Maintaining a quality, state-of-the-art playing surface in Green Bay, Wis., has its share of challenges, and the crew dedicated to taking care of Lambeau Field has been recognized as one of the best at handling them.
The Sports Turf Managers Association has named Lambeau Field the 2009 Field of the Year for professional football, an award Fields Manager Allen Johnson and his staff can take considerable pride in.
"Of all the NFL stadiums, ours has the shortest growing season and sometimes the harshest weather conditions, but despite that we're still doing a really good job," Johnson said. "Consistently I think our field has played very well - that's the most important thing - and it ranks right up there as far as aesthetics."
A panel of STMA judges evaluated all of the entries in several categories - playability and appearance of the playing surface, innovative solutions employed, effective use of budget, and the development and implementation of a comprehensive, sound agronomic program.
Johnson submitted a lengthy application that included all the details behind the reconstruction of the field with the DD GrassMaster system in 2007 and the process of maintaining the new surface since then. Johnson's submission also included dozens of photos depicting some of the difficulties encountered and what was done in response.
"They wanted us to tell the whole story, not just show the field when it looks glamorous," Johnson said. "They wanted us to describe the struggles and the innovative solutions we tried to overcome them."
One of those instances occurred last year, when Lambeau Field was halfway through its 10-game season. Johnson described how the turf had grown so thick that the players' cleats weren't fully anchoring in the sand and GrassMaster-fiber base, causing some slippage.
Despite the mid-October time frame and the growing season winding down, Johnson and his crew - which includes assistants Bart Bartelme, Derek Paris and Joel Hunt, and seasonal intern Matt Collins - tried an aggressive and somewhat risky approach of thinning out the turf, "beating it up" in a sense to expose more of the better sand-based footing.
Johnson admitted the field didn't "look" as good aesthetically for its next game, the Indianapolis contest on Oct. 19, but the surface played better and the overall look improved for the subsequent November home games.
"It's not about what it looks like all the time," Johnson said. "It's about performance."
Another challenge occurs annually late in the year, when the regular nighttime temperature drops below the mid-20s. The field is tarped to protect it and to help the underground heat system, but moisture still accumulates on the underside of the tarp - moisture that either remains on the surface of the turf when the tarp is removed (causing slickness) or that turns to frost and can cause the tarp to stick to the turf (leading to the turf getting torn up when the tarp is taken off).
Prior to the 2007 NFC Championship Game, Johnson and his crew tried using industrial blowers to force a warm cushion of air underneath the tarp and prevent that moisture/frost layer from forming. Despite sub-zero temperatures and wind chills, there were no problems with the field in that game, and the warm-air blowers have been the late-season solution to that issue ever since.
The award will be presented in January at the 21st annual STMA Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, Fla.
As he noted in the award application, Johnson said that many of the practices employed at Lambeau Field come from having open dialogue with other professionals in the business. Their suggestions can then be incorporated or tweaked to fit what works in this climate.
"You can't compare Green Bay with Miami, Fla., but we're still doing a really good job," Johnson said. "There are a lot of things to overcome, and we try to go the extra mile.
"We try not to have the attitude that 'that's just the way it is.' We never stop trying to put our best foot forward."