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Toma is best known, though, for growing grass. From 1958 till 1972, when it was abandoned for fancy twin stadiums east of town, Kansas City's Municipal Stadium, which Toma maintained in those days, was a turf mecca. Smokey Olsen, Toma's longtime assistant, recalls that for a while in 1965 the K.C. baseball field had a Bermuda grass outfield, blue-grass sidelines and a zoysia infield—the groundskeeper's equivalent of what famous pool player Steve Mizerak calls "just showing off." The story is told that former New York Jets Coach Weeb Ewbank surveyed the Municipal turf before one Saturday afternoon workout, announced, "This field looks too beautiful to practice on," and made his team work out on the sidelines. If the Jets had torn up the field, Toma says, fans the next day would never have known. "We could sod and play the game the same day and never have a piece come up."
Toma insists that his turf "secrets" aren't secrets at all, even if they elude many professional groundskeepers. He pores over trade journals, always on the lookout for new techniques and new strains of grass. His face is familiar at turf management conferences, whether he's lecturing or auditing seminars by other experts. When grass won't grow the way he wants it to, Toma consults top agronomists from a dozen or more universities, specialists in pesticides, herbicides and soil management. "That's the trouble with groundkeepers today," he says. "They don't want to go to the agronomists for help."
It was an agronomist who years ago impressed on Toma the wisdom of the adage about not putting all your eggs in one basket. "I don't believe in one bluegrass," Toma says, rattling off a list of strains with names like Touchdown, A-34 and Merit. "One may get leaf spot, another may get rust, one may get dollar spot. We always have half a dozen bluegrasses at the Chiefs' practice field. If one gets sick, you don't even know it."
Similarly, when Toma repairs or "overseeds" a field, he routinely uses several fine-leaf rye grasses. "I think of rye grass as our relief pitcher," he says. "The Candlestick thing wouldn't have happened if they'd brought in their relief pitcher." Not one rye grass, of course. Toma sows a minimum of two on a single field, though he likes to use four or five. On the Chiefs' practice field, which gets punishing use in all kinds of weather, he often throws rye-grass seed out in the middle of the field before practice. He calls this technique "cleating in." "The players are your equipment," he says. "They push the seed into the field with their cleats."
Another Toma trademark is his ability to cover bare ground with healthy turf in less than a week without sodding. To do this, he relies on a phenomenon called pregermination. Toma's men take 55-gallon barrels and drill half a dozen pencil-point holes in them about half an inch from the bottom, filling the holes with screws or wooden plugs. They then fill the barrels to within six inches of the top with grass seed, pour in water to the rim and stir well. The crew changes the water twice a day, pulling the plugs to let the old water drain off ("It looks like rye whiskey," Toma says) and refilling.
After three or four days of this, any unwanted acids and chemicals have been drained off and little white roots are beginning to push out of the seeds, days, even weeks, sooner than they would out of seeds planted in the ground.
The night before seeding, Toma's crew drains off the water and empties the pre-germinated seed on a concrete floor to dry. The next morning, they mix it with an organic fertilizer called Milorganite, which is actually treated sewage from Milwaukee that's marketed by that city's sewage commission. "The Milorganite makes the mixture dry enough to put down with a spreader," Toma says.
At Municipal Stadium, Toma used pregermination to facilitate the annual autumn conversion from baseball's skin infield to football's grass; he would seed on the final Sunday of the season, going to work on the infield while baseball fans were still streaming out of the stadium. The grounds crew would cut down the pitching mound, scarify the infield with a homemade nail drag and apply the pre-germinated grass seed with a spreader. "Maybe we'd be there till midnight to get it all done," Toma remembers, "but by Friday we'd be mowing it already. No dirt. No mud. Firm ground and green grass."
Toma resorted to pregermination to salvage Pasadena's Rose Bowl for Super Bowl XIV on Jan. 20, 1980. Fifty percent of the grass had been smothered under decorative paint applied for the Rose Bowl game on New Year's Day, and Toma had to dethatch the dead turf and groove it to allow the new seed to make contact with the soil. There were only 12 days to Super Bowl Sunday when Toma spread his 1,500 pounds of pregerminated Derby rye seed, but it rained heavily and he says the grounds crew had to mow three times before the game was played.
Why more groundskeepers don't pre-germinate baffles Toma, who insists that the technique is within reach of even amateurs. "What I would do," Toma says, "is take a pound of seed to a pint of water, put it in a plastic bag, shake it up and then put it in the refrigerator." If the kids don't eat it, the bag will come out a week later with little white roots beginning to show from the seeds. "Scratch up the dirt," Toma advises, "mix the seed with a little fertilizer or sand and put it on the bare spots. The biggest mistake the homeowner makes is that he fertilizes the wrong time of year. It's O.K. to throw a little on in the spring, but you do the real fertilizing job in the fall."