Dec 14, 2016

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: The Story Behind the Rose Bowl’s Impossibly Perfect Turf

Written by: Courtney Cho

You can’t miss it.  
It’s warm, velvety soft and deliciously buttery — no, it’s not a dinner roll at a five-star restaurant, nor is it a cashmere throw straight from the dry cleaner.
It’s a miracle, it’s a mystery, it’s….
It’s the Rose Bowl Stadium’s turf.
“Some people even take off their shoes and just walk around on it barefoot,” says Dedan Brozino, the Executive Director of Development at the Rose Bowl Operating Company. “It’s pretty magical.”

Photo Nov 25, 1 30 25 PM.jpg          Photo Nov 25, 1 35 42 PM.jpg     
Naturally, the next question is simple: How? How on Earth can a 94-year-old outdoor athletic stadium in drought-ridden Southern California (one that hosts everything from Beyoncé to the Bruins, not to mention the famous annual Rose Bowl Game) cultivate and maintain such a beautiful field, year-round?

The short answer? Will Schnell and his team of men.

The long one? Well, that involves fields out in the desert, technical terms like “sodding” (we’ll get to that later), a little bit of science (enter potassium, phosphorus and photosynthesis), 7-day-a-week maintenance and a whole lot of budgeting. But Will (and his mastermind team) can explain all that. Meet the brilliant workers behind it all, the quiet and unsung heroes of America’s Stadium — the men who truly make the Rose Bowl what it is today.

Will Schnell, 53, is unassuming and humble, a kind-hearted, soft-spoken and polite man of few words. He commands a quiet kind of respect, the type of guy you can get a lot of answers from by just looking at him. He’s got sharp bright blue eyes, tan skin, and a sturdy build from a lifetime career of outdoor manual labor. A casual and laid-back room, Will’s office is decorated with pictures of sports games, posters of the Rose Bowl, and lots and lots of files and boxes around his desk. Next to his computer sits a framed picture of him holding a large cat. “That’s a photo of Rosie,” he says, nodding at the furry feline in the photo. “I don’t know if you know about her, but she was our pet here for many years. She passed away recently.” “We have another cat here now, too,” he adds, rather matter-of-factly. “But he hasn’t been here since Beyoncé.” (For the record, to date, Beyoncé’s concert was about a month-and-a-half ago.) I laugh; his straight-forwardness is refreshing in a world full of euphemisms. I decide I like Will. It’s impossible not to.

Photo Nov 17, 1 46 40 PM.jpg

Having grown up on a farm in Missouri, it seems Will was destined to work with the land in one way or another. “I’ve been growing grass since I was 7 years old. I grew up surrounded by nature,” he says. “I always knew I was either going to work with plants or with animals.”
Fortunately for sports fields and stadiums across the country, he chose plants — combining his “love for farming and sports” — receiving his turfgrass degree (yes, it’s a real degree) from Central Missouri State University. While attending school, Will began working on athletic fields, and by the time he graduated he already had more than three years of experience under his belt.

He sent out his resumé and landed his first job out of college with Pennsylvania’s minor league Harrisburg Senators, all the way on the East Coast. It was the beginning of a journey that would take him across the continent, from places like the Atlanta Braves’ Florida Spring Training Facility in Palm Beach to the Montreal Expos’ baseball team in Quebec.
Will’s successes eventually led him to the Cleveland Browns’ practice facility where he worked with legendary football coach Bill Belichik (or rather, I should say Belichik got to work with him); from there, he  took a job working for the New York Yankees’ Double-A facility in Connecticut, eventually relocating to the warmer (and “less humid”) West Coast to work for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Photo Nov 25, 1 12 31 PM.jpg

Just a short while later, he made one more move to a stadium only 11 miles away, in the beautiful mountains of Pasadena — and the rest, as they say, is history. Will has been at the Rose Bowl for almost fifteen years now and has no plans to go anywhere.
It’s an impressive resumé to say the least, filled with big names and unique places that most people live a lifetime without experiencing.

With such a vast breadth of experiences under his belt, one might wonder which location he enjoyed most, which places and people have stayed with him in the years following. But that is not Will; he is not the type to rank or categorize or quantify parts of his life as anything but just another chapter in his story.

