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Stadium grounds crew ‘take care of God’s field’

By TORI ROECK | Friday, November 1, 2013

Eight years ago, the Notre Dame grounds crew saved Pac Washington’s life. 

“I was a local street punk, doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to,” Washington said. “And I got into a bad shooting, took my teeth out. Almost didn’t make it. And T [Robert Thomas], which is our other boss, he seen me on the corner right after it happened, and he said, ‘Man, what do I gotta do to get you off these streets?’ I said, ‘I need a job, T.’ I’ve been here ever since. 

“I left a life alone. Now I take care of God’s field.”

Taking care of ‘God’s field’

Dan Brazo, Notre Dame Stadium facility manager, said the grounds crew handles maintenance on all the University’s outdoor athletic fields for all sports except basketball, volleyball and hockey.

“We have a responsibility for all the athletic outdoor fields and facilities, so it’s not just football … basically, making sure that the fields and facilities are in the best shape possible, from a safety standpoint for the student athletes and from an aesthetic standpoint for the fans,” Brazo said.

Weeks before home football games are especially busy for the grounds crew, whose responsibilities entail setting up the area outside the stadium, moving program booths and large equipment, fixing broken stadium rows, organizing handicapped chairs and, of course, maintaining the field, grounds crew member Chip Miltenberger said. 

“You want to make sure that the grass is playable and everything is perfectly ready for 80,000 [people in the stadium] and millions of people watching across the world,” Miltenberger said. “Monday, Wednesday, Friday, we mow it, fertilize it, and usually before every game we top dress it.”

After the field is prepared, Miltenberger said groundskeepers paint the lines.

“When we make our slants, we always put the slants toward the student section … towards the Dome, which is behind the student section,” he said. “If you ever notice, in the north end zone, the slants go toward the students, toward the Dome and the lake.”

Bad weather also impacts the maintenance crew’s tasks for the week, Miltenberger said.

“A week like [this one], the game this Saturday – we probably have about 100 gallons of water on the tarp, [and we're] trying to just get the field in perfect condition before kickoff,” he said. “You’re always under pressure. You just want to make it look nice all the time. That’s the hard part, just trying to make sure everything’s perfect, the way it’s always been, and hopefully it will always be.”

Members of the grounds crew are always on call during home football games, especially when the weather is poor, maintenance crew member Joe Keultjes said.

“Come game day, we’ll have every usher in this place calling for a puddle that needs to be pushed out,” Keultjes said.

Last year’s rainy Stanford game proved especially difficult for the grounds crew, Miltenberger said. 

“Whenever there’s a TV timeout, if the field is ever coming up, we’ll run out there and we’ll get it back down, make sure it’s safe,” he said. “At the Stanford game … it rained all week, and the field is grass and it can only take so much water. We were just out there trying to get it back down level so the players can keep playing.”

Keultjes said the crew had to dump sand on the sideline during the game because it became too wet. The field was also in poor shape after the game because the students rushed it, Washington said.

“It’s like you put a herd of cows in the middle of a pasture and it’s wet. [The students] trampled it and there was nothing left,” he said. “It was an exciting game, but if it wouldn’t have rained, we wouldn’t have cared. But since it was raining, it kinda hurt our whole process.”

Miltenberger said Irish football coach Brian Kelly appreciated the work the grounds crew did during last year’s Stanford game and thanked the members afterward.

“We’re in the break room, changing into dry clothes, and Coach Kelly comes up and just tells us how much of a good job we did and that the team wouldn’t have won without us,” he said. “That’s a game, 40, 50 years from now I’ll never forget because that meant a lot, just for us to get a big win like that and keep the undefeated season, and then, you know, Coach coming up and telling us he appreciates how much we did to get the win.”

Jimmy Zannino, who has been a part of the Notre Dame grounds crew for 21 years, said the crew takes both winning and losing to heart.

“We’re not only workers. Most of us on the crew are die-hard Notre Dame fans, and we take losing very seriously. We take it hard and we love winning, just like the players,” Zannino said. “We feel like we’re part of the football team.”

During the game, some members of the grounds crew are stationed by the entrance of the tunnel, where they try to engage the players before the game, Miltenberger said.

“They come down the tunnel off the ‘Play Like a Champion’ sign, and some of us are there and we immediately start trying to get them hyped up, and when they’ve been here for four years, they know who you are,” he said. 

Washington said being in the tunnel before the game is one of his favorite parts of the job.

“We get to stand in the tunnel with the band. That’s dope,” he said. “You got the team coming out, the opposing team, our band right there beating the drums, going crazy.”

Despite having good views from the sideline, the maintenance crew also takes on undesirable tasks throughout a home football game. Keultjes said the grounds crew is always on “vomit duty.” 

“It would seem that the number’s decreasing of the vomit calls we get. It used to be we could have an average of 95 calls but now we’re down to probably 20 calls,” he said. “From being on the inside, the less you drink, the more you enjoy the game. People that are vomiting [aren't] enjoying the game.”

The last home game of the season is especially messy for the grounds crew because of the seniors’ marshmallow fight, Zannino said. Even though the grounds crew is not responsible for cleaning up the mess in the stands, they have to handle whatever debris falls on the field, he said.

“I remember last year when they were throwing marshmallows. We were actually down there with buckets catching them,” Zannino said.

‘The best fertilizer’

Brazo said most members of the grounds crew have been at Notre Dame for a long time and truly care about their jobs and the University.

“We take pride. It’s a matter of pride in what we do, in producing a product that’s pleasing to the fans, to the administration, to a million TV viewers, as well as providing a surface that is the best playing surface possible for the athletes,” Brazo said.

His crew accomplishes this by working more than just the minimum amount of hours, Brazo said.

“We put in a lot of extra hours this fall because we’ve had some problems with the field this year, and they’ll put in whatever time they need to put in to try to get things right,” he said. “I don’t hardly get dirty anymore unless I fall down because I rely on them so much.”

Keultjes said the maintenance crew relies on each other to get the job done, as well.

“The best thing is the crew really does get along at times,” he said. “It’s fun to come to work with the guys you work with.”

Washington said the crew is always thinking of others’ safety when they put in such long hours.

“We’re looking out for the people in here,” he said. “We want the best for the people in here, students, staff and anybody who wants to watch the game.”

The care and attention with which they approach their jobs reflect in the quality of their work, Keultjes said.

“What’s the best fertilizer, Packy?” Keultjes asked his colleague.

“The shadow of a grounds keeper,” Washington said. “Stadium dudes. That’s what we are.”

Contact Tori Roeck at
vroeck@nd.edu