LAS VEGAS — For each of the first 57 Super Bowls, George Toma was contracted by the NFL to prepare the field. That tenure earned him the nicknames “Sodfather” and “The God of Sod.”
But his latest work wasn’t his best. Players on both the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles slipped constantly throughout Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and members of each team criticized the playing surface afterward.
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Toma shared their sentiment — but he blamed the NFL. He claimed then-NFL field director Ed Mangan sanded the field too late and overwatered it without letting it properly dry before it was installed the Wednesday before the game.
“He didn’t take care of it,” Toma told ESPN last year. “He wouldn’t listen to anybody.”
Toma, 95, retired last year, so Super Bowl LVIII between the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas will be the first without his involvement. The NFL also replaced Mangan as field director and hired Nick Pappas last March to prepare the playing surface. That task always comes with a lot of pressure, but there’s a heightened level of scrutiny this year considering what happened last year.
The Super Bowl LVIII field is inside Allegiant Stadium pic.twitter.com/YM10GHiSfx
— Tashan Reed (@tashanreed) February 8, 2024
Like State Farm Stadium, Allegiant Stadium is a domed stadium that utilizes a field tray that enables the Raiders to play on natural grass. Using an artificial turf field would be more convenient, but owner Mark Davis insisted on natural grass because that’s what the majority of NFL players prefer. On Wednesday, the NFLPA revealed it surveyed about 1,700 players to ask whether they preferred to play on grass or turf.
“Ninety-two percent prefer to play on high-quality grass,” NFLPA executive director Lloyd Howell said. “If you look over a period of time at the injury rates, lower extremities, soft-tissue injuries, in the majority of the grass fields, (they have) a lower injury rate.”
But the NFL pushed back on that notion. NFL executive vice president of health and safety Jeff Miller stated Wednesday there was a negligible difference between the injury rates on grass and turf fields in 2023.
“In 2023, the differential injury rate between synthetic fields and natural fields was 0.001 per 1,000 plays,” Miller said. “There are grass fields that have lower injury rates than synthetic fields and there are synthetic fields that have lower injury rates than grass fields. We believe that through a lot of the work that Nick is doing and our researchers are doing, we can drive those numbers down in both. We want more consistent fields, we want players to have better experiences on the field and we want to get rid of as many injuries as we can.”
Pappas and his grounds crew were on-site in Las Vegas this week with “The Beast,” a field-testing machine that replicates the forces players generate with their cleats.
“The forces that this unit puts out are representative of the NFL athlete,” Pappas said. “And it can actually test the cleat-surface interaction for when a cleat goes down in the ground and whether it makes a rotational turn or translational slide. So, we’re tracking that and we’re looking at it to give us an idea of how the natural grass surface is performing.”
“The Beast” is a device the NFL uses to replicate the forces generated by players in order to test fields. It’s here on the field at Allegiant Stadium for Super Bowl LVIII. The field tray was installed for good today, which is a day later than it was last year to get it more sun. pic.twitter.com/iWVVs6HueT
— Tashan Reed (@tashanreed) February 8, 2024
The grass for this year’s Super Bowl was grown at a sod farm in Northern California before being transported to Las Vegas.
“Nick Pappas was visiting the sod farm even while that grass was growing to make sure he sees it from the time that it is very young and nurtures it and has an appreciation for how that surface is going to perform,” Miller said. “And, therefore, when we’re eventually moving it and bringing it into the Super Bowl time frame, he knows what needs to be done to make sure that the top dressing is handled, that he understands how it’s going to play and it’s given enough time to mature so it’s ready for Sunday.”
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Pappas has been in Las Vegas for the last few weeks to prepare the field. It was recently installed in the field tray outside of Allegiant Stadium that allows it to get direct sunlight. It rained heavily in Las Vegas from Sunday through Tuesday, so the field had to be properly dried before it was rolled into Allegiant Stadium on Tuesday for rehearsals for the pregame and halftime shows.
The field tray was rolled right back outside Tuesday night so it again would be exposed to direct sunlight Wednesday. On Thursday, the field tray was rolled back into Allegiant Stadium for good.
“The rain over the last couple of days has affected how they’ve chosen to treat it,” Miller said. “They obviously want to be careful around halftime rehearsals and stuff to make sure they have time to remediate the field after people have been running up and back on it so it performs as well as it can.”
When asked whether the earlier rain was a concern, Miller didn’t seem worried.
“We have a lot of trust in the field managers. Rain is a good thing for grass, traditionally. It may be anomalous to people who live in Las Vegas, but for the rest of the world, rain is good for things that grow. That is something that our field manager will factor into the preparation.
After the field tray was put in place Thursday, it passed all of the NFL’s barometers before it was covered up with a tarp. Ultimately, though, that’s not what matters. It will all come down to how it performs Sunday.
(Photo: Matt York / Associated Press)