holes as a giant vacuum sucks up bits of ripped turf. Next we break down the benches and toss the piles of used Gatorade cups and mouthpieces littering the tarp. Then, just as we’re about to roll it up, a trainer yells at us to stop. Superstar wide receiver DeSean Jackson lost a diamond earring out here. We all turn our eyes to the mat, and before I can even consider what I could buy with a diamond that I surreptitiously nabbed, someone screams that they found it. The tarp gets rolled up, the pylons and markers are collected, and finally, around 2 a.m., we head out to the parking lot.
Exhausted and freezing, I climb into my car and chase after the Giants’ police-escorted bus back to New York. Best Sunday ever. (With all apologies to the risen body of Christ.)
Coming Soon- Part 2: "What the puck is that smell?"
Find out next week as our guy helps the head equipment manager of the New York Islanders.