By Amy Byrnes

What’s the biggest challenge preparing an NFL football field for the Super Bowl? According to Auburn University junior Wilson Morgan — who scored a backstage pass to last Sunday’s game thanks to the Toro Super Bowl Sports Turf Training Program competition — it’s not the weather or getting the end zone paint to look just right.

“It’s the half time show, for sure,” he said on Tuesday, after spending a week in Atlanta preparing for the Los Angeles Rams-New England Patriots matchup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened two years ago after a $1.5 billion renovation. Morgan was the winner of this year’s Toro competition, which earned him a trip to Super Bowl LIII to work with the grounds crew preparing the field for the big game at the stadium. In 2002, Toro created the competition to give emerging sports turf professionals hands-on experience maintaining one of the highest quality and safest playing surfaces in the world and learning from top professionals in the field.

Super Bowl

(From l to r) Head Super Bowl groundskeeper George Toma; Wilson Morgan; and Boyd Montgomery, regional business manager, The Toro Company.

By the time Maroon 5 took the stage for the Super Bowl halftime show, Morgan – who’s majoring in turf management – had already seen the band’s performance “five or six times.” That’s because in the week leading up to Sunday night’s game, performers held full-blown rehearsals, which included pyrotechnics, dancers, and trucking the heavy M-shaped stage onto the field each day.

“Those stages were super heavy,” said Morgan. “We ended up spending a lot of the week maintaining the field before and after each rehearsal.”

Morgan worked with the field crew to clean up any trash left behind once the stage had been cleared, and pushing big magnets over the synthetic turf field to pick up any screws or metal objects that might have dropped from the stage. The weight from the heavy halftime staging also created depressions in the field, which the crew evened out by using a device that helped measure the field’s hardness and ensure even compaction. Even the patterns the crew brushed into the field each morning needed to be groomed back into place every five yards after the stage’s wheels created their own designs moving on and off the field each day.

The Alabama native said he would be interested to see how a natural grass field would withstand the rigors of the Super Bowl, and pointed out that it would be the case next year, when Super Bowl LIV is held on the sod at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. It also happens to be where Morgan spent last summer working as a grounds crew intern.

He arrived in Atlanta on the Sunday before the Super Bowl, just in time for the National Weather Service to issue a winter storm warning, which kept the grounds crew focused on keeping the practice fields protected from potential sleet and rain. Morgan said the team worked all day to pull a giant tarp over Georgia Tech’s practice field — where the Patriots held their pre-game practices — and another day to clear the protective covering from the field.

Last-minute preparations kicked into high gear once the halftime stage left the field Saturday afternoon as the grounds crew broke into groups to give a final coat of paint to logos, lines and numbers on the field. “The field was really in perfect condition all week,” Morgan said, adding that most of the 28-member grounds crew had been hard at work preparing for the Super Bowl game since early January.

Super Bowl

Wilson Morgan outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Photo: Jeff Etheridge)

“They really are a super crew,” he said of the team made up of the Mercedes-Benz grounds crew along with seasoned NFL turf management veterans who lend their expertise to the Super Bowl grounds crew team each year. “It was just a beautiful flow, everyone working together and if an issue came up, it was dealt with quickly.”

Even though he’d spent time working in the stadium all week and watching performers like Big Boi and Travis Scott get ready for the halftime show, Morgan said that watching the stadium fill on Sunday night was “crazy” — especially the celebrities he got to see up close while standing on the sidelines. He mentioned Jamie Foxx and Kevin Hart, Walter Payton Man of the Year winner Chris Long of the Eagles, and UFC star Conor McGregor. Minutes before he took to the stage under bursts of red pyrotechnics, Adam Levine hid out in the shed where a bunch of the grounds crew team had assembled to watch the game on a live feed. “He seemed busy,” Morgan joked when asked if Levine said anything to them.

When he got back to school late Monday, Morgan said he started looking at Twitter and couldn’t believe all the negative tweets he saw, calling the game “boring”

“I thought it was a great game,” he said. “We were glued to the TV.”

Now that it’s over, he said he’s just so grateful for the experience and opportunity that Toro game him. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Byrnes is a freelance journalist. You can read more of her work at amybyrnes.com.

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