So as for his favorite? “All of them,” he states simply and honestly. “No favorites. They were all great experiences and great opportunities with great people.” However, the mild climate that came with his move to the West Coast — and Los Angeles in particular — cannot be ignored. Will chuckles good-naturedly and leans back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head. “[Though] it’s beautiful not having to deal with cold weather,” he says softly, while smiling to himself. “I’m very grateful.” While the lack of rain and humidity in Southern California — not to mention the constant sunshine — is arguably ideal for beach days, good hair and combatting Vitamin D deficiencies, the dry climate has the opposite effect when it comes to keeping grass healthy. It’s a challenge, sure, but for Will, it’s certainly doable.
According to him, it comes down to constant care and daily maintenance. “It’s a full time job,” he says. “I’m here every day of the week — it’s very time consuming to get it right.”

Photo Nov 17, 1 45 41 PM.jpg

And what exactly does an average day of “getting it right” entail? “Once we get the grass onto the field, it’s about repairing damage, mowing, fertilizing, checking the soil sensors, watering the grass, strengthening it… There’s really no typical day, since what the grass needs is always changing,” he says thoughtfully, adding, “Except most days I’m here at 6:30 am.”

There’s also constant activity happening on the field, even when there’s no official events scheduled. Referring to just this week alone, Will begins listing things off the top of his head that are taking place in the Stadium — a film shoot one day, a painting and a photoshoot another day and a walk-through tour on Friday.

“Grass grows in inches and dies in feet,” Will explains. “One of the main parts of my job is minimizing damage. You know, keeping people moving around so they’re not harming the grass, keeping the flow of traffic going… An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

So how does he do it all? Well, he doesn’t. Like any good superhero, Will’s got his sidekicks, his partners in crime — the men behind him who know the tricks of the trade and who work alongside him every day to help maintain the quality of the field. Enter Miguel, one of Will’s two full-time staffers. He’s a positive, cheerful guy with short black hair and one of those genuinely infectious smiles that can only come from loving what you do.  

Born in Glendale and raised in Pasadena, Miguel attended Blair High School, located just four miles away from the Rose Bowl Stadium.

Right after graduating, he began working for American Golf, a national corporation that works with public and private golf courses to plan group outings for people. One of the clubs the company worked with was the Brookside Golf Club, whose green was (and still is) located right next to the Stadium.  

Miguel worked at Brookside for six years as a turf mechanic before coming to the Rose Bowl. He learned a lot about caring for grass during his time there, since he was responsible for maintaining the entire course.

“You pretty much know a bit of everything,” Miguel says of being a turf mechanic. “You know how to mow greens, how to fix all the relevant equipment, how to do all the things that keep everything looking good.”

Photo Nov 25, 1 12 07 PM.jpg

Since the Rose Bowl Stadium was right next door, over time he began developing relationships with its employees, helping them out “with little things here and there” whenever he could, and before he knew it, there was a job opening to work with Will. Miguel applied right away, and as he puts it, everything fell into place after that. He’s been at the Rose Bowl for over thirteen years now — almost as long as Will.

“I learned everything from Will when I became his assistant,” Miguel says humbly. “It was so helpful just to see how he did things, how he operated… I learned so much from just being with him.”

Miguel’s duties are similar to Will’s. He walks the field every day to make sure it’s healthy, checks to make sure there’s no ‘hotspots’ (dry spots that indicate the irrigation isn’t working), tends to and mows the lawn and performs other necessary daily duties. He takes pride in what he does. “Oh, it’s a joy to work here,” he says as surely as one might say he loves his parents. “I absolutely love it, and when I love something I’m dedicated to it. I give it my all and always try to do my best.”

Being a local certainly doesn’t hurt, either. “You know, I feel like my job is different than a regular one because it not only means something to me  since I’m from here, but it means something to Pasadena itself,” he says slowly, putting lots of thought into each word. “The Rose Bowl, the presentation of it, means something to the whole community.”

The way Miguel talks about his life in Pasadena (as well as the Stadium) is nostalgic and beautiful. He tries his best to put into words the magnitude of what it all means to him — the fact that his mom, dad and sister are still residents of “this great place”, the sheer pride he feels that his eleven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter can walk the field he works tirelessly on, the wonderful recurring realizations that he actually works for the Rose Bowl, that big and mysterious dome he’d grown up seeing every time he stepped out of his elementary school house just two blocks away.

