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Tech's Green Thumbs Rule

Oct. 18, 2009

by Kristy Rivero
Contributing Editor

ATLANTA — There are some things you rarely notice until something goes wrong — leaves trapped in a gutter, squeaking brakes, baseball umpires.

Then, a two-year drought ends with an epic flood (or two, or three), the mechanic says you’ll need a $1000 repair, and an obvious strike three is called a ball and the next pitch is hit for a game-winning homer.

Another thing that often goes unnoticed – unless there is an obvious problem — is the field in a football stadium. There, Georgia Tech athletics field manager Jon DeWitt is tasked with making sure nothing ever goes wrong.

That’s no small order. You’d never know by looking at Grant Field in Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday night – whether in person or on TV — that it’s rained and rained and rained recently in Georgia.

Mud? What mud? We don’t need no stinking mud.

“I love green grass… it’s what makes me tick,” DeWitt said. “I love trying to make it perfect, so that’s my favorite part of my job. The excitement of a game day, particularly football, is certainly a close second.”

Just like Paul Johnson’s game plan, work starts well in advance of kickoff. DeWitt and his staff have specific tasks each day of the week and the work can vary depending on team’s schedule and the weather.

Here’s the breakdown of a typical week during football season:

— The week begins with some maintenance painting and edge work on the border between the synthetic field (beginning about eight feet beyond the sidelines).

— The field is mowed every day, even on game day if is to be an evening kickoff.

— If needed, fertilizer is spread on Tuesday and the staff checks for divots.

— By midweek, DeWitt determines if the field needs to be top-dressed, which involves adding a thin layer of soil over the grass. This improves the soil without killing existing turf, and addresses a myriad of potential problems like bare spots and uneven terrain.

— Thursday is the main painting day. Logos, numbers, and hash marks are sprayed.

— By Friday, all the yard lines are painted with a sled, blue trim is added on the logos, and any final touch-up work that is needed is finished.

With the hard work behind him, DeWitt and his crew have a relatively calm Saturday. The sideline covers are put down to protect the turf in the team bench areas, and nets are set up behind the goal posts.

After the game, these items are removed and the turf is mowed. Depending on when the next home game is scheduled and the weather, the crew may spray or spread fertilizer. Then the process starts all over again on Monday.

And just like a doctor at a dinner party being asked about a body ache, DeWitt is often asked about lawn care. His response is simple. You can make your yard look as good as the one on The Flats if you…

“Quit your day job. We are constantly reacting to both usage schedules and the changing weather conditions,” he said. “We attempt to sync our maintenance practices with the changing environmental conditions — all day every day.”

DeWitt also says the constant use and abuse an athletic field gets makes it unique from a home lawn. People ask him if they should be doing what his crew does to Grant Field to their own lawn. Most of the time, the answer is no.

“Ornamental lawns do not get used like a field. Therefore, they require much less repair and care than an athletic surface,” he said. “Other than mowing, I would say there is little in common between a home lawn and a field.

“Fertilizing would be similar; although, a home lawn probably requires about one-fourth the amount needed to force recovery and growth as on an athletic field.”

Along with Grant Field, DeWitt and his staff of five (Matthew LaFoy, Tim Pate, Andy Jordan, Rob Kimbrel, and Ben Warner) are responsible for the softball and baseball fields as well as the track infield.

“The bottom line is we do whatever we have to do to get our events in. For example, the softball regional this past year tried everyone’s patience with more than 13 hours of rain delays,” DeWitt said. “We are lucky in that our fields are constructed to the highest standards and allow us to deal with extreme rains better than some.”

All this responsibility involves careful planning, but even the most organized maintenance plans can get thrown out the window when Mother Nature gets cranky.

“The weather has been crazy since I arrived at Tech. I started during a 100-year drought. During this time we got extremely creative with finding ways to water,” DeWitt said. “This period was followed by the second wettest spring in 115 years. Of course, the crazy rain and floods we have had this fall have certainly been strange.

“Generally, any kind of extreme weather creates more work, whether it’s pulling the tarps at baseball and softball or moving reclaimed water around in a trailer. Often extreme weather can also set up stress for the grass and/or perfect conditions for disease, so you must be prepared to deal with that as well.”

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