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It's the day after the NFL Pro Bowl and George Toma is standing on one of his canvases. This particular painting, commissioned by Pete Rozelle, covers the sun-washed floor of Aloha Stadium in the hills above Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu. While Toma watches, a dozen wiry Japanese-Americans jockey motorized brushes over his work and train powerful hoses on the artificial turf. Red paint laps at the soles of Toma's sneakers.
The workmen are scrubbing off the conference logos that Toma stencils on all Pro Bowl and Super Bowl fields. Behind him, another member of the grounds crew is erasing the yard lines and hash marks. Outside, women are diligently sweeping the stadium parking lot—with hand brooms. Toma is in his element: surrounded by hard workers and perfectionists.
"Groundkeeping in many places has hit the bottom of the barrel," he says. "It's not like 20 or 30 years ago. A lot of ground crews don't have pride."
Why is that?
"A groundkeeper's dirt," says Toma, who invariably leaves the "s" out of his-profession. "If someone in the front office needs a new typewriter, fine, but if the groundkeeper needs a new grass cutter, he can't get it. Until something happens!" He begins jabbing a forefinger in the air. "The owners have a doubleheader sold out and it's raining. They get jumpy. Suddenly they want to do anything. They'll rent a helicopter at $250 or $300 an hour to dry off the field! But they won't spend money on the sunny day for good drainage."
Toma stares at the paint swirling around his feet. "The groundkeeper," he repeats, "is the dirt of the organization."
The question is: What organization? This day Toma is wearing a Kansas City Chiefs sport shirt and a National Football League hat, but his regular paycheck is authorized by Ewing Kauffman, owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball club. Other franchises burdened with dead grass, rocky infields, bubbles in the carpet or standing water in the outfield rent his skills as an athletic turf troubleshooter. In fact, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein is trying to woo Toma to Bagdad by the Bay.
Toma is still basking in the glory of his late-season rescue of the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, who were trying to play football in Candlestick Park on grass that would have been perfect, if it had only had roots. Two weeks of record rainfall had caused disastrous mudslides in northern California. The 49ers' field was a sodden, sloppy mess when Toma arrived on the scene. "When I left San Francisco, the ground crew showered me with gifts," Toma says, beaming. "I got a plaque from the city. They called me the Sod God."
Something in that triumph has inspired wanderlust in the 53-year-old turfmeister. "People think I make a fortune, but there's no money in it," Toma says. "I'm not the highest paid ground-keeper in the major leagues."
He begins to walk upheld, his feet making squishing noises on the soggy Aloha Stadium turf. "I don't want to leave Kansas City, but I may have to."