Three days before Duke's football players are scheduled to take the field for the first time this season, Scott Thompson and his team are out on Wallace Wade Stadium's green expanse with string, paint, and high spirits. As the nearly deserted seating section above echoes with the sounds of crews power washing the aluminum bleachers, Thompson and his crew, Jamie Fuqua and Jonathan Nance, are working to lay down the lines for the upcoming contest against the University of Richmond.
Football field maintenance is a year-round job. Months of aerating, mowing, seeding, and sodding have brought them to this day. Over the next forty-eight hours, they will apply about 100 gallons of a water-based paint mixture—25 percent water, 75 percent specially engineered grass-coating white paint—to the field.
Fuqua, the man responsible for operating the paint machine, pushes it along the sidelines, end lines, yard lines, goal lines, hash marks, and logos, making sure that when fans take their seats and television cameras train their lenses, the field will look picture perfect. He has worked for Duke's facilities management department for the past twenty years and has been in charge of the lines for more than a decade. "There's no telling how many miles he's walked with that machine," says Thompson.
Fuqua bends down and runs his hand across the grain of the grass, explaining that after one coat of paint is applied, the grass underneath will still be green. And so after he paints a line, another member of the facilities crew will mow again, against the grain, exposing the unpainted side for Fuqua to spray again. He slowly squeezes the trigger and starts on the yard lines; there are nineteen of them, each fifty-three-and-a-third yards long. He prefers the sidelines, which are 120 yards long, including the end zones, because they allow him to concentrate better. Concentration is key—without consistent pressure, the width of the lines will be uneven.
"I put my iPod in, and I'm in my zone," Fuqua says. His headphones are pumping in mostly Creed or Mötley Crüe. "Everything's clicking right."
Despite the crew's best efforts, Duke's field, like every other one, has its irregularities. The grass itself is mainly 419 hybrid Bermuda, the most widely used grass in the South for golf courses and athletic fields, and has been in place for ten years, since the last time the university completely re-sodded the field. The grass is well suited for hot North Carolina summers and is an especially hardy variety not as easily torn up as other grasses by heavy players in cleats running into one another at a high rate of speed, repeatedly.
There are two problems, though. The hybrid grass is susceptible to invasion by the common Bermuda strain, and, as the season progresses into late fall and winter, both common and hybrid varieties will go dormant, turning brown.
The common Bermuda is what accounts for many of the subtle differences in color that can be seen from high up in the stands. Thompson, though, spots them as he walks down at ground level. "There's a common ring right there," he says, pointing to a small, darker green area. The other cause of color difference is that some areas that see more wear than others during a game, namely the middle part of the field, have been patched over with newer sod.
To keep the field from turning brown, Thompson's crew will overseed, or seed on top of, the Bermuda with perennial ryegrass after the first game. The ryegrass has a much thinner blade than the Bermuda, but it thrives in colder temperatures. What fans will see in November, then, when Duke squares off against the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons game, is the ryegrass.
What fans won't see is the impressive sand-filtration and irrigation system beneath the field. There are no drains on the surface; water is filtered down through the grass and into a maze of nearly a mile of underground piping that can remove up to nine inches of water per hour. That is also why Wallace Wade's field, like most in college football, has a modest, foot-high crown—the raised area in the middle of the field—that was constructed using lasers to ensure evenness when the drainage and irrigation systems were installed in 1997.
After this first day of painting, the grass will be mowed two or three more times with what's known as a five gang mower. This means it has five reels of eleven blades each, cutting more blades per square foot than the rotary mowers commonly used on lawns.
The grass can grow up to a half-inch a day, and for that reason is generally mowed four or five times a week during the summer to keep it three-quarters of an inch high, which allows the players to run across it easily, helping to prevent injuries. That's why, according to Thompson, football coach David Cutcliffe likes a smooth surface. "Smooth as we can get it," he says.
Cutcliffe, on the other hand, does not like people on his field who are not supposed to be there. Nance, the groundskeeper, recalls seeing the coach, on multiple occasions, appear at the window of his office in the Yoh Football Center, bullhorn in hand, and tell trespassing students to scram. When one foolhardy undergraduate answered back, Cutcliffe reportedly hollered, "Shut your mouth, boy!" Thompson echoes the coach's concern. "There's no reason for anybody else to be out here" when it's not game day, he says.
Rumor has it that the new coach's ownership of the field began in earnest when he decided to have the iconic, blue Iron D removed from midfield. Thompson, who started working at Duke around the same time as Cutcliffe, after earning a bachelor's degree in agronomy from North Carolina State University, doesn't remember it that way.
He says when he arrived, he wondered why there was so much blue paint on the field, both at midfield and in the large end zone lettering. "It's just like going outside on a hot day in a blue T-shirt versus a white T-shirt," he says. The large amount of dark paint made the field harder to maintain because some areas were absorbing more heat than others. And when those areas, at midfield, for example, are prone to high traffic, that can make Thompson's job nigh on impossible.
He proposed that the blue be relegated to accent color status. "I said 'Why don't we change it to white?' " The new coaching staff, thinking the new look would be emblematic of a new era, agreed. Duke Blue now appears on the field only as the outline in the end zone and on the ACC logo lettering.
But in a fleeting moment between the plays and pageantry of the game, from high up in the stands and with the right kind of eyes, a fan can still detect the ghost of the Iron D in the darker green of the grass at midfield, or perhaps, even, the bare field—unmarked, unlined, and un-played upon. The way it is when only the groundskeepers are watching.
Any Given Wednesday
November 30, 2009