Auburn turf management major recounts super week at Super Bowl

Wilson Morgan prepares Auburn Tigers football field (pitch) at Jordan Hare stadium in Alabama.

By Jamie Creamer / May 14, 2019 11:39:07 AM

2019 got off to a super start for Auburn University junior Wilson Morgan — with a trip to the Super Bowl in Atlanta. As neither a New England Patriots nor a Los Angeles Rams fan, he wasn’t at the Feb. 3 game as a mere fan, either. He was there as a badge-wearing member of the NFL’s elite, highly select Super Bowl grounds crew.

He earned that privilege by submitting the winning application and essay in Toro’s 2019 Super Bowl Sports Turf Training Program competition for college turfgrass management majors. He was the first Auburn student to win the honor in the contest’s 18-year history.

He arrived at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium a full week before the championship game with no clue what the next seven days would hold but with great expectations.

“This will be an amazing opportunity to learn from the best of the best,” he said last fall when Toro named him the big winner.

And was it ever. Amazing to the nth degree. Surreal, even. There he was, a 21-year-old college student, part of a prestigious team led by two legendary sports turf managers — veteran NFL Super Bowl field director Ed Mangan, who is also chief groundskeeper for the Atlanta Braves, and 90-year-old George Toma, for whom Super Bowl LIII marked his 53rd year on the groundskeeping crew.

And then there were the two dozen other all-star NFL groundskeepers and sports turf professionals from across the county who have earned invitations as members of the Super Bowl team through the years, including Richard Wilt, an ’07 Auburn turfgrass alumnus, former Auburn Athletics grounds manager and Morgan mentor.

“It was a little intimidating to be there with all of them at first, but by the end of the week, I felt like I fit in,” Morgan said. “Some of them called me ‘Toro’ all week, and that was fine with me.”

As the Auburn turfgrass management student quickly learned, ensuring a safe, top-quality playing surface, not only for the world’s most-watched sports event but also for the heavy foot and vehicle traffic that comes with media day and the much-hyped halftime show, is a major-league production.

“I got there a whole week ahead of the game, but by that time, most of the crew had been in Atlanta three weeks already, working all day, every day,” Morgan said. “In the Super Bowl, it isn’t just the turf in the stadium that the groundskeeping team is responsible for. You’re also in charge of maintaining both teams’ practice fields and other areas where pre-game concerts and other Super Bowl activities are scheduled.”

As apprentice to the masters, Morgan was all in when it came to doing the work, from field lining and logo painting to drag-brushing the field’s artificial turf and walking the entire field after every pregame and halftime show rehearsal in search of trouble spots. And he made the most of every minute.

“Any time things would slow down a little and we’d get a breather, everybody would pull out their phones and start checking them, and I did the same thing at first,” he said. “But then I realized, hey, wait a minute: I have just one week with these guys, to learn everything I can from them about turf management. Checking messages can wait.

“Each day, I made an effort to talk with at least one new person about how they got started, how they manage their stadium, things they did that helped prepare them for their careers. The week was socially exhausting, really, but I learned so much.”

And that’s Toro’s purpose in sponsoring the Super Bowl contest — to enhance the skills of emerging sports turf professionals by giving them firsthand experience in establishing and maintaining what must be the highest-quality and safest athletic field in the world.

To be considered for the honor, students were required to complete and submit an application along with a 500-word essay describing the applicant’s professional goals.

“It was basically asking where you saw yourself professionally five years from now,” Morgan said. “I tried to make mine as little about myself as possible.

“I’ve had some excellent mentors in my life who helped me discover my dream of one day becoming a football field manager, and I want to be that kind of person for others.”

As recently as five years ago, the then–junior at East Limestone High School in Athens was oblivious to the profession he now passionately pursues. He likely would have remained in the dark had it not been for a copy of SportsTurf magazine that happened to catch his eye one day in his greenhouse management class.

“I picked it up just out of curiosity, but when I started looking through it, I couldn’t believe it,” Morgan said. “I mean, I was a football player, but I had no idea there were people who took care of sports fields for a living.”

Sure there are, East Limestone ag science teacher John Wilson told him, and Auburn has a degree for that. The more Morgan learned about sports turf management, the more excited he grew about such a career, and a conversation with Auburn turf management professor Beth Guertal his senior year in high school sealed the deal. He started classes at Auburn fall semester 2016.

“I remember kind of worrying because I kept hearing that the average college student changes their major four times before they graduate, and I was thinking, ‘Oh no! I don’t want that to happen to me!’”

He need not have feared. Right off the bat at Auburn, he met fellow student Austin Brown, who recruited him to the group of crop, soil and environmental sciences students preparing for the National Collegiate Turf Bowl competition.

“Then I met another student who had a job with the Auburn Athletic grounds crew, and I knew I really wanted to get involved with that, so he told me to talk to Richard Wilt,” he said.

Wilt is now a project manager with Bent Oak Farm, a Foley sod operation that grows the thick, resilient turf that NFL, MLB and college teams nationwide, including the Auburn Tigers, play on. At the time, though, he was athletic turf and grounds manager for Auburn Athletics. Wilt hired Morgan and was impressed enough with the student’s work through one football and one Auburn baseball season that he connected him to Miami Dolphins head groundskeeper Tom Wilson. That’s how Morgan wound up spending summer 2018 as an intern at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

“I started there the day after they’d had a huge concert and left the week after the first preseason game,” Morgan said. “One thing I learned there was that managing the playing field is a full-time, year-round job.”

He also made valuable industry connections with the fulltime Dolphins grounds crew members, a couple of whom encouraged him to keep his eyes open for Toro’s announcement about the 2019 Super Bowl contest and be ready to apply.

Open to students who are in at least the second year of a two-year turf program or the junior year of a four-year program, the annual Super Bowl Sports Turf Training competition is a partnership between Toro and the NFL’s Super Bowl grounds team to recognize an outstanding turf management student by having him or her work with the pros as they prepare a football field that more than 100 million viewers will tune in to see.

The thing to remember is that Morgan, who’s entering his senior year in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, already has almost two years’ experience maintaining collegiate sports fields as well as an internship with the Dolphins and a prestigious stint at the Super Bowl to his credit. And, come this summer, he’ll be in the City of Brotherly Love as an intern with the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

“That will give me experience in college sports, the NFL and Major League Baseball,” he said. “Plus, I’ve only worked with warm-season and, now, synthetic turf, but the Phillies play on Kentucky bluegrass, so then I’ll have experience managing a cool-season grass.

“I’m a big believer in planning ahead, and when I graduate (in May 2020), I plan to have a job, so I’m doing every single thing I can to be sure that happens.”

Though he was the first Auburn student to win the Toro Super Bowl competition, Morgan’s determined not to be the last.

“I hope that my winning will motivate every turf management major here to submit an entry,” he said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the best week of my life, and it is so worth going for.”

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