One of Chicago’s highest-profile jobs is done almost entirely behind the scenes. Just as public works directors manage critical infrastructure to keep a town running smoothly, Soldier Field groundskeepers work long hours to get the city’s famous football stadium ready for action.
And not just on game days. They create a beautiful space for concerts and events like the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory celebration, and then transform it into a high-performance arena that enhances athletes’ safety and performance.
It’s no surprise that the men responsible for this feat have extensive public service backgrounds. Head groundskeeper John Nolan began his career with the Chicago Park District in 1976, working first for the parking division and later the landscaping division. That’s where he met Ken Mrock, superintendent of the city’s six public golf courses for more than a decade.
In 1988, both men were hired to tend to Soldier Field when it was converted from AstroTurf to Kentucky bluegrass. Nolan joined the stadium’s staff; Mrock advised on the turf conversion as head groundskeeper for the Chicago Bears.
As part of a 30-year contract between the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Bears, Mrock and Nolan still work hand-in-hand to keep the playing field in top condition. Together, they make turf-related decisions, such as when the field needs remediation and what type of sod to use (see sidebar).
According to their contract, the Bears pay rent to use the stadium and the park district maintains Soldier Field to National Football League standards. If the Bears make the playoffs, the team assists with field maintenance expenses during post-season play.
In 1994, the park district hired SMG, a public facility-management company based in West Conshohocken, Pa., that also manages the city’s McCormick Place convention center, to run operations, events, and facilities at Soldier Field. Nolan became an SMG employee, as did his team: assistant groundskeeper Kurt Hoffman and Nick Longino, grounds crew member and mechanic. They maintain the athletic field, stadium, grounds, and surrounding parkland.
Mrock and his assistant groundskeeper, John Berta, are primarily responsible for the Bears’ practice fields at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Ill., and summer practice site at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill.
Mutual understanding lies behind the public/private partnership to maintain Soldier Field. “A lot of people don’t realize what’s involved in being a public employee,” says Mrock. “I get it. I always enjoyed working hard to put out a great product for the public.” Nolan says it helps that they both still have contacts in the park district.
Following are the five biggest challenges the groundskeepers face as they set the stage for 90 professional athletes to engage in heavy-duty competition each year.
Next page: Harsh weather conditions, Lots of player involvement, Sharing the field