Few places can truly bring out that sentimental and clouded-over look in people’s eyes, that struggle to verbalize so much when words cover so little — and Pasadena is undoubtedly one of those places. It’s a family and community of its own, just like lovers of the Rose Bowl.
It’s impossible for Miguel to narrow down his favorite part of working for the Rose Bowl; there is simply too much to articulate when the answer is, well, all of it. “Everything,” he says, shaking his head and laughing. “I love being outside in the sunshine and warm weather. And that there’s something different all the time. Football season is UCLA season, wintertime is the Rose Bowl game, after that is smaller events, summertime is concerts and soccer games… I love the variety.”

And after having grown up an athlete — he played soccer, baseball and football in high school — Miguel says being out on the field, working on it day after day, then finally seeing the Stadium when it’s full is the “closest you can get to the feeling and rush you get from being out there playing.” He looks at me, trying to verbalize the magic of his work and what it means to him in the best ways he can.

“The best way I can tell you what the field is to me, what it’s like here… is that the field becomes you. It becomes a part of you, and that’s the only way you can be successful at this,” he states, nodding his head with conviction. “That’s how you become successful.”
“You have to take pride in the field itself and in what you do.”

Martin, Will’s other full-time employee, has been working at the Rose Bowl even longer than Will has. Starting as a temp hire over fifteen years ago, he’d dreamed of working at the Stadium ever since the 1994 FIFA World Cup was held in Pasadena. “I didn’t know too much about the Rose Bowl then,” Martin recalls. “But it just inspired me… To see all the people leaving the gates, smiling, coming out from enjoying a great game… I said to myself, ‘I’m going to work there one day.’ And it happened.”  Like Miguel, the love he has for his job seeps out with every sentence, every attempt to describe the meaningfulness of his work, the gratitude he feels for getting to wake up each morning excited for the day ahead.

“I can’t ask for no more,” he says softly, shrugging his shoulders. “I love Pasadena and I love working at the Rose Bowl. Everyone that works here is proud to be here. I still have moments of shock, and even though I am here now, I remember every step it took to get to where I am today.”

To Martin, it’s a given that he’s still passionate about his job even so many years later.  
“I like making people happy,” he says simply. “That’s very important for me. If the fans and players and the people watching all over the world on their TVs are happy with the field, that makes me happy.” And as far as what it takes to successfully make and maintain an awesome field? “You gotta put love on it,” he states. “Everything you do in life, no matter what, you have to do it with love. Love what you do, be confident in your work and be grateful for what you have… With the patience and courage to go and do our best, our work will be easy.” “Love,” he nods, wrapping up his answer. “That is what makes me successful.” Between Will, Miguel and Martin, the Stadium is clearly in good hands. No wonder the turf is so perfect.

Perhaps the biggest task Will and his men are in charge of is redoing the field (aka taking off the entire field and replacing it with new grass) for big events and games. The technical term for “redoing the whole field” is called “sodding” — a process that can take anywhere from four to thirty days depending on the timing and the funds he’s given to work with.  

Clearly, then, it’s not all sun and water when it comes to Will’s job — it takes a whole lot of budgeting, too. He puts it simply: “Everything comes down to the money.”  Describing his job as a “balancing act,” he says the most difficult part of it is keeping the impeccable quality of the field intact while trying to say yes to all the event demands — all while balancing the budget. “The more events you have, the more challenging it is,” he says. “The biggest question I have to consider is when does revenue outweigh the cost of doing, or redoing, the whole field?” Stressful though the process may be, Will says he doesn’t mind it — it comes with the territory, so to speak.

“It’s enjoyable finding that balance,” he explains. “Because every other stadium out there also faces that same challenge, so it feels good when you’re able to get there.” It should be noted that Will is not just an executor when it comes to Rose Bowl field decisions — he’s an integral part of the planning process from the beginning, sitting down with those in charge, discussing everything from the money and time it will take to achieve a goal (the quicker the Stadium needs a new field, the more expensive it is) to whether the event is worth putting on at all (that is, if it’s even feasible).

