This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 8 Super Bowl 50 Issue. Subscribe today!
A REMOTE PIECE of farmland east of San Francisco, sometime in the fall. The buyer arrives to inspect the product. The farmers have tended to it for months, keeping it warm under grow blankets, dry under tarps, its very existence under wraps. The farmers have leverage; few places grow product of this quality. The buyer has leverage; he can hold out for the best.
The buyer takes the product in his hands. He rubs it with his fingers. He inhales deeply, taking in the aroma. He pinches off a bit and tastes it, to judge the quality and texture.
Around the first of December, the phone rings at the farm. The buyer is on the line. The deal is made. The discussion turns to delivery -- to Levi's Stadium.
You've probably never thought about the turf at the Super Bowl, which means the people who grow and tend to the turf at the Super Bowl have done their jobs. Turf is big business, and the stakes are high.
Imagine what would happen if a running back, rounding the corner for the winning touchdown in America's biggest game, planted his foot to cut and hit nothing but loose dirt. Imagine if he tore an Achilles as he fell. Imagine the kilotons of outrage detonated in that moment. Imagine millions of dollars in bets swinging on a single crappy patch of grass. The field is important to football the way a microphone is important to Adele. You don't notice it if it works. It can ruin everything if it doesn't.
THE DEAL PRETTY much happened that way a few months back at a place called West Coast Turf in Livingston, California. The buyer was a man named Ed Mangan, who has worked 27 Super Bowls and has been the Super Bowl field director since 2000. (The rest of the year, his main gig is maintaining Turner Field in Atlanta, home of the Braves.) Mangan uses fancy tools like Clegg hammers (which gauge the firmness of the turf) and torsion testers (which measure the traction that cleats get on a field). But sometimes it comes down to the senses. He really does take a deep whiff. He really does pinch off a bit of the soil and taste it. "Pulling on it, touching on it, feeling it, smelling it," Mangan says, "everything is involved."
Whenever the Super Bowl is played on natural grass, the NFL replaces the field. The practice started after Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl (Cowboys 52, Bills 17 -- the Leon Lett game). Pasadena had been soaked with 16 inches of rain that January -- nearly four times the average -- and even with tarping, the NFL had to patch ruined pieces of the field. After that, the NFL started replacing the turf with sod grown especially for the game. That leaves just four or five weeks to tear out the old turf and install the new turf. There's no grow-in time. It has to be ready to go.
And there aren't many choices when it comes to fields. This is West Coast Turf's eighth Super Bowl. Bent Oak Farm in Foley, Alabama, has done seven. John Marman, VP of sales and marketing at West Coast Turf, could think of only one other place that grows Super Bowl-quality grass: Carolina Green, outside Charlotte. The NFL has reserved one of Bent Oak's fields as the backup. Like the first runner-up for Miss America, it's ready in case the winning field cannot fulfill its duties.
Levi's Stadium, home to the 49ers and this year's Super Bowl, is just 110 miles from West Coast Turf. In fact, West Coast Turf provides the regular-season field too. And that brings a twist: In the two seasons the 49ers have played at Levi's, fans have booed the turf almost as much as the team. In 2014, then-coach Jim Harbaugh pulled the 49ers off the field in a public practice after players slipped on the grass. In 2015, the team canceled another public practice after continued problems. And in October, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker's plant foot disappeared into a divot as he attempted a fourth-quarter field goal. The 45-yarder doinked off the right upright, and the Ravens lost 25-20. If something like that decides Super Bowl 50, we'll still be talking about it at Super Bowl 550.
George Toma, the legendary groundskeeper who has worked every Super Bowl, says the subsoil was the issue. "The sand was more like scrabble, so it never firmed up," he told reporters at the unrolling of the Super Bowl turf at the stadium. "The earlier problems were because the roots had the wrong sand."
The 49ers replaced the 9-inch layer of subsoil during the season. They also resodded the field, changing the variety of grass from Bandera Bermuda to a hybrid Bermuda 419 strain. The hybrid held up for the rest of the season. It's the same type of grass the NFL is using for the Super Bowl.
"Levi's is a new facility," Mangan says, "and they've had their growing pains."
THE 669 TONS of sod delivered to Levi's in January is a whole lot different from the grass on your front lawn. Or anyone else's.
For starters, it grows backward. If you're planting grass at home, you spread some seed on the ground and the roots grow down into it. The Super Bowl turf seeds never touch regular ground. The turf starts out as hybrid Bermuda grass planted in a thin layer of soil laid down on a ...
Well, uh, a --
"... a semipermeable membrane," Marman says. "I can't really say any more than that. There's certain proprietary things that we don't talk about."
