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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Turf management skills learned at URI and honed at Gillette Stadium take center stage in Foxboro

URI alum, students preparing Patriots field for playoffs, gathering data to aid NFL concussion research

KINGSTON, R.I. –When the Patriots take the field Saturday at Gillette Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, University of Rhode Island alumnus Jon Bengtson (’93) and his crew, including a pair of URI interns, will have the synthetic turf prepped, painted and ready to look great for millions of viewers nationwide when the game kicks off at 4:35 p.m.

Painting the main logo at midfield can take three to four hours, yet it’s a small part of what Bengtson and his crew do on a week-to-week basis. In addition to its regular duties mowing, fertilizing, painting and maintaining the five fields at the Gillette Stadium complex, the grounds crew is at the forefront of the National Football League’s research into the causes and prevention of concussions. 

Bengtson, a Rhode Island native now living in Pembroke, Mass., is required by the NFL to monitor and report field conditions 24 to 48 hours before every home game, testing the firmness of the playing surface and the depth of the infill — the black crumb rubber material television viewers can see spray up each time a receiver drags a toe to stay inbounds while making a catch. 

The NFL is gathering data from all of its stadiums in an effort to identify the optimal ranges of firmness and depth to prevent concussions and other injuries. While Bengtson usually handles recording the measurements himself, URI interns Tom Mistowski and Josh Bergeron will help him record the data for this week’s game for the first time this season.

“The interns usually give me a lot of help during winter break,” Bengtson said. “They’re going to go out and test the field this week so they can get that experience.”

The experience of stepping out on the field inside the empty stadium, or being around the players as they practice can be awe-inspiring for the interns, Bengtson said, but it wears off quickly. 

“After a couple of weeks, their heads are down and they’re all about prepping the field and getting it ready for those guys,” Bengtson said. “The awe factor is gone after a couple days work and they realize how important what we do is for the team.”

Mistowski, of Narragansett, agreed that work is his primary focus.

“I have limited interaction with the players,” he said. “Sometimes a head nod, a ‘Let’s go!” from Tom Brady, or maybe just a glance. Anything else might distract me or the player from completing our jobs.” 

And there’s good reason not to get distracted. There’s simply so much to get done. The Gillette Stadium crew manages and maintains the main field, three outdoor practice fields and an indoor field, which are topped with natural grass, synthetic and hybrid surfaces. 

In addition to mowing, seeding, fertilizing and sodding the natural surface fields, the crew must also regularly heat the fields — covering them with tarps and blowing hot air underneath — to prevent damage from the cold New England winter. 

They paint lines and logos on the field, remove snow and repair damage caused by games, concerts and other events such as the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic, which was held New Year’s Day at Gillette. 

“Tom was probably here for 40 hours straight last week helping us keep the natural grass practice fields in good shape for the players,” Bengtson said. “It takes a lot of hours and dedication to maintain these fields.”

Bengtson makes it a point each year to host a group of approximately 10-15 URI turf management students, joined by Professor Michael Sullivan, to show them exactly what it takes to keep an NFL field ready for games and practices. Sullivan said the tours are an essential part of student training and placement. 

“The students know all the theory and they’re learning the techniques, but you stand in the middle of the ballfield, look up and around, and you can get the sense of how many eyes will be focusing on the product you produce on game day,” Sullivan said. “It can be intimidating because it’s not a facility that’s used one day a week. They host the New England Revolution, youth soccer teams. On any given day, there can be a big concert with 80,000 or 90,000 people in the stadium, with truckloads of equipment, staging and pyrotechnics set on the field. It’s challenging work.” 

Bengtson hopes the tours he hosts and the interns he works with gain some knowledge about how to apply their education to real-life turf management — even synthetic surfaces.

“It takes a lot to learn what to do and what not to do, and you can’t be afraid to experiment,” Bengtson said. “I tell them, ‘Every day is different. You can’t expect to do things the same way day in and day out, because fields change all the time. You have to learn what to do in school, then take that knowledge out here and put it to work to gain the practical knowledge. I’m just trying to give back to URI and help those students the way URI helped me.” 

Pictured above

From left, Ryan Medeiros, Rassmeay Morm, Michael Hill, Colin Zegarzewski, Dr. W. Michael Sullivan, Jon Bengtson, Jerrell Page, Josh Bergerson and Tom Mistowski tour Gillette Stadium. Bengtson hosts a group of University of Rhode Island turf management students each year, led by Sullivan, in an effort to show them what it takes to have the fields ready for game day. 
Photo courtesy of Dr. W. Michael Sullivan