Winning the battle against wear and tear

Photos Courtesy of LP Field,Unless Otherwise Noted.

LP Field boasts Tifway 419, which Head Groundskeeper Terry Porch says stands up well to the wear-and-tear of football and the cold winter weather.

While some NFL stadiums host just eight regular season games a year, LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., sees as many as 17 or more games, depending on playoffs and bowl games. LP Field is the home of NFL’s Tennessee Titans, as well as Tennessee State University. So, between college and professional football games, there is a lot of wear and tear placed on the field.

Terry Porch, head groundskeeper at LP Field, is the man in charge of ensuring that the field can take all that abuse, while looking good and performing even better. It’s no small challenge, but he’s well prepared. Porch came to the Titans in 1998 after working for both the Carolina Panthers and the Kansas City Royals. He arrived in Tennessee the year before the new stadium was constructed, giving him a chance to monitor the construction process. “I got to see the irrigation and drainage installed,” he says, adding that seeing first-hand how the field was built has paid off over the years in addressing maintenance challenges.

Over the past decade, the grass type on the field has been changed. “We started with TifSport [bermudagrass] for about four years, and since then we’ve used Tifway 419,” Porch says. “The 419 is a coarser plant and just seems to hold up better against the wear and tear, and the winter.”

LP Field is completely resodded two times every year, with sod delivered from Tifton, Ga. The first resodding takes place following an annual concert at the stadium held each June. “It’s a four-day concert and there is no field protection used, so the field pretty much has to be completely redone,” says Porch.

During the season, after the college team has finished play, the entire field is once again resodded, usually around mid-November. “We replace everything but the end zones. It amounts to about 51,000 square feet of sod,” says Porch. “We used to just resod the middle of the field, but you can never get it to really match. So, now we do everything, so it all looks the same.” The process is scheduled for a two-week window between games and takes about one week to complete, giving the field another week to set up. The job is contracted out, but Porch and his team are there to oversee the process.

Photos Courtesy of LP Field/Tennessee Titans
Terry Porch, head groundskeeper with the Tennessee Titans, mows the Tifway 419bermudagrass turf at LP Field in preparation for the next big game.

The field is also overseeded each fall to help the bermudagrass field adapt to the transition-zone climate of Nashville. “We typically start overseeding around mid-September, at a time when have a one-week break from games. We hit it with about 10 pounds of perennial ryegrass per 1,000 square feet to get it going. Then, we come back again in mid-October whenever there’s another week off and put down another 10 pounds per 1,000,” Porch explains. For the new grass, one weekend off (teams out of town or a bye week) provides nearly two weeks of growing time between games. “We do uniform coverage over the entire field. As we get into heavier play, we may put a little more down between the numbers.”

The groundskeeping staff at LP Field consists only of Porch and one other full-time employee, supplemented by a part-time employee. “Most people think that when you’re caring for an NFL field you have this huge staff, but it’s just not the case,” says Porch. He points out that many Division I college fields have larger grounds staffs, which are backed by boosters and can be supplemented by student employees. When possible, Porch tries to bring in turfgrass school interns, but because there’s not time to train and retrain, he really needs interns for an entire season, which can prove challenging for full-time students.

Logo for LP Field.

The staff at LP field also maintains the Titans’ practice facility, located about 7 miles away. “We keep equipment at both locations, but occasionally we’ll have to trailer equipment between the two sites,” says Porch. Mowing is done primarily with two reel mowers: a John Deere 3235 at the practice facility and a John Deere 2653 at the stadium.

“During the summer, when the grass is growing, we mow the practice field every day. We really need to mow it to clean it up after practices. We try to mow the stadium field every day, as well, but later in the year, when growth slows, we mow it more on an as-needed basis,” says Porch. He says that while the practice field gets more consistent use for much of the year, including the Titans’ training camp, it is the stadium field that takes the most abuse. “When they’re practicing, they aren’t usually in full pads. They’re going through drills hard, but it’s not like a game, because they don’t want the players to get hurt.” During the games is when the players and the field can really get beat up, he adds.

The field at LP Stadium also faces another important challenge that the team’s practice field doesn’t: a lack of sunlight. “The field is surrounded by stands, so we don’t even reach full sun until the middle of the morning, and it’s often gone by midafternoon,” says Porch. The fertility needs of the grass are about the same, but the growth is slower on the stadium field. To help the grass get the sugars it needs—that sunlight helps to provide naturally—he applies a spray solution of water and Karo corn syrup. “Studies show that it helps in low-sunlight situations, because it gives the plant the sugars it needs, so it doesn’t have to expend the energy producing them itself. We put it down about every other week late in the year,” he explains. “It’s a very diluted solution, but it really does work-it helps the plant use the sunlight more efficiently.”

Soil tests are conducted every other month on the field to determine fertility needs. “We do aerification all the way up to the season. We pull cores and topdress up until about one month before the season starts,” says Porch. “Once the season begins, it’s tough to topdress because if it doesn’t grow in and the sand is getting kicked up, then the players and people watching the game on TV won’t be happy.” During the season, he switches to solid-tine aerating about once a month.

Porch says he usually doesn’t communicate with the team about the setup of the field. “We’ve been here long enough that we’ve gotten to the point where we know what they want. We used to start the season with the grass mowed at a half-inch, and then take it up to about 7/8-inch by the end of the season. Now, we just keep it at 3/4-inch the whole season. Some players, like the receivers, like it shorter. The linemen like it longer, but this seems to be a good compromise. We don’t hear any complaints, and that’s our goal.”

Porch says the biggest challenge of maintaining the playing conditions on the field is the scheduling of back-to-back games (college on Saturday, pro on Sunday), which happens about three times each year. When both teams are in town, Porch and his crew arrive at the stadium on Friday and don’t leave until Sunday night, sleeping in the offices when they can during that time. “It’s especially difficult if there’s any rain during the weekend. Getting a field ready for a national TV audience, and making it look like nobody has played on it, isn’t easy,” he says. In addition to mowing and cleaning up the turfgrass, all of the lines, numbers, markings, end zones, logos, etc., have to be repainted between games.

Porch and his staff do the painting themselves, and even have to be ready once games start to run out and make any quick repairs required to the field. (The groundskeeping staff is also responsible for putting up and down the nets during the game for extra points and field goals, so they’re in close proximity to the play anyhow.) “If there are problems, where an area gets torn up, we’ll run out there during a time-out, and measure the piece. Then we’ll run back and cut an even bigger piece out of the sideline,” he explains. “Then, during the next break in play, we’ll go back out and replace the damaged turf. It’s important to always use a bigger replacement piece and really tamp it in, so that it stays very firmly in the hole. The bigger the piece, the harder for it to come out.”

During the week between games, when nighttime temperatures drop, Porch will often cover the field with a cover that allows rain through, but keeps the soil temperatures a bit warmer than they would otherwise be. When the cover is on, he uses hoses to water the field, rather than removing it to use the underground irrigation system.

Porch says he often talks to fellow groundskeepers about what is working for them, and empathizes when fans or the media are critical of field conditions they see without understanding the challenges encountered in the business, from overuse to severe cold and rain. “There are some things you just can’t control,” he says. Sharing thoughts and solutions makes a lot of sense, he emphasizes. “No two fields are the same, and no two climates are the same, but I always figure, ‘Why not ask other people what they’re doing?’ You can learn a lot that way,” he says.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.