Coming Sunday: The Times’ 2013 High School Football Preview.
When high school football fans file out of the stadium and the big lights go dark, the previously manicured gridirons look quite the opposite when the geared-up spectators arrived hours earlier.
Divots of dying grass and drying dirt are lying around.The sidelines are trampled to dust. The painted yard lines, hashmarks and once-proud logos are worn thin on broken blades of grass.
Then enter the caretakers — paid and volunteers. The turf-meisters, grass cutters and sweaty new line-painting dads are unseen and underappreciated, but generally happy to provide the service each year. And with the start of football season around the corner, the men are readying area football fields for game night including the Red Elephants’ home turf, Bobby Gruhn Field.
Nestled in Gainesville’s City Park, the 2008 Field of the Year award winner filters and drains water like a golf green. It has a practically imperceptible 1-inch slope, an automated electronic irrigation system and requires all-year attention from city schools athletic fields manager David Presnell and his five-man crew.
“We are growing grass year-round,” Presnell said from his office in the nearby field house, a wall of numerous certifications and turf awards behind him. “Our monthly tasks year-round are based on getting the field the best it can be for football season.”
The grounds crew begins its work June 1 with only 40 percent grass coverage. The target date for completely grown grass is Aug. 1
“So, there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes in,” Presnell said. “July and August are very hectic.”
The crew usually starts with mowing.
“You really don’t want any vertical growth,” Presnell said. “You want it all horizontal.”
The crew pulls a core aerifier implement behind a tractor that plucks plugs from the soil and let air, water and nutrients get to the roots. It also reduces the soil compaction that comes from hundreds of football and soccer cleats pounding down the field’s topsoil. Then the men “top dress” it by spreading sand.
“Bermuda grass loves being aerified,” Presnell said. “We do that about every three weeks during the summer. We put sand on top for two things — to level the surface, and it fills in the (aerated) holes. They won’t re-compact.”
By mid-June, any trouble spots — usually the field’s center and players’ sideline boxes — are re-sodded, Presnell said. Water also is withheld to make the roots dig deeper for moisture.
Finally, when enough healthy grass has taken root, the grounds crew focuses on making it grow by fertilizing it more often.
“The thicker you can get it, the better it’s going to play on,” Presnell said, noting the crew aims for an inch of rain or water a week. “The irrigation system needs to work perfectly.”
Presnell said players and coaches notice.
“They always appreciate it here,” he said. “They love City Park and know they’re lucky. When they go to other venues, that’s where they really notice. City Park is a nice facility.”
Once the turf is in pristine condition, the next step is to paint the grid on the field and sometimes adding a flourish of the schools’ colors or mascots.
Outside of the city limits, two Hall County schools’ booster clubs take on that task. It saves county money, but North Hall High School head football coach Bob Christmas said it has other benefits, too.
“We wanted to get more people involved,” he said, explaining how the Touchdown Club was divided into committees in 2004. “On any given Wednesday night, there’ll be 15 or 20 men out there painting the field. Players’ dads, alumni dads and committee people. It’s a big club to them, the paint committee. They are very dedicated and take it very serious (and) take a lot of pride in it.”
Doug Hulsey is one of those men. Beginning his eighth year on the North Hall paint crew, he started when his son, Marcus, played sixth-grade football. Last year, he was paint crew chief during his son’s senior year on the Trojan team.
“You want to get involved,” the father said. “It’s one of the hardest. We do a lot of work. And I’ve made lifetime friends out of this deal. It’s like a brotherhood.”
At Johnson High School, Touchdown Club member Todd Bowers is on his second year, heading up the paint volunteers. His son Jake plays wide receiver and long snapper for the Knights.
The paint crew is responsible for the upkeep of Johnson’s game field and two practice fields, which requires hundreds of gallons of paint.
“Practice field, you’re looking at 15 gallons per field,” Bowers said. “Game field, for white alone, you’re looking at between 30-35 gallons, easy. And that’s not including the colors for the Knights’ head and end zones, about 7 gallons of navy blue and probably 4 gallons of Columbia blue — one coat.
“Just last week, I probably put in 16 hours both days easily,” he continued. “We want to give our boys the best facility we can. They work very hard.”