OK, so the thin layer of soil is spread on a big sheet of Secret Membrane. The grass can't grow downward because of the Secret Membrane, so the roots grow sideways, braiding with the plant's rhizomes -- horizontal stems that grow underground. Then West Coast Turf adds a thin layer of sand. How thin? That's proprietary too. The roots grow up from the Secret Membrane through the Secret Layer of Sand. After several more layers of sand -- how many? Yes, of course, a Secret Number of Layers -- the final step is overseeding the whole thing with rye grass for extra strength and color. You end up with a 2-inch-thick mat that is flexible but strong, like a sheet of plywood. Regular sod is ready to harvest in four to six months. The Super Bowl sod takes a year and a half.
West Coast Turf's field didn't have any special signifier as it grew -- it was just called Field No. 2. "We didn't want to jinx ourselves," Marman says. But everybody knew the field might be used for the Super Bowl, so it was treated with more care than many newborns. Workers covered it with a gigantic custom-made blanket on cool nights and a series of tarps on rainy days. Too much water is the enemy. It can lead to pythium, a form of root rot that covers a field with brown spots. The warning sign of pythium is mycelium, a white thready vegetation. If you see something that looks like dirty cotton in your grass, you're screwed. West Coast Turf got 3 inches of rain the first week of January. Workers obsessively checked the tarps. No dirty cotton.
A football field takes up about an acre and a third of grass, or about 58,000 square feet. Including extra turf for sideline areas, and a little set aside for patches on game day, West Coast Turf harvested 75,000 square feet for the Super Bowl field. On moving day, workers cut it into 40-by-3 1/2-foot strips. They rolled up each strip and ended up with 536 rolls, each one weighing 2,500 pounds. They loaded those onto 24 trucks and took them to Levi's. The turf was off the ground for about four hours before being installed at the stadium. Special machines cut it and roll it up and lay it back down, meshing the pieces together.
Sometimes the process is even more elaborate. Last year the NFL used a field from Bent Oak in Alabama for the game in Arizona. That required 34 refrigerated trucks taking shrink-wrapped rolls of turf more than 2,000 miles.
Mangan's crew of 25 to 30 maintains several other fields during Super Bowl week -- each team gets two or three practice fields, and fans run around on a field at the NFL Experience. But Levi's gets the most attention. Mangan and his crew (assisted by the 49ers' grounds crew) inspect the field before the game and watch from the sideline during it.
And they're as nervous as any fan, just for different reasons. When Marman is at home flipping channels during a normal sports weekend, he'll stop when he gets to a game being played on one of his fields. Most of the time, he says, he doesn't care who's winning.
"I root for the field."
MARK PALUCH OF Bent Oak Farm sums up the stress on a football field this way: "Can it hold up to a 340-pound lineman, and then another 340-pound lineman jumping on his ass?"
But it's not just the 60 minutes of football. The turf has to withstand the pregame TV crews and everybody else tromping around out there. "The cheerleaders stir up more s--- than the players," Paluch says. "They stomp up and down in the same spot the whole game." That's why Mangan checks in with them in the days leading up to the game. It might be nice to leave the boots at home for rehearsal, he says. Maybe go with your sneakers.
The biggest worry, though, is whatever spectacle somebody dreams up for the halftime show. Want to give a grounds crew night sweats? Whisper a phrase like "88 baby grand pianos pulled by tractors." That's what they had at halftime of Super Bowl XXII in San Diego (Chubby Checker and the Rockettes!). Apparently baby grands pulled by tractors can dig ruts into a football field. After this year's halftime show, Mangan and his crew will scour the field for loose screws or bolts, or shards of piano in the event that Coldplay destroys its instruments in a Who-like fit of rage.
Nobody worried much about the field in the early years. At Super Bowl IV, the field at Tulane Stadium turned to mush after a cold snap. Toma masked the damage with sawdust and wood shavings painted green. Over the years, there have been other minor disasters. At Super Bowl XXII (the one with the baby grands), pigeons flocked to the field to eat the grass seeds embedded in the turf. Toma got a vet to provide dead pigeons to scare off the live ones. Then somebody wrote a story that the NFL was killing pigeons. The next year, the crew was draining water at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and somebody left the underground pump on too long. It sucked out chunks of the NFL logo at midfield.
This is all a bigger deal than it used to be -- because everything about the Super Bowl is a bigger deal than it used to be. The modern Super Bowl field has to be extra strong to carry the weight of the modern Super Bowl: not just the bigger and faster players, not just the mini-Coachella at halftime, but the pressure for everything to be perfect. The turf can't detract from the game. It can't come up in chunks. It can't not shine.
Mangan is already planning for next year in Houston. Already there are worries. The grass field at NRG Stadium has been bad for years, and after just one home game this season, the Texans switched to artificial turf, though the team plans to switch back in 2016.
Either way, on one of those big sod farms somewhere in America, the candidates for next year's Super Bowl field are growing. At some point, Mangan will check them out, pulling and tugging and stroking. He'll inhale, hoping his nose senses nothing but clean grass. And then, just to make sure, he'll pinch off a bit of dirt and taste it.