The quality of the field is always the priority and if Will does not feel confident that it can be of caliber, the Stadium will not put on an event. Standards are never sacrificed in order to force a last-minute event through. And though the Stadium may have less events because of it, in the long run, prioritizing the turf’s condition seems to be a smart business marketing strategy.
After all, in the words of Will himself, “If the field looks like crud, people aren’t going to want to come here.”

Once the Stadium (and Will) officially decide on an event, there’s no time to waste.
Sodding is a huge process. After all, it involves replacing a whole football field’s worth of grass. It’s also a tedious one, since the new grass must remain as untouched as possible when replacing the old grass.

Typically, it takes anywhere from four to eight days to replace the turf. Will usually brings in twenty  workers to help him, in addition to Miguel and his other full-time employee, Martin.
“We work on a plan since we have to manage so many guys,” Miguel says of the operation. “We have to be on the same page so we know where to position guys and can make it clear who needs to do what.”

The first thing Will’s team has to do is grind up and pulverize the old grass about an inch-and-a-half down into the soil. “It’s like ripping up asphalt,” he says, describing a machine that tears grass up from its roots, turning it into shredded remnants that him and his team can then dispose of properly.  After removing the old grass layer, they begin preparing the soil, calculating and adding the exact amounts of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus — “strengtheners,” as Will calls them — needed to keep it healthy. Once the soil is conditioned, a sand base layer must be laid down and the irrigation must be checked to make sure it’s working properly, among other things. This is all before the new grass can even touch the field.Will has four fields of fresh grass currently growing, not including the one that’s currently in the Stadium. Two of them are in the desert of Palm Springs and the other two are in San Diego. All of them are being grown exclusively for Rose Bowl use.
Why so many? "Backup,” he says. “So no matter what, if I get a last minute call asking if I can have a concert, for example, I can say yes. Because I have the field I was planning to use for another event, but also an extra one growing in the desert.”Of course, those fields must be maintained too, so Will visits each site every thirty days to check on them.

A full-time job, indeed.
The most meaningful compliment Will can receive is when people touch the Stadium grass for the first time and think it’s artificial. “Our goal is to have a turf that looks and feels so awesome, it seems fake,” he says. Another objective of his — specifically when it comes to sports events — is to create a safe playing surface, one that enhances athletic performance.
“It has to be stable enough to provide players with good traction so they can make cuts and perform at their peak maximum abilities,” he explains. For Will, there’s no better moment than when coaches and players walk off the field happy with the playing condition. It reminds him why he does what he does — because it has an impact, because it makes a tangible difference. “You know, we just want a surface that looks good and plays good,” he says, shrugging modestly. “That’s all.”

Will loves working at the Rose Bowl. To him, it’s another incredible life experience, albeit with certain undeniable benefits. “I get to farm two-and-a-half acres of the most visible turf in the world,” he says. “It’s an honor. You can go anywhere and they know the Rose Bowl, and the standards we give here are second to none. It’s an unbelievable place with a tremendous amount of history, and one of the best stadiums and surfaces in the world. I’m very grateful.”
Sometimes when he comes in on the weekends, when the Stadium is quiet and empty except for a few custodians, he pauses for a moment just to take everything in — the spectacular and historical  significance of the Rose Bowl itself and what it means to countless people; the beauty of Pasadena’s geography that serves as the gorgeous backdrop to the hours and days he spends on the field; the fact that a small-town farm boy from the Midwest has grown to manage one of the world’s most premier stadiums — all of it.

I ask him where he thinks the Stadium will be in five years — if his goal is to maintain the current quality of the field or if he has other hopes and visions in mind. “There is always room for improvement, there is always ways to make something better,” he says optimistically. “That’s our job. Every day, that’s what we’re working towards here, towards making it the best it can possibly be.”And as for where he wants to be in five years? He laughs, a contagious and friendly sound, and for the first time smile lines by his mouth and crows feet by his eyes become visible — a testament to a life well-lived. “Where do I want to be?” he smiles. “Retired.” I laugh, too, and wait for him to elaborate like so many people do when they speak of retirement, but alas, he does not. In fact, he’s already due for a meeting. I thank him and he asks me if I have anymore questions to which I say no — and he’s off.

After all, the man’s got places to go, budgets to balance, grass to water and fields to sod.
All in a day’s work.