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Can NFL Sod Gods Keep Divots From Flying at Levi's Super Bowl 50?

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NFL turf consultant George Toma says growing the Super Bowl turf on plastic is key before it is laid down. (Beth Willon/KQED)

NFL turf consultant George Toma has been called everything from "the god of sod" to "the nitty-gritty dirt man" after preparing the natural turf for every single Super Bowl.

And if any stadium needs the 86-year-old's golden rake, it's Levi's. The sod has been replaced several times, partly because chunks of dirt have been popping up and plaguing the 49ers new digs in Santa Clara for two years. In October, a Baltimore Ravens placekicker missed a field goal when the sod fell apart underneath him.

Toma is confident that will not happen when Super Bowl 50 is played at Levi's on Feb. 7. He is among dozens of groundskeepers laying down 75,000 square feet of new Super Bowl sod that came rolled up like enormous rugs. The NFL installs new sod for every Super Bowl, using natural turf.

"This field will be superb for these Super Bowl athletes. Like a golf green," said Toma.

The old sod was ripped out a week ago when the NFL took control of Levi's Stadium to prepare it for Super Bowl 50. The new sod -- grown by Palm Springs supplier West Coast Turf -- is expected to be completely installed by Tuesday night, said Ed Mangan, the NFL's field director.


"We worked the sand base, and today we started installing the new sod," said Mangan on Monday morning.

That's accomplished by rolling out the turf in strips, with dirt on one side and thick grass on the other.

The lush Super Bowl sod is grown on top of plastic making for stronger roots.
The lush Super Bowl sod is grown on top of plastic making for stronger roots. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Levi's earlier sod problems, Toma said, are partly because the stadium had the wrong sand base.

"The sand was more like scrabble so it never firmed up. You can see the sand now. You can drive over it with all these tractors," said Toma. "The earlier problems were because the roots had the wrong sand."

He said the key to getting the Super Bowl grass so thick -- and ready for massive football players to run on -- is to grow it on plastic.

"The roots have no place to go, so they intertwine together in a network of roots," said Toma. "...The other sod doesn't have the network of roots. You cut the roots off, you hurt the sod. But on plastic, it's grown right on top and you just roll it up like a rug."

Mangan said the grass is called Hybrid Bermuda 419 Overseeded With Perennial Rye, but he wouldn't discuss how much the NFL pays for it.

Two dozen crew members lay down the new Super Bowl turf at Levi's Stadium.
Two dozen crew members lay down the new Super Bowl turf at Levi's Stadium. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

His biggest worry now isn't the cost of the turf but the cost of rain, El Niño style.

"Removing this field, we did most of that in the rain. And trying to grade the sand, we did most of that in the rain. So it has affected us," said Mangan, who has overseen the turf at the last 27 Super Bowls.

With three weeks until Super Bowl 50, how many hours of rain can the new field withstand before it becomes a problem?

"It depends on how hard it's raining," said Mangan. "It's a natural sand field, so it could probably take an inch or so without becoming an issue.  But if that's an inch and a half an hour, we've got a problem."

Mangan said the NFL does have tarps for rain and cold, but he worries all the time during the lead-up to the big game.

"You can't control the weather," he said.

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