By Jamie Creamer
2019 already is shaping up to be a super year for Wilson Morgan — a super year that starts with a trip to the Super Bowl. That’s the Auburn University junior’s grand prize for submitting the winning application and essay in the 2019 Toro Super Bowl Sports Turf Training competition. He is the first Auburn turf management student to be tapped for the honor in the contest’s 16-year history.
As winner, Morgan will head to Atlanta Jan. 27 and spend the entire week leading up to the Feb. 3 Super Bowl as a member of the NFL’s elite Super Bowl grounds crew at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“This is an amazing opportunity to learn from the best of the best,” Morgan says, and he’s got that right.
In fact, he’ll be working alongside two legends in the world of athletic field management: NFL Super Bowl field director Ed Mangan, who is also chief groundskeeper for the Atlanta Braves, and George Toma, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on the eve of the 2019 Super Bowl and who has been on the grounds crew for all 52 past Super Bowls.
During the week, Morgan will get hands-on experience in turf maintenance, field lining, logo painting, irrigation maintenance, field preparation for media day, halftime prep and clean-up.
“Mercedes-Benz Stadium has artificial turf, so I’m looking forward to learning what’s involved in managing a synthetic playing surface,” he said. “It will be great to have experience in that.”
In the Toro student competition, every application had to include a 500-word essay describing the applicant’s professional goals.
“It was basically asking where you saw yourself professionally five years from now,” Morgan says. “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-student 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 in his greenhouse management classroom.
“I picked it up just out of curiosity, but when I started looking through it, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I mean, I was a football player, but I had no idea there were people who took care of sports fields for a living.”
Yes, there are, East Limestone ag science teacher John Wilson told him. And, yes, the Auburn alum told the Auburn fan, Auburn had 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 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 a win in 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, an ’07 turf management alumnus who was turf and grounds manager for Auburn Athletics at the time, 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 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 to prepare a football field that more than 100 million viewers will tune in to see.
The thing to remember is that Morgan is but a junior in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, yet he already has a year’s-plus experience maintaining collegiate sports fields, the internship with the Dolphins and, come February, Super Bowl field prep to his credit. Come summer 2019, 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 says. “Plus, I’ve only worked with warm-season turf, but the Phillies play on Kentucky bluegrass, so then I’d 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,” Morgan said. “So I’m doing every single thing I can do now to be sure that happens.”