By DAVE CAMPBELL
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Super Bowl 52 will be played comfortably under the translucent U.S. Bank Stadium roof on a dry artificial turf, leaving the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles without worries of traction trouble or kick-altering winds.
That doesn’t mean the workers in charge of preparing a surface that’s championship-sufficient were free from challenges.
The host Minnesota Vikings came close to reaching the big game, for one.
When they beat the New Orleans Saints with that last-play touchdown pass in the divisional round on Jan. 14, the NFL would have normally already been in takeover mode of the stadium by then. The victory by the Philadelphia Eagles over the Atlanta Falcons that weekend was a big help for the league’s exhaustive operations; it sent the Vikings on the road to face the Eagles for the NFC title rather than hosting another postseason game at their not-yet-2-year-old home.
“That would’ve really pushed us back and crunched the time,” said Ed Mangan, the NFL’s field director. “We’ve had a few other teams in the past that got close, so you always start out with a ‘what if.’ You have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, and you have a backup plan for each one of those. So you’re always prepared for it.”
Then there’s the winter weather, which has its own share of the spotlight this week next to the Patriots and Eagles. Just because the game itself will be played in climate-controlled conditions doesn’t mean the crews are always comfortable, with some outdoor work to be done in the single-digit temperatures. The downtown setting, with a major hospital, several churches and plenty of apartment buildings within a few blocks of the front doors, added some urban-specific security hurdles.
Commuting to the site last week, too, could have been made trickier by a storm that dumped more than a foot of snow on the region. But the City of Minneapolis and Minnesota Department of Transportation snowplows produced a championship-caliber performance.
“We’ve never been held up getting anywhere,” said Mangan, whose team is also responsible for the practice facilities at suburban Vikings headquarters in Eden Prairie (for the Patriots) and at the University of Minnesota a short ride from downtown (for the Eagles).
So are all the preparations finally caught up?
The answer is yes, according to Eric Finkelstein, the NFL’s senior director of events.
“We’ve been talking to the team and were for multiple months, and we were able to delay the things that we knew we could afford to delay and get a jump on the stuff that we knew we had to get done, even during the playoff game run,” Finkelstein said.
The field itself remains the domain of the indefatigable George Toma, the NFL’s grounds crew master who is working his 52nd Super Bowl. Yes, that’s all of them. He’ll turn 89 on Friday, and his pride in the job is just as high as it was five decades ago.
More than 1,000 performers have been on the field at a time rehearsing for the halftime show. So Toma and his crew use a magnetic rake of sorts to comb the field for any stray nuts, bolts or random wardrobe pieces that might have popped off. They use a stamping tool to gauge the stiffness of the turf every 8 feet or so, to make sure there are no dangerous soft spots. The sand-rubber mixture that serves as the artificial sod underneath the fake grass is supposed to be 1½ inches thick.
Having worked two years for the Vikings at their practice facility and served as the spring training groundskeeper for the Minnesota Twins at their baseball facility in Fort Myers, Florida, Toma has a special affinity for this Super Bowl being held in Minnesota.
“I’ve been through a lot of stadiums worldwide, but in my book I love this stadium,” Toma said. “This is the best stadium I’ve been in. Why? Everything’s right here for you.
We come out that tunnel, and we’re only 100 feet to the playing field for our equipment and for our paint and everything. Not only that, but the people who run this stadium are outstanding, and